A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Lulli, Jean Baptiste

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LULLI, or LULLY, Jean Baptiste, the first French composer of a series of operas, son of Lorenzo de' Lulli, a gentleman of Florence, and Catarina del Serta, was born at or very near Florence in 1633, though the precise date is unknown, the certificate of his baptism not having been discovered. An old Franciscan monk gave the gifted but mischievous child some elementary instruction, and taught him the guitar and the rudiments of music. The Chevalier de Guise took him to France, and having entered the service of Mlle. de Montpensier 'La Grande Mademoiselle' in the kitchen, Lully employed his leisure in learning the songs of the day and playing them upon his violin. As his talent became known he was promoted from the kitchen to the Princess's band, where he soon distanced the other violinists. Mademoiselle, having discovered that he had composed the air of a satirical song at her expense, promptly dismissed him; but his name was sufficient to procure him a place in the King's band. Here some airs of his composition so pleased Louis XIV that he established on purpose for him a new band, called 'les petits violons,' to distinguish it from the large band of 24 violins. His new post enabled him to perfect himself as a solo-player, and gave him valuable practice as a conductor and composer for the orchestra. Baptiste, as he was then called, had common sense as well as ambition, and soon perceived that without deeper study he could not make full use of his talents. To remedy his defective education he took lessons on the clavecin and in composition from the organists Métru, Gigault, and Roberdel; and at the same time lost no opportunity of ingratiating himself with men of rank, a useful process for which he had a special gift. He was soon chosen to compose the music for the court ballets, in which Louis XIV himself danced, and after the success of 'Alcidiane' (1658), words by Benserade, was commissioned to write the divertissements for 'Sersé,' an Italian opera by Cavalli, performed at the Louvre (Nov. 22, 1660) in honour of the King's recent marriage with Marie Thérése of Austria (June 9 previous), and, a year and a half later, the ballets for 'Ercole amante,' another opera by Cavalli, performed at the opening of the magnificent 'Salle de spectacles' at the Tuilleries (Feb. 7, 1662). It was by studying the works of this Venetian composer, and observing his method, that Lully laid the foundation of his own individual style. In composing the divertissements for 'Le Mariage forcé,' 'Pourceaugnac,' and 'Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,' he made good use of the feeling for rhythm which he had imbibed from Cavalli, and also endeavoured to make his music express the life and variety of Moliére's situations and characters. The exquisitely comic scene of the polygamy in 'M. de Pourceaugnac' is in itself sufficient evidence of the point to which he had attained, and of the glorious future which awaited him.

From 1658 to 1671—the year in which Moliére produced his tragedy-ballet 'Psyché'—Lully composed no less than 30 ballets, all unpublished.[1] These slight compositions, in which Lully took part with considerable success as dancer and comic actor, confirmed him in the favour of Louis XIV, who successively appointed him composer of his instrumental music, 'surintendant' of his chamber music, and in 1662 'maître de musique' to the royal family. But neither these lucrative posts nor his constantly increasing reputation were sufficient to appease his insatiable ambition. With all his genius he possessed neither honour nor morals, and would resort to any base expedient to rid himself of a troublesome rival. His envy had been roused by the privilege conceded to the Abbé Perrin (June 28, 1669) of creating an 'Académie de Musique,' and was still further excited by the success of Cambert's operas 'Pomone,' and 'Les Peines et les Plaisirs de l'Amour' (1671). With the astuteness of a courtier Lully took advantage of the squabbles of the numerous associés-directeurs of the opera, and with the aid of Mme. de Montespan, procured the transference of Perrin's patent to himself (March 1672). Once master of a theatre, the man whom honest Boileau branded as a 'cœur bas,' a 'coquin ténébreux,' and a 'bouffon odieux,' proved his right to a place in the first rank among artists, though as a man he could claim neither sympathy nor respect. In the poet Quinault he was fortunate enough to discover a collaborateur of extraordinary merit, and in conjunction with him Lully in the space of 14 years composed 20 operas or divertissements, of which the following is a list:—

  1. Les Fêtes de l'Amour et de Bacchus (pasticcio). 3 acts. Nov. 15, 1672.
  2. Cadmus et Hermione. 5 acts. Feb. 1673.
  3. Alceste. 5 acts. Jan. 2, 1674.
  4. Thésée. 5 acts. Jan. 11, 1675.
  5. Le Carnaval. Masquerade (pasticcio). Oct. 17, 1675.
  6. Atys. 5 acts. Jan. 10, 1676.
  7. Isis. 5 acts. Jan. 5, 1677.
  8. Psyché. 5 acts. April 9, 1678.
  9. Bellérophon. 6 acts. Jan. 31. 1679.
  10. Proserpine. 5 acts. Nov. 19, 1680.
  11. Le Triomphe de l'Amour. Ballet. April 19, 1681.
  12. Persée. 5 acts. April 17. 1682.
  13. Phaéton. 5 acts. April 27. 1683.
  14. Amadis de Gaule. 5 acts. Jan. 18, 1684.
  15. Roland. 5 acts. Feb. 8. 1685.
  16. Idylle sur la Paix. Divertissement. 1685.
  17. L'Eglogue de Versailles. Divertissement. 1685.
  18. Le Temple de la Paix. Ballet. Sept. 12, 1685.
  19. Armide et Renaud. 5 acts. Feb. 15, 1686.
  20. Acis et Galatée. 3 acts. Sept. 17, 1686.

The variety of subjects in this list is surprising, but Lully was perfectly at home with all, passing easily from lively and humorous divertissements to scenes of heroism and pathos, from picturesque and dramatic music to downright comedy, and treating all styles with equal power. He revolutionised the ballets de la cour, replacing the slow and stately airs by lively allegros, as rapid as the pirouettes of the danseuses whom he introduced on the stage, to the great delight of the spectators. For the 'recitativo secco' of the Italians he substituted accompanied recitative, and in this very important part of French opera scrupulously conformed to the rules of prosody, and left models of correct and striking declamation. On the other hand, he made no attempt to vary the form of his airs, but slavishly cut them all after the fashion set by Cavalli in his operas, and by Rossi, and Carissimi in their cantatas. But although the 'chanson à couplets,' the 'air-complainte' (or 'arioso' as we call it), and the 'air declamé' afterwards brought to such perfection by Gluck unduly predominate in his works, that monotony of form is redeemed by a neatness of execution and a sweetness of expression worthy of all praise. He thoroughly understood the stage—witness the skill with which he introduces his choruses; had a true sense of proportion, and a strong feeling for the picturesque. The fact that his works are not forgotten, but are still republished, in spite of the progress of the lyric drama during the last 200 years, is sufficient proof of his genius. Not but that he has serious faults. His instrumentation, though often laboured, is poor, and his harmony not always correct: a great sameness of treatment disfigures his operas, and the same rhythm and the same counterpoint serve to illustrate the rage of Roland and the rocking of Charon's boat. Such faults are obvious to us; but they were easily passed over at such a period of musical revolution. It is a good maxim that in criticising works of art of a bygone age we should put them back in their original frames; and according to this rule we have no right to demand from the composer of 'Thésée,' 'Atys,' 'Isis,' 'Phaéton,' and 'Armide' outbursts of passion or agitation which would have disturbed the solemn majesty of his royal master, and have outraged both stage propriety and the strict rules of court etiquette. The chief business of the King's Surintcndant de la musique undoubtedly was to please his master, who detested brilliant passages and lively melodies; and making due allowance for these circumstances we affirm that Lully's operas exhibit the grace and charm of Italian melody and a constant adherence to that good taste which is the ruling spirit of French declamation. Such qualities as these will always be appreciated by impartial critics.

Lully was also successful in sacred music. Ballard published his motets for double choir in 1684, and a certain number of his sacred pieces, copied by Philidor, exist in the libraries of Versailles and of the Conservatoire. Mme, de Sevigné's admiration of his 'Miserere' and 'Libera' (Letter, May 6, 1672) is familiar to all. Equally well known is the manner of his death. While conducting a Te Deum (Jan. 8, 1687) in honour of the King's recovery from a severe illness, he accidentally struck his foot with the bâton; an abscess followed; the quack in whose hands he placed himself proved incompetent, and he died in his own house in the Rue de la Ville-l'Evêque on Saturday, March 22.

As both Surintendant de la musique and secretary to Louis XIV, Lully was in high favour at court, and being extremely avaricious, used his opportunities to amass a large fortune. At his death he left 4 houses, all in the best quarters of Paris, besides securities and appointments valued at 342,000 livres (about £14,000). His wife Madeleine, daughter of Lambert the singer, whom he married July 24, 1662, and by whom he had three sons and three daughters, shared his economical tastes. For once laying aside their parsimonious habits, his family erected to his memory a splendid monument surmounted by his bust, which still exists in the left-hand chapel of the church of the 'Petits Pères,' near the Place des Victoires. Cotton[2] was the sculptor, and the well-known Latin epitaph was composed by Santeul:—

Perfida mors, inimica, audax, temeraria et excors,
Crudelisque, e cæca probris te absolvimus istis,
Non de te querimur tua sint haec munia magna.
Sed quando per te populi regisque voluptas,
Non ante auditis rapuit qui cautibus orbem
Lullius eripitur, querin ur modo surda fuisti.

'Lulli musicien,' a pamphlet to which both Fétis and the author of this article are greatly indebted, was chiefly compiled by the Prévost d'Exmes from various articles written by Sénecé, de Fresneuse, and Titon du Tillet. There are many portraits of Lully, of which the best-known are those engraved by Edelinck, Thomas, St. Aubin (from the bust by Colignon), and Desrochers. Mignard's portrait of him has been lost, and the full-length engraving by Bonnard, which forms the frontispiece to the score of 'Psyché,' published by Fourcault, is now extremely scarce. Our engraving is copied from Edelinck.

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Lully's eldest son, Louis, born in Paris Aug. 4, 1664, died about 1715, composed with his brother Jean Louis 'Zéphire et Flore,' 5 acts (1688), revived in 1715; by himself, 'Orphée' (1690), a failure; and with Marais, 'Alcide,' 5 acts, successfully produced in 1693, and revived as 'La Mort d'Hercule' in 1705, as 'La Mort d'Alcide' in 1716, and again under its original title in 1744. He also composed with Colasse a 4-act ballet, 'Les Saisons,' the memory of which has been preserved by one of J. B. Rousseau's satires; and a cantata, 'Le Triomphe de la Raison,' performed at Fontainebleau in 1703.

His brother, Jean Louis, third son of the great composer, and a musician of considerable promise, died in 1688, aged 21. His father's court appointments devolved on him, and on his death his brother became 'Surintendant' and 'Compositeur de la chambre du roi,' to which posts he owed the slender reputation he succeeded in acquiring.

[ G. C. ]

  1. Philidor's precious MS. collection in the library of the Paris Conservatoire de Musique contains the music of several of these divertissements. Celler published that of 'Le Mariage forcé,' for P.F., in 1867; and that of 'Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme' has recently been arranged for P.F. (1876).
  2. Not Cosson, as Fétis has called him.