If Louis XIV’s long reign over France was the very model of absolutism and centralised power, the rule of Jean-Baptiste Lully over the country’s musical life, though rather shorter, was in its way no less total. For a time his dominance as an opera composer and manager was unchallengeable, and combined with his achievement as the creator of all-sung French opera to ensure that he came to be viewed as the very embodiment of music in France.
In fact he was born in Florence, in 1632, the son of a miller. His early musical training was basic, but developed when as a teenager he was sent to Paris to be a garcon de chambre to the king’s cousin Mlle de Montpensier, and in 1653 he joined the service of the young Louis XIV as a provider of court dance entertainments in which his skills as a dancer and comedian stood him in good stead just as much as his evident ability as a composer.
His revitalisation of the king’s violin band to become a new model for orchestral standards added further lustre to his reputation, and in the early 1660s his position at the heart of the royal musical establishment as a composer of music both secular and sacred was cemented by his appointment as surintendant.
In 1664 he began a fruitful collaboration with Moliere, and together they devised a new form, the comedie-ballet, producing 10 (L’Amour medecin and Le Bourgeois gentilhomme among them) before parting company in the early 1670s.
By that time, however, Lully was on the verge of the final and most important achievement of his career. In 1672 he obtained a royal monopoly for the composition and performance of opera in French, and thus empowered he kept a ruthless check on his rivals, creating for himself a clear field at a formative period in French opera. His first tragedie en musique, Cadmus et Hermione, appeared in 1673, and a dozen more followed over the next 14 years, most composed in partnership with the librettist Philippe Quinault. So successful were they in aligning music-drama with the already-strong French classical theatre tradition that in a short time operas such as Alceste, Armide, Th‚s‚e and Amadis achieved canonic status.
The manner of his death was bizarre; in January 1687 he was directing a performance of his Te Deum by beating time on the ground with a cane, when he accidentally struck his toe. Refusing treatment for the injury, he contracted gangrene and died two months later.
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