Who was Lully?

Lully is one of the great conundrums of musical history. Textbooks do duty to his key role as the founder of French opera, while waxing less than enthusiastic about his music. There is no doubt that his musical reach was long – he not only dominated French music during his lifetime, but set the agenda for it in the century after his death. And here is one of the great ironies of Lully’s extraordinary career. While he was the unchallenged champion of French musical style, vigorously supported by Louis XIV, as a bastion against the advance of Italian music, he was himself an Italian.

When was Lully born?

Giovanni Battista Lulli was born in 1632 in Florence to a family of millers. The middle of three children, he learns the guitar and violin from the local Franciscan monks.

When did Lully arrive at the French Royal Court?

The 14-year-old Giovanni Battista Lulli was sent to Paris as a ‘garçon de chambre’ to Anne Marie Louise d’Orléans, a cousin of Louis XIV known at court as ‘la Grande Mademoiselle’. Described by his royal mistress as a ‘great dancer’, his talents soon became apparent. On 23 February 1653, Lully found himself dancing with none other than the king in the Ballet de la nuit. The following month he was appointed a court composer and, with a series of successful ballets, established his reputation.

The highly structured nature of Louis XIV’s court could be a fine environment for upward mobility. Years of political unrest, including the so-called ‘Fronde’ rebellion, during which Louis was virtually a prisoner of the Parisian mob in the Louvre, led to his ruling with rigorous determination. The Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, through a combination of force and administrative virtuosity, ensured that when Louis came to power in 1661, his was a genuinely absolute rule. Cultural life was overseen by academies of the arts and sciences. With similar formality, music making in the royal household was divided into three divisions: the Music of the Chamber, including singers, instrumentalists and the famed string players, the Vingt-quatre violons; the Music of the Stable comprising brass players, drums and wind instruments; and the Music of the Royal Chapel. As appropriate, musicians from all three divisions were combined for more elaborate entertainments such as ballets.

For a musician of Lulli’s talent and professional ruthlessness, these circumstances were ideal. He took on the direction of the king’s group of Petits violons and drilled them up to be the most polished group at court. In 1661, the year he became a French citizen and changed his name to its French equivalent, Lully was made super-intendant and composer of the king’s chamber music; with sound networking instincts, in 1662 he married Madeleine Lambert, daughter of Michel Lambert, one of the most respected musicians at court.

Above all, Lully understood and exploited the cult of Louis. Born late in his parents’ marriage, Louis was dubbed ‘Dieudonné’ and throughout his life was depicted as Le Roi Soleil (the Sun King), Apollo in classical mythology. An extraordinary painting by the court artist Jean Nocret depicts Louis as Apollo surrounded by members of his immediate family decked out as Olympian deities. Musically there were ample opportunities to personify Louis as the Sun. In the Ballet de la nuit Louis, a keen dancer, took the role of the rising sun dispelling the darkness of night.

What is Lully famous for?

Through court ballets in the 1660s, Lully established himself as the preeminent musical dramatist of France. He extended his range in collaborations with the comic actor-writer Molière in a series of comedy-ballets in which the spoken word and music combined. In the case of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, premiered in 1670, the colossal concluding Ballet des Nations – a decorative extravaganza in which Molière’s characters simply become spectators – eclipsed the original drama.

The greater use of vocal music in Lully’s ballets was seen by some as leading inevitably to opera. Lully, however, was sceptical that this Italian invention could prosper on French soil. Cardinal Mazarin, himself Italian, had thrown considerable resources at productions of Italian opera, but the response from court and public was poor. Luigi Rossi’s Orfeo in 1647 struck something of a chord, but this was largely due to the inclusion of the ballets and elaborate staging that French audiences loved. Lully gained hard-headed experience with a staging of Cavalli’s Serse at the Louvre in 1660. The French audience appeared indifferent to Cavalli’s music, but applauded the dances, supplied, of course, by Lully.

Why is Lully called the father of French opera?

When opera was eventually established in France, the process took place largely on Lully’s terms, as he acted with Mafioso-like instincts. In 1669, after the success of two Pastoral entertainments, Pierre Perrin gained a 12-year royal privilege for an Académie d’Opéra (later the Académie Royale de Musique) and in 1671 produced Pomone, described by a contemporary critic as the first French opera. When the Académie fell into financial difficulties the following year, Lully made his move. With Perrin in prison for debt, Lully secured the monopoly from the king and devoted the rest of his life to the production of the operas known to contemporaries as Tragédies en musique.

Lully set about his task with determination. With royal backing he could rely on the best theatres and facilities. He matched these circumstances by composing an opera a year until his death in 1687 and supervising, with meticulous attention to detail, all the performers. The security of royal support was reinforced in 1684 when Louis extended Lully’s monopoly to the whole of France.

Lully’s first opera, Cadmus et Hermione, was attended at its premiere on 29 April 1673 by the king and members of the royal family, and by all accounts gave complete satisfaction. In Cadmus Lully provided a grand synthesis of the theatrical elements beloved of French audiences: tragedy, comedy, pastoral scenes, dance and magnificent spectacle created by theatrical machinery devised by the Italian Carlo Vigarani. The libretto, by Philippe Quinault, who wrote ten more for Lully, was a collaboration, not only between the poet and the composer, but also the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres whose approval was required. Indeed, the very structure of these new operas of a prologue and five acts reflects the conventions of French classic drama.

Musically, Lully’s vocal writing was characterised by simplicity and dignity often spiced by affective melodic writing, as in the touching farewell between Cadmus and Hermione in the second act. Choruses could be ornamental, particularly in the prologues, but often stately and ceremonial, as in the scene honouring Mars in the third act. Inevitably, in an art form that grew out of the French court’s love of dance, the ballet divertissement encompassing mime as well as dance was central to the new form and was crowned by large-scale Chaconnes based on short recurring bass lines that could generate huge structures. In his earlier operas, Lully indulged his talent for comedy: in Alceste, there is a hilarious scene in the fourth act in which the boatman of Hades, Charon, collects his fee from recently dead spirits. But comedy was felt unsuited to the dignity of the opera and these scenes soon disappeared.

Just as the governance and political life of France centred on the king, so did the subject matter of the operas. While it would have been natural to identify such heroes as Persée, Bellérophon and Amadis with Louis, the prologue was the place for explicit praise of the king. Here, barely concealed allusions, with suitably glorious music, were made to Louis’s victories: in Cadmus to his war against the Dutch, and in Alceste the nymph of the Seine yearns for his triumphant return. Court politics could also lead to uncomfortable brushes with authority. The depiction of Juno in Isis of 1677 raised the hackles of Louis’s mistress Madame de Montespan, and Philippe Quinault had to be summarily, if temporarily, dismissed.

When did Lully die?

Away from the theatre, Lully’s talent also shone in music for the Chapel. His Miserere of 1664 has genuine depth and the Te Deum of 1677 brought the inspiring clangour of trumpets and the stately double chorus of opera into the church. Unfortunately, the Te Deum also brought about Lully’s own end. While directing a performance in January 1687, he stabbed his foot with his beating stick, resulting in septicaemia.

When Lully died on 22 March 1687, he was the preeminent musician of France. His musical style suffused French culture for a century after his death and his operatic formula dominated the genre in France for three generations – indeed, the five-act structure, spectacle and glorification of dance returned in French Grand Opera in the 19th century.

Lully’s dominance meant, of course, that there were losers, none more so than the great Marc-Antoine Charpentier, whose profound dramatic abilities were much curtailed. And later, while there was no lack of talented composers – among them Campra, Marais and Mouret – none were truly successful in establishing a personal operatic style until Rameau began composing opera in the 1730s.

Lully’s legacy also brought benefits. His rigorous approach to orchestral discipline created something of a model for later orchestras across Europe. Most importantly, his French overture style, in which a stately introduction characterised by dotted rhythms gives way to a contrapuntal fast section, was embraced by composers as varied as Bach, Handel, Purcell and Telemann.

For modern audiences, the steady tread of dignified airs, dances and stately choruses can seem monolithic, but the consistency of Lully’s style is what Louis and French audiences loved. To focus solely on Lully’s scores is to miss the point. He understood that they were the starting point for a complex entertainment comprising literature, dance, mime, vocal beauty and spectacle. In providing that sound basis, Lully gave audiences the complete artistic experience they craved.

Where is Lully buried?

Lully is buried at the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, Paris


Professor Jan SmacznyCritic, BBC Music Magazine

Jan Smaczny is an emeritus professor at Queen's University, Belfast and is an expert on Czech music, reviewing and writing for BBC Music Magazine. He has also written for titles including The Independent. Smaczny has published books on the Dvořák’s Cello Concerto (2007), Music in 19th-Century Ireland (2006) and Bach's B Minor Mass (2020).