Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), Italian-born French composer, established the basic form of French opera, which remained virtually unchanged for a century.
Jean Baptiste Lully was born in or near Florence on Nov. 28, 1632. At the age of 12 he went to Paris, where he received his musical training. He performed successfully as violinist, dancer, and conductor. He started his own orchestra of stringed instruments and trained it to play with exceptional precision; it was famous throughout Europe for the quality of its performance.
At the same time, Lully was writing music and achieving a reputation as a composer. He was very much favored at the French court, particularly by King Louis XIV. In 1661 Lully was appointed Superintendent of Music; the following year he was named Master of Music of the Royal Family. These prestigious appointments carried high salaries, and Lully built up a large fortune. He was ambitious to the point of ruthlessness and seems to have had no scruples when it came to advancing his own interests. He gained a monopoly over French opera and virtually eliminated any possible rivals in this field. Lully had many enemies, along with many admirers, when he died in Paris on March 22, 1687.
Apart from a small body of sacred music, Lully's work belongs to the realm of theater music. He composed the music for over 40 ballets and other entertainments in the theater. Among his collaborators was the great dramatist Molière. Molière's comedy Le Bourgeois gentilhomme was performed in 1670 with incidental music by Lully. This music, which is still used occasionally in performances of the Molière play, is a brilliant complement to the spoken drama.
Lully's main achievement, however, was his composition of 14 operas between 1673 and 1687. He was provided with excellent French librettos, mainly by Philippi Quinault, on a variety of subjects: classical, pastoral, and heroic. Musically, Lully modeled his operas to a large extent upon Italian operas of a slightly earlier period. Italian operas had been performed in Paris in the 1640s to the 1660s, and he had taken part in some of the performances.
When Lully came to write his own operas, he took over the essential features of these Italian operas: a flexible, expressive kind of recitative and a contrasting musical style in the arias. His recitative is somewhat different, being set to French words; but it is expressive in its own way and notable for its correct declamation of the words. Lully was particularly careful in setting words to music. He listened to the best actors at the Comédie Française and aimed to reproduce in music the inflections of spoken French drama. His arias are usually quite short and quite simple structurally, but in performance the singers decorated them with graceful ornaments. The art of ornamentation was part of the training of 17th-century singers; it was expected that they would embellish their solo arias in a skillful, tasteful manner.
Other elements in Lully's operas are derived from French traditions. The ballet had been a favorite entertainment in itself, and it now became an important element in French opera. The chorus was equally important to Lully. In many of his scenes the chorus is treated in rondo fashion: it performs a refrain and thus serves to unify the opera.
To accompany the choral passages and ballets in Lully's operas, there was an orchestra of strings and woodwinds, supplemented by brass and percussion instruments when the situation called for them. Sometimes the orchestra played alone, in separate instrumental pieces. Many long scenes are devoted to dancing and to other kinds of stage spectacles; in them the orchestra has a most important function.
Lully cannot strictly be called the creator of French opera, since other French composers had already written a few operas. He was, however, the first composer of genius to write French operas, and he proved that opera in French could be a viable art form. His operas were immensely popular and continued to be performed long after his death. Today they are almost never presented in their complete form because of their great length. They contain much beautiful music, for Lully was a master of the operatic form and, at his best, a composer of rare inspiration.
Further Reading on Jean Baptiste Lully
Lully's operas are discussed by Manfred F. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era: From Monteverdi to Bach (1947); Donald J. Grout, A Short History of Opera (1947; 2d ed. 1965); and Claude V. Palisca, Baroque Music (1968). Bukofzer also describes the background to French opera and mentions Lully's contribution to sacred music.
Additional Biography Sources
La Laurencie, Lionel de, Lully, New York: AMS Press, 1978.