Sunday 19 November 2017

Miller's son from Italy who became the founder of French opera

Prolific: Jean-Baptiste Lully
Prolific: Jean-Baptiste Lully

George Hamilton

With a patron as powerful as The Sun King, you'd have been well placed to make your musical mark. Giovanni Lulli certainly made the most of what turned out to be his big break when he was taken to France as a young teenager to help a royal cousin with her Italian.

Quite how the miller's son from Florence got the gig has been lost in the mists of time, but it turned out to be the making of him.

Louis XIV was only nine, but he'd been on the throne already for around five years when Giovanni turned up. The Italian was a bit older, by six years or so.

By all accounts he was a star violinist, but it was his ability as a dancer that caught the youthful monarch's attention. They performed together in a ballet put on for the entertainment of the court, and not long after Lulli became composer-in-residence to the king.

Along the way, Giovanni Battista Lulli acquired a French name, the contemporary equivalent of a French passport, and a French wife.

As Jean-Baptiste Lully he moved beyond the confines of the court, collaborating with Molière, the top comic dramatist of the day, and between them they devised a new form of theatrical production. Le bourgeois gentilhomme is probably the best known of these comédie-ballets, which would translate into musicals in modern parlance.

This was at the time when opera was evolving, and Lully's next big venture was to buy the exclusive local rights to produce it. Not only did this make him extremely powerful, it also placed him in a position to dominate the development of the art form in France, to the extent that he's looked on as the founder of French opera.

He was nothing if not prolific. Over a spell of almost a decade-and-a-half, he averaged a new "lyric tragedy", as he called his productions, once a year. They were hugely successful, combining drama – where the French were at the forefront – with the music and dance that Lully had been developing in his ballets.

His masterpiece is Armide, a tangled love story involving the female wizard of the title and the knight crusader she has under her spell, with the music driving the story forward, and never getting in the way.

That said, it's not the kind of thing to throng a theatre these days and you'd be hard pressed to find a production of a Lully opera anywhere outside France.

The poor man had a rather bizarre end.

At the age of 54, and in his pomp, he was directing a performance of his Te Deum celebrating King Louis's recovery from an illness.

As they did in those days, he was keeping time with a long conductor's stick, which nicked a toe. He developed gangrene, and died within a matter of months, on this day in 1687.


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