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Celebrating the (soap opera) life of Jean-Baptiste Lully, born November 28

Celebrating the (soap opera) life of Jean-Baptiste Lully, born November 28 featured image

He was scheming, ambitious, vain (look at his outfit), prolific, and met an untimely death, but we celebrate, however, the birth of Jean-Baptiste Lully.

Italian-born Jean-Baptiste Lully put some zip into the world of French opera, and his music produced quite the revolution in the style of the dances of the French court. Up until Lully’s time, the music was always slow and stately; this would not do for this Italian composer, who introduced lively ballets based on well-known dance forms such as gavottes, menuets, rigaudons, and sarabandes. Because he covered off so many different dance forms, and on the keyboard as well, many of his pieces show up today in student music repertoire books.

Lully was ambitious, productive, a networker, scheming, and knew what side his bread was buttered on. He schmoozed his way to the top, befriending King Louis XIV, and managed a near-monopoly on opera in France.  It is saying something about Lully’s persuasive ways in that he managed to maintain his friendship with the King, despite annoying him with his rampant affairs with men and women alike while fathering six children with his wife.

Despite his out of control personal life, you’d never know it when you listen to his music. It is always elegant and engaging, and suited the culture of the time. That quintessential Baroque sound – the slow, stately introduction (that makes you want to parade very regally around the coffee table in your living room) followed by a lively, up-tempo number was created by Lully and spread across Europe as the “French Overture”. JS Bach and Handel ran wild with it (the opening of the Messiah comes to mind).

The story of Lully’s death sounds like a fable but it’s true: while keeping time, he beat the floor with a staff, as conducting with a baton was not standard yet. In keeping the beat, he stabbed his foot, which lead to a serious infection. He refused to have his foot amputated because he wanted to keep dancing. The infection lead to gangrene, and Lully died as a result.

Here’s a great example of how Lully’s music from “Ballet de Xerxes” would have been performed, complete with court dancers.

Jean-Baptiste Lully was born November 28, 1632 in Florence, Italy, and died March 22, 1687 in Versailles, France.


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