University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Some Dramatic Works of Lully

Volume XI · Winter 1956 · Number 2
Some Dramatic Works of Lully


One of the most truly fabulous careers in all of music history was that of Giambattista Lulli, later known as Jean Baptiste Lully, who rose from the obscure position of a kitchenboy to one of such absolute power that he had no rivals and could well have said, "Opera, I am the Opera! Music, I am Music!"

Lully was born in Florence on November 28, 1632, the son of a miller. He had almost no formal education, although a kindly Franciscan friar had taught him to read. But Lully was clever. He learned to dance and to play the guitar and violin. As a youngster he liked to follow the strolling players during the carnival season and make himself conspicuous by dancing and mimicking others. In 1646 the Chevalier de Guise saw him perform and brought him to Paris, where he became a kitchenboy in the household of Mlle. de Montpensier, a cousin of King Louis XIV. He set out to show his patroness what a good entertainer he was and eventually persuaded her to make him the leader of her small band of violins.

In 1652, when Lully was twenty years of age, he entered the service of Louis XIV. The king loved dancing and the colorful spectacle of the ballet de cour. He also maintained an orchestra known as the Vingt-Quatre Violons du Roi (later also called the grande bande), reputed to be the first permanent orchestra in France. Lully was employed in the triple capacity of baladin (ballet dancer), composer of ballets, and violinist in the king's orchestra. Once he was securely situated at court, he began to plot his future by cultivating the good graces of the king. His ambition and audacity knew no bounds, for he was determined, by fair means or foul, to achieve success.

After only a year's service, Lully was named Instrumental Composer to the King. In 1661 he was promoted to the post of Superintendent of the King's Music and the following year he became the Music Master to the Royal Family. He had further consolidated his position by becoming a French citizen in 1661, at which time he declared himself to be the son of Lorenzo de' Lulli, a Florentine gentleman, and the king's acceptance of this statement caused Lully henceforth to be regarded as a gentleman. In this period he married Madeleine Lambert, daughter of the rather influential court lutenist and Master of the Royal Chamber Music, Michel Lambert. Madeleine brought a considerable dowry, which was highly acceptable to Lully.

Soon after Lully began playing in the king's grande bande, he grew dissatisfied with the ornamented style of French orchestral music. He appealed to Louis XIV to let him start his own orchestra. Accordingly, in 1656 he became leader of the Petits Violons or petite bande, at first consisting of sixteen players and later expanding to twenty-one. He trained this bande to perform in a precise, crisply unadorned manner which created much favorable comment and was in marked contrast to the elaborately decorated style of the grande bande. In 1661, when he became Superintendent of the King's Music, he gained absolute control over both the grande bande and the petite bande — the whole procedure being a master stroke and one of the many machinations of Lully, the schemer.

This was the time of Mazarin and the Italian influence at the French court. Although in later years he was looked upon as the creator of a French national style, in the beginning Lully maintained a two-faced attitude, setting up the Italian style against the French in an almost ironical, tongue-in-cheek fashion. From 1653 to 1672, he was first and foremost a composer of ballets. He used the French instrumental style of his dance music to contrast the Italian bel canto style of his recits and airs. Moreover, he wrote song-and-dance interludes for such plays as Amore malato, in which he emphasized the Italian vocal idiom. In many of the ballets he appeared as both a dancer and comedian. As long as Mazarin was alive and the Italian faction was strong in court, Lully cleverly allowed himself to be considered the representative of an Italian style. But when Mazarin died (1661), Lully saw that the French faction was in the ascendancy and almost immediately became an ardent exponent of the French style — or so he said. He still continued to show some Italian influence, in spite of the fact that he verbally declared the influences were French.

An interesting incident may be related here. The Venetian opera composer Cavalli had been invited to write an opera for the marriage of Louis XIV and Maria Theresa, in 1660. Cavalli wrote Ercole amante on a libretto by Buti, but the actual performance of the work did not take place until February 7, 1662, when the opera was used to inaugurate the Theatre des Machines at the Tuileries Palace. Lully seized this opportunity to write the ballets, which were presumably to serve as interludes in the opera, but wrote such elaborate ones that he stole the show from Cavalli, thereby confirming his own ability and putting Cavalli at a disadvantage. It is said that this experience so embittered Cavalli that he swore he would never write another opera, but little did Lully care about Cavalli's feelings. Cavalli, as it turned out, did write more operas, but it is rather significant that Ercole amante was the last opera seria to be played in Paris for 149 years!

A few years later Lully collaborated with the playwright Moliere in the production of a new type of theatrical work, the comedie-ballet, which Moliere had devised to combine the best qualities of comedy with the spectacle of the ballet de cour. The first successful play of this sort was Le Mariage force, and, as the partners prospered, they wrote several more, including the popular L'Amour medecin and Le Bourgeois gentilhomme.Moliere's best characterizations and best dramatic situations are to be found in some of the comidie-ballets,while Lully's clever solo songs and choral ensembles are among the finest works he wrote. The two men accomplished the difficult feat of creating a perfect union of ballet and comedy.

In the meanwhile, however, the ever-jealous Lully was becoming increasingly annoyed with Pierre Perrin (court librettist) and Robert Cambert (court composer), who were successfully working out a new French operatic style. These men held a royal patent for operatic performance and their successes were unbearable to Lully. Seizing an opportune time and using his influence with the king, Lully secretly snatched the patent from its rightful owners and received a new patent which granted him complete control of the French opera. Music was to be strictly limited in all theatrical performances except Lully's. All proceeds from his music were to go either directly to him or to his heirs. This act put an abrupt end to Cambert's promising career and betrayed Moliere's trust as well, but, again, little did Lully care about his colleagues' personal tragedies.

With the acquisition of the operatic monopoly, in 1672, Lully was absolute master of the musical theater. He had Moliere's troupe ousted from court and he opened his own Academie Royale de Musique. Moliere was replaced as Lully's librettist by Philippe Quinault, and, on the death of Moliere in 1673, Lully took over the Palais Royale for his own Academie. Quinault was a master of lyrical drama. His librettos are among the few which possess the rare quality of pleasureable readability combined with complete adaptability to musical setting. Although he generally employed classical subjects, he sometimes mixed his verse forms and abandoned the unities of time, place, and action. Lully, who had assiduously studied French rhetoric and declamation, found Quinault's texts a perfect foil for his restrained and sometimes austere style. The union of text and music created the tragédie lyrique, a form of drama greatly admired by the court. Lully wrote heavy orchestral chaconnes and overtures, he shortened the arias, and he emphasized the chorus. He finally achieved a stylized and dignified manner which clearly reflected his calculating nature. Elaborate stage settings, devised by master stage architects, were mounted at great cost, and so it was that France had its national opera at last. With the tragédie lyrique the French musical theater reached its zenith in the Baroque era.

Lully died on March 22, 1687, at the height of his extraordinary career. While conducting a performance he injured his foot, causing blood poisoning. He left one of the greatest fortunes ever amassed by a musician. He had become one of the most arrogant, unscrupulous, and powerful musicians of all time. He was as much an absolute monarch in his kingdom of music as Louis XIV was in his kingdom of France. Couperin le Grand, who was a great musician himself, placed Lully among the immortals on Mount Parnassus in his Apotheose . . . de Lully.

Although Lully wrote miscellaneous instrumental works and sacred compositions, he is best remembered for his dramatic pieces. The Sibley Music Library possesses, in addition to his complete works and various modern editions of his operas and ballets, a fine collection of first and second editions of his great masterpieces. They are bound in leather bindings and are full-sized musical folios. In chronological order of their performance, they are:

Les Fetes de l'Amour et de Baccus, a ballet-type opera composed of a prologue and three acts, with libretto by Quinault, Moliere, and Benserade. Although this work is merely a pasticcio of selections from Lully's earlier works, it is considered by most historians to be his first opera. It was performed for the first time in 1672 for the opening of the Academie Royale de Musique. Our copy is a contemporary manuscript of the full score, with which is bound a leaf published by Foucault bearing an engraved portrait of Lully. It is undated.

Cadmus et Hermione, tragédie lyrique consisting of a prologue and five acts, on a libretto by Quinault. This is Lully's first real lyric tragedy and was first performed in 1674. Louis XIV was present at the performance. We have the first edition of the full score, which was published by J. B. Christoph Ballard in Paris in 1719.

Alceste (or Le Triomphe d'Alcide), a lyric tragedy in five acts preceded by a prologue. The libretto is by Quinault, and the work was first presented at the Palais Royale, the new home of the Academie Royale de Musique, in 1674. The Library has the second edition of the full score, published in Paris by Ballard in 1716.

Thésée, tragédie lyrique in five acts and a prologue. Quinault was the librettist. The opera was given its premiere in Saint-Germain in 1675, and the first edition of the full score was published by Ballard in 1688. The Sibley Music Library has a copy of the first edition and also a copy of the second edition, published in Paris in 1711 by H. de Baussen and "gravee a 1'entree de la porte de I'Académie Royale de Musique."

Atys, a tragédie lyrique in five acts and a prologue, with libretto by Quinault. The king admired this opera so much that it has been called L'opera du Roi. It was first produced in Saint-Germain in 1676. The orchestral part is of some historic interest, for it was in this work that Lully introduced the double bass into the opera orchestra. The Library owns the first edition of the full score published by Ballard in Paris in 1689.

Isis is a tragédie lyrique which started out innocently enough as an ordinary opera but which eventually resulted in the temporary banishment of Quinault, the librettist, from the court of Louis XIV. The quarrel between two characters in the story was interpreted by the court gossips as having reference to the king's mistress. This was the principal cause of the failure of the opera. It was first performed in 1677. Our copy of the full score is an undated contemporary manuscript, bound in with a printed title page bearing the following: Paris, chez le Sieur Foucault.

Bellérophon, a tragedy consisting of a prologue and five acts, with libretto by Corneille. The authorship of the libretto has been open to question, for Corneille's name appears only in the earliest edition of the full score. Several years later, two other authors were suggested as the writer of the libretto. Loewenberg, in his Annals of the Opera, however, accepts Corneille as the librettist. Our copy does not bear the librettist's name, for it is a second edition of the full score, published by Ballard in Paris in 1714. The opera was first performed in 1679.

Proserpine, a tragedy in five acts and a prologue, with libretto by Quinault. The Library possesses a copy of the first edition of the full score, published by Ballard in Paris in 1680, the year of the first performance.

Persée, tragédie lyrique composed of a prologue and five acts on a text by Quinault and first performed in 1682. The first edition, published by Ballard in Paris in the same year, is in the Sibley Music Library.

Phaëton, a popular tragic opera in five acts and a prologue, with text by Quinault. After its first performance at Versailles, in 1683, it was given again many times in Paris and became one of Lully's most popular works. The nickname of l'opéra du peuple was given to it. The Library has the first edition of the full score, published by Ballard in 1683. Phaeton is also represented in the collection by a second edition of the score, published by H. de Baussen in 1709.

Roland, a tragedy in five acts and a prologue, with book by Quinault. The king suggested the subject, and the opera was well received at its premiere at Versailles, in 1685. The Library's copy of the full score is a second edition, published in 1709 by H. de Baussen in Paris.

Ballet A Temple de la Paix, a ballet first performed at Fontainebleau, in 1685, with libretto by Quinault. The first edition of the full score, published by Ballard in 1685, is in the Sibley Music Library collection.

Armide, probably Lully's best tragédie lyrique and his last work in this form. Quinault wrote the libretto for the opera, which was the last work by these two men, and Gluck admired the text so much that he used it in 1777 for his opera of the same name. The first edition of the full score, published by Ballard in 1686, the year of the first performance, is owned by the Library.

Acis et Galatée, pastorale heroïque in three acts and a prologue, on a libretto by Campistron. The first performance of this rather unusual work was given in 1686 at a fete galante presented by the Duke of Vendome for the Dauphin. The Sibley Music Library has a copy of the first edition of the score published by Ballard later in the same year.

Achille et Polixène, an opera in which the overture and the first act are by Lully and the prologue and the remaining four acts are by Pascal Collase. This was Lully's last work, for he died in March, 1687. The Library has the first edition of the full score, published by Ballard shortly after the premiere in November, 1687.

The Sibley Music Library collection of Lully's tragédie lyrique scores is one of the best in this country. The scores are in good condition, clearly legible, and in many cases illustrated with engravings of the stage settings used for the various acts of the operas. Since Lully is an acknowledged master of the French baroque style, his music is of utmost value to scholars of the seventeenth-century theater.