Without a doubt, Jean-Baptiste Lully was France's leading
composer during the Baroque period. While he almost single-handedly shaped
French music during his lifetime and afterwards, Lully was actually born an
Italian on November 28, 1632 in Florence. As a young child, he received little
formal education and learned only the basics of playing the guitar from a
Franciscan friar. However, in 1646, his inherent talent was enough for Roger de
Lorraine, the chevalier de Guise, to
take him to France and he was entered into the service of Mademoiselle de
Montpensier. Serving as a scullery-boy, Lully was taught to dance and studied
music with Nicolas Métru, an organist and viol player who also taught Couperin.
In 1652, Mlle de Montpensier was exiled and Lully left her
court. By now, a talented dancer and musician, his skills brought him to the
attention of the young King Louis XIV and became a dancer in the king's
service. After composing some music for the Ballet
de la nuit, Louis XIV appointed him leader of the Petits Violons, the
king's own private violin band. Lully's favor in the king's court continued to
grow and in 1671, he was appointed the Superintendent of Music. Eventually, he
was even given complete control over all music performed in France by the king.
Throughout his initial years in service to King Louis XIV,
Lully composed many ballets for the court, in which both Lully and the king
himself danced. Lully's music revolutionized the dance, introducing livelier
ballets in place of the slow, stately dances that had prevailed before then.
With the aid of Molière, Lully also created the genre known as comédie-ballet which mixed spoken plays
with dance and music numbers.
As Louis XIV aged, however, his interest in ballet, as well
as his ability to dance, waned and in response Lully turned his attention on
operas. Though Italian opera reigned supreme throughout Europe, Lully abandoned
the Italian methods finding them unsuitable for the French language. Removing
the divisions between recitative and aria and placing a greater emphasis on
story development, Lully became the father of French opera and the foremost
opera composer in France.
In January, 1687, while conducting a performance of a Te
Deum to celebrate the king's recovery from an illness, Lully struck his toe
with a long staff that he was using to beat time. The wound became gangrenous,
yet he refused to have the toe amputated. The gangrene inevitably spread and on
March 22, Lully died from the injury.
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