Jean-Baptiste Lully: Biography & Music

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Jean-Baptiste Lully was the most influential composer of French opera. In this lesson we will learn about his life, his music, and his contributions to opera.

The New Royal Composer
King Louis XIV
Portrait of King Louis XIV

It's 1653. King Louis XIV of France needs a new court composer. Italian musicians are everywhere and Italian operas are the most often performed. The King is ready for something different and turns to another Italian to get the job done. This Italian changes his name, grabs a pen and paper for composing, and starts a music revolution. The French finally get their own opera, thanks to Jean-Baptiste Lully.

Lully's Early Life

Lully was born Giovanni Battista Lulli in Florence, Italy on Nov. 29, 1632. His father, Lorenzo di Maldo Lulli, was a miller. His mother, Caterina del Sera, was a miller's daughter. No indication of great musical talent among relatives or ancestors was demonstrated in the Lulli family. Lully's first music teacher was a Franciscan monk. We know he learned to play the violin, guitar, and keyboard. He was also an excellent dancer. Lully claimed to have learned everything about music he would ever know by the age of seventeen.

Florence, Italy
Photo of Florence, Italy

Lully Goes to France

In 1646, Lully traveled to France with the Chevalier de Guise. He was hired by de Guise's niece, Mlle. de Montpensier, to serve as a valet and help her improve her Italian conversation skills. He left her service in 1653, moved to Paris, and gained the notice of King Louis XIV for his performance in a ballet. Within a few weeks, he was appointed the composer of the King's instrumental music.

In this position, Lully composed music for the royal ballet and an ensemble called Petits Violons. This ensemble was a small group of strings, sixteen members, which performed for the King and traveled with him. Lully was credited for bringing the level of playing to a new height of artistic excellence and discipline.

Jean-Baptiste Lully
Engraving of Lully

In 1661, Lully was appointed superintendent of the King's music. He became a French citizen and changed his name to the French spelling we use today. In 1672, he used his influence with the King to obtain the patents for operatic production in France. This meant that until his death in 1687, he had full control over all operas performed in France. He severely curtailed the performance resources available to his competitors, making himself the only game in town. He arranged for all the proceeds from his opera productions to be given directly to him, which made him enormously wealthy by the end of his life. Lully was in charge, and he liked it that way.

The Operas of Lully

For the rest of his life, Lully would focus on composing, performing, and promoting his operas. He teamed with a librettist, the writer of the text of an opera, named Philippe Quinault to create new French operas. Prior to this, the majority of operas performed in France were written in Italian by Italian composers. Lully was determined to develop a French style.

With the help of Quinault, Lully devised the tragédie lyrique. This genre was serious in tone, utilized plots based on classical stories and ideals, was highly stylized, and required magnificent sets and machinery for special effects. The King loved it. Audiences loved it. France had found its national opera and it would last for more than 100 years.

Modern production of Atys by Lully
Modern production of Lully opera Atys

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