Baroque Music II: Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)

Enter the French. With the English School well-established since Dunstable and the German School developing in the wake of Martin Luther, the French School began to reassert its influence in the 17th and 18th centuries. First up, Jean-Baptiste Lully, court composer to the Sun King, Louis XIV. Born to humble origins, Lully would climb to the very heights of French society, only to see his music eclipsed, permanently, shortly after his death. This operatic narrative is fitting for the man who (along with Moliere) invented French opera. French opera is distinguished from its Italian and German counterparts by the prominence of dance. Thanks to Lully, French opera would typically include a ballet scene for more than 200 years (now often cut to appease the attention span of modern audiences and to save on labor costs). This is not surprising: Louis XIV’s passion in life was the ballet, which he often performed in (likely as a sun god, I’m sure). There is always a strong hint of the dance in Lully’s music–whether that was to please his patron or the reason why he proved such a success at court, we will never know. For me, Lully’s music is inseparable from the persona of Louis XIV: This is where Baroque ornamentalism first took flight.

Lully was a violinist (one of the first composers to have the violin as his primary instrument) and his music highlights the violin, prefiguring its dominant role in the years to come. The violin had been invented some 130 years previously in or around 1520, but was originally conceived of as a low peasant instrument. Italian craftsmen in Northern Italy began transforming the violin into its modern form in or around 1555, when Lorenzo di Medici ordered one from Andrea Amati of Cremona. For such a commission, Amati made the shape of the violin more elegant, with significant work going into the scroll work on the end. Medici was very pleased with the instrument (which has not survived to the present, apparently), something he undoubtedly wrote to his daughter Catherine, who by then regent of France.

By any measure, Catherine de Medici was an extraordinary woman and if anyone can recommend a good biography of her, please do.  Not only did she more or less rule France successfully during the first major schism between Catholics and Protestants, Catherine invented or popularized a range of things that remain popular today, from high heeled shoes to ice cream and ballet.  She is also responsible for popularizing the violin in France, ordering a staggering 38 or so from Amati, a good number of which survive today.  Under Catherine’s instructions, ballets were performed to what can only be described as a proto-violin section of a modern orchestra.  Incidentally, a certain Antonio Stradivari worked for Amati’s grandson Nicolo as an apprentice.  Along with one of Amati’s other apprentices, Andrea Guarneri (his grandson Giuseppe “del Gesu” is the famous one), the three Cremonese created the modern violin.  They have remained the gold standard for stringed instruments to this day.

Lully followed in Catherine’s footsteps. He arranged for similar groupings of other stringed instruments (viol de gamba and other more modern instruments such as the cello). As these instruments were added in sections, the modern orchestra was born (the selection below from Le bourgeois gentilhomme brings this point home). Incidentally, the Overture also gets its start here, with French ballet and opera. Symphonie was the Italian for this prefatory instrumental piece. Originally a minute or two long, this is where the grand symphonies of the classical and romantic period began to evolve. Lully gave the symphony life, but it would be left to others to take up the baton and drive instrumental music to new heights.

For me, Lully’s music is where beat begins to assert itself as a primary driver of the musical line. Always conscious of his employer’s love of dance, Lully made sure that the royal foot would be able to tap, if not dance, along to his tunes. Here are a few brief examples:

Jean-Baptiste Lully, Atys, Overturehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLsFCIU5xw4

Jean-Baptiste Lully, Le bourgeois gentilhomme, Marche pour la Ceremonie Turque: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsF0dM0FvuY

Jean-Baptiste Lully, Psyche, Chantons Les Plaisirs Charmants: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCS-9PXQbt4

Recording note: You may have notice that last of these selections come from Les Arts Florissant’s album “Les Divertissements de Versailles”. I discovered the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully through Les Arts Florissant—William Christie more or less single handedly brough Lully back to prominence over the last 30 years, which is one of the reasons he’s in the French Legion of Honor. In this album, Christie reimagines a Baroque pastiche—rather than present a single opera or ballet, a pastiche presents a “greatest hits” performance. Sometimes, a pastiche was used to create a soundtrack for pleasure garden parties; often, a pastiche would be used to create a new narrative work altogether, complete with new lyrics set to familiar tunes. While the idea of a greatest hits concert seems obvious to modern sensibilities, at the time the concept was revolutionary. The Met Opera created a pastiche of their own, The Enchanted Island, some years back. It is as good a greatest hits of the Baroque soundtrack as one could hope for. https://www.metopera.org/discover/video/?videoName=the-enchanted-island-2011-12-season-new-production&videoId=792232300001

Late Monteverdi

In opera singers express their emotions directly to each other and indirectly to the audience—the fusing of drama between singer and audience is what powers opera to this day. And this is where it began, in earnest, with Monteverdi’s late opera Poppea, which was premiered to a paying audience in a public theatre. No more churches. No more ducal palaces. No more myths. A real story about real people with real problems expressing real emotions to the public at large. And yes, that fiddling emperor Nero is one of the first male superstar roles in opera history. This duet between Poppea and Nero closes the opera—no need to show what happens next, as everyone in the audience would have known the bloody story (Nero murders Poppea and their son and commits suicide, bringing an end to the Julio-Claudian dynasty). Instead of that melodramatic ending (something that opera would come to specialize in during the 19th century), what we are left with is a moment so stunning, so modern, it is hard to believe that before Poppea nothing, and I mean nothing, sounded like this. This love song—I gaze upon you, I possess you—seems to affirm their wanton greed and ambition, a morality play turned on its head. Monteverdi’s none too subtle political message—Rome is once again in the hands of a Nero, threatening Venetian liberties–would not have been lost on his audience. The Professor claims to hate opera. I dare him to hate this.

Claudio Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di PoppeaPur ti miro, Pur ti godo“: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_isL0E-4TsQ

A few words about this recording as well.  At the end, you will glimpse William Christie in the pit, conducting and playing one of two harpsichords (yes, Gert, I have not forgotten—lots of harpsichords to come!).  His Les Arts Florissant is quite simply the best and most important early music group ever.  I see them every chance I get—more than a dozen concerts and operas and counting.  A native of Buffalo, New York, Christie is the best in the business.  We’ll see a lot more of them later—they are to the Baroque what the Tallis Scholars are to the Renaissance.  Soprano Danielle De Niese, who plays Poppea here, is also an American and an early music specialist.  I’m a fan and will say she’s never sounded better than here, under Christie’s baton.  De Niese has a remarkable singing partner in the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky.  In Monteverdi’s age, Nero would have been sung by a castrato—male sopranos who were castrated as boys to preserve their voice.  They were the superstars of the old operatic role and, obvious cruelness aside, I will note that they were left “fully functional” and in some cases quite famously so.  Following the demise of the practice of castrating boys for our entertainment, castrato roles eventually went to women, mostly mezzo-sopranos.  In recent years, countertenors have started to claim back these historically male roles.  A countertenor sings only in his head voice—falsetto—which gives his tone an ethereal quality.  While many countertenors of old had weak voices, the modern countertenor can hold his own with a female soprano, as this selection attests.