Jean-Baptiste Lully composed one of the most performed songs in history. Nearly everyone in the world has heard it.
The duties of a court composer were, shall we say, varied—particularly when dealing with that most mercurial of monarchs, Louis XIV. In 1686, the Sun King developed a perianal abscess. Court physicians attempted to treat the King’s posterior with a series of bizarre procedures, including the use of a red-hot iron. These efforts predictably failed and, omitting some details, the King developed an anal fistula. Surgeons were called in and the procedure was a success; however, the dance-mad King would not be performing anytime soon. Seeking to improve his patron’s mood, Lully composed a short song to celebrate the King’s recovery from what can only be described as “anal surgery pre-anesthesia”. Regardless of his modest intentions, the song proved to be a hit with successive French courts.
Decades later, George I’s court composer, George Frideric Handel visited Versailles in 1714 and heard the song, which he quickly jotted down and translated into English. Handel brought the short score back to England, where it has remained ever since. I promise you: you will never hear this song—an ode to a French King’s rear end—the same way again:
George Frideric Handel, (aft. Lully), God Save the Queen:
Incidentally, Handel picked the wrong Lully tune. He should have picked this one, an ode to the Sun King’s reign:
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, Overture:
Jean-Baptiste Lully, Le bourgeois gentilhomme, Marche pour la Ceremonie Turque:
Jean-Baptiste Lully, Psyche, Chantons Les Plaisirs Charmants:
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