Musician to the Sun King
Raised with little education or money, Jean-Baptiste Lully rose to be confidante to the king of France and practically govern the French opera world. His achievements took not just great musical talent, but also the political skill to survive life at court despite an equal talent for making trouble. Born in Italy to French ancestry, Lully moved to France as a teenager. He worked first in the household of King Louis XIV’s cousin and then, by age 20, for the king. There, as a dancer, composer and conductor, he refined the art of French court dancing, which was imitated by royalty and aristocrats across Europe. The Sun King himself, as Louis was known, participated in these graceful and disciplined dances, the forerunner of today’s ballet. Lully spent his career at court, gained the personal friendship of the king, and created a French style of opera, which he staged with great opulence. Clever and aggressive, he used his position to block competing composers (and to rescue himself more than once when his wild social life got him in trouble). In instrumental music, Lully led a royal all-violin ensemble of impressive technique. Years later, his minuets, gavottes, chaconnes, and other dances would inspire a young Johann Sebastian Bach.
Just as France dominated Europe militarily under Louis XIV’s long rule, Lully’s music–along with the art of others such as his friend and playwright Molière—formed part of a similar cultural domination. In an ending that seems almost fictional, his death came in the service of his king. Lully stuck his toe with a staff while beating time for his orchestra. An infection from the resulting wound killed him three months later.