Remembering Lully, 329 Years and Counting
"Lulli died in Paris in 1687 at the age 54, after having hit the top of his foot harshly while beating time with his baton. The bad seed that debauchery had put in his blood made the wound all the worse."
"Lulli mourut à Paris en 1687, à 54 ans, pour s'être frapé rudement le bout du pied en battant la mesure avec sa canne Le mauvais germe que la déauche avoit mis dans son sang fit empirer le mal."
-Nouveau Dictionnaire Historique, vol. 4, pg. 223 (Paris, 1772)
Jean-Baptiste Lully joins the ranks of France's most biographically intriguing baroque composers. Well before his death, his musical collaboration with librettist Philippe Quinault had assured his future role as one of the founders of French opera. Indeed, when visitors walk into the front lobby of the Opéra Garnier in Paris, they are greeted by four statues representing Handel, Gluck, Rameau, and Lully. The fact that the founder of French opera was Italian-born made his French biographers feel slightly awkward about the somewhat foreign origins of their national repertoire. In the biographical description of Lully quoted above, the author writes the composer's name with an Italianiate spelling; even the Opéra Garnier statue bears the marker "LULLI" instead of the French rendering "Lully." In life, Lully caused a sensation when he virtually took over French stage music production; royal laws were passed that prohibited stage producers from using more than a handful of musicians unless they were working under the auspices of Lully. He also provoked scandal by becoming embroiled in unsavory rumors of pederasty. But the composer's most sensationalist act was in the moment that decided his death. As the dictionary entry alludes to above, Lully was conducting a Te Deum in thanks of Louis XIV's recovery from a painful fistual when he stabbed his foot with his conductor's baton. The wound became infected and he died about two months later, on March 22, 1687. His death is dramatically portrayed in this clip from the 2000 film, Le Roi Danse. In the background, you can hear the opening of the fatal Te Deum.
Lully's Italian birth, unprecedented success in France, and thrilling death have determined a fascinating historiography for the composer. His historiography has also been heavily influenced by recording and film technology. Until the mid-20th century, Lully's operas were recorded in excerpt form, and the baroque aesthetics that informed Lully's music were not considered important in the interpretation of Lully's music. Without knowing that much of Lully's opera music was meant to be danced to, for example, many of the individual pieces that form his operas can seem boring and uncreative, especially if they are performed at tempi that are much slower or faster than the appropriate dance steps.
French conductor Jean-François Paillard commented on these difficulties in 1968:
"But to record an opera is something else again...It must be noted that the basic portion of Lully's opera, to wit the recitative, barely moves us any more. The traditions of interpretation, so essential in this respect, are lost...Now that almost three centuries have passed, can one hope to find these dead traditions again? Perhaps the only chance to do so is on the stage in the lasting collaboration between true actors and experienced musicians...but the few productions prepared hastily and with little respect for the text, attempted now and then, are of no use in this sense" (Jean-François Paillard, Isis (1677)/Armide (1686) (Musical Heritage Society, 1968; record booklet notes).
Paillard's tactic was to record several scenes from Isis and Armide in their integrity. It wasn't until 1987, however, when Lully's operatic music really began to sway the hearts of men after 300 years of relative neglect. Under the direction of William Christie, Les Arts Florissants produced an astounding production of Lully's Atys that wed baroque musical and dance aesthetics to stage director Jean-Marie Villégier's original interpretation of the opera as a commentary on the increasingly somber and religious tone of Louis XIV's court after his morganatic marriage to Françoise de Maintenon. Since Christie's Atys, almost all of Lully's operas have been recorded in their entirety.
While William Christie's work brought Lully's music and baroque aesthetics to modern attention, film broke new ground in introducing modern audiences to Lully's character. Alain Corneau's Tous les Matins du Monde (1991) film was the first major motion picture to introduce 20th-century audiences to baroque music. It revolves around the life of two great French viola da gambists: Monsieur de Saint Colombe and Marin Marais. In 2000, Gérard Corbiau produced Le Roi Danse, which retells the adventurous and sometimes salacious career of Lully from his early friendship with Louis XIV to his death. The film portrays Lully as ambitious (sometimes, especially at his death, to the point of desperation) and never able to escape his Italian heritage, which is a constant obstacle to his full acceptance at court.
The Young Lully in Le Roi Danse
Portrayals of Lully and his music in film, recordings, and stage production will always receive some critical remark in regards to the inaccuracy or lack of taste of one element or another. Le Roi Danse, for example, portrays Lully's dance choreography as using much heavier steps than baroque dance aesthetics would have sanctioned. But by representing the composer through a diversity of media, and by exploring the spectrum of his representations, we can come closer to developing our own opinion of his music. In celebration of Lully's life and in commemoration of his death, take a moment today to listen to this excellent recording by Hervé Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel of the Te Deum to which he pierced his foot and opened the wound that caused his death on this day, 329 years ago.