Jean Baptiste Lully
Italian born Jean-Baptiste Lully came from modest origins. After being introduced to music by the Franciscan friars of his hometown Florence, he was chosen to become the Italian tutor to the cousin of Louis XIV in 1646 and left his homeland for Paris, where he continued his musical education. Also known to have been an oustanding dancer, his first works were Mascarades. In 1652, age 20, Lully entered the service of the king, where he was immediately appointed compositeur de la musique instrumentale, possibly for his dancing skills, which he continuously showcased in the ballets performed at court. He was to become the king's favourite musician and started also the composition of vocal music. His collaboration with Molière enriched Lully's theatrical knowledge, particularly of the French dramatic repertory, and helped him to perfect, after initial doubts of the genre, his operatic composition techniques. In 1672 he became the director of the Académie Royale de Musique, where he premiered his first tragédie en musique in the following year which was even attended by the king himself. The king appointed him conseiller secrétaire du roi, for his outstanding performance skills, a distinction which meant he could be immediately ennobled. Lully died in 1687. As a violinist, dancer and actor himself he was able to control the accuracy of the instrumental ensemble, demonstrate the steps of ballets, show how a performer should make an entrance and move on stage, and display the attitudes they should adopt.
Lully created a new operatic genre in 1673 with Cadmus et Hermione. For the libretto the composer had turned to Philippe Quinault who devised an excellent solution to the major problem of the recitative. In the first place, he simplified and tightened the plot, stripping it of unnecessary episodes so as to keep the audience's interest constantly alive. Most of the verses, were written before being set to music, in particular all the texts for the recitatives; Lully used melodic, rhythmic and harmonic procedures to make them expressive. A rising or falling interval, a melisma or a dissonance judiciously underlining certain words could suggest an image or express an idea or sentiment.These passages were intended to drive the dramatic action forward, and superfluous ornamentation was excluded since it would have been detrimental to comprehension of the sung text, something to which the logically minded French audiences of the time were particularly attached. The vocal ensembles, most of them duets, show equal sensitivity, allowing the hearer to appreciate both words and music. Dances also can be found in the operas mainly Minuets and gavottes, surely in greater number than bourrées, canaries, gigues, loures, passepieds, rigaudons and sarabandes.
The influence of Lully's work was considerable. The model of his tragédie en musique, the most successful in French opera under the ancien régime, was to inspire many composers for over a century. Lully's operatic works remained alive in the public's memory until the eve of the Revolution, inside and outside of France. Lully, regarded throughout Enlightenment Europe as the leading figure in French music, created a style which was truly his own, drawing on many sources which he was probably better able to assimilate than anyone else in his time. The language he forged, and to which he sometimes brought exceptional breadth, could leave no one indifferent, and it still attracts audiences today with its power, clarity, equilibrium, coherence, poetry and exquisite sensitivity.