Born: 28 November 1632, Florence, Italy
Died: 22 March 1687, Paris, France
The father of French opera – and an Italian.
The young Giovanni Battista Lulli accompanied Louis XIV’s cousin Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans, duchess of Montpensier, “the Grand Mademoiselle”, to France as her Italian conversation partner.
After Mademoiselle’s disgrace (exiled because of the Fronde), he became composer to the royal chamber (1653), and eventually surintendant of the king’s chamber music (1661). By 1672, he controlled music theatre throughout France.
In 1671, the Abbé Pierre Perrin and composer Robert Cambert were granted royal licence to found the Académie d’Opéras en Musique et verbe français, and staged the first French opera, Pomone. When their enterprise failed, Lully bought the royal licence.
After what Vincent Giroud calls “a hastily assembled patchwork” the pastoral Les fêtes de l’Amour et de Bacchus (1672), Lully and his librettist Quinault produced the first tragédie lyrique (tr. en musique): Cadmus et Hermione (1673).
Twelve more operas followed, establishing a distinctive French style.
David LeMarrec (“Introduction à la tragédie lyrique – quels codes, quel but?”, Carnets sur sol, August 2007) and Piotr Kaminski (Mille et un opéras, Fayard, 2003) identify the following characteristics of the genre:
- A prologue honouring Louis XIV, followed by five acts, usually on a mythological subject
- Drama comes first; music’s purpose is to underline text
- Declamation foremost, homophonic choruses, modest orchestration
- Drama is essentially composed of dynamic recitatives (accompanied by strings) with complex harmonies, alternating with instrumental or sung dances.
- Recitatives blend into arias. These are short, often without reprise; closer to arioso.
- Divertissements in each act, containing dances, choruses, ariettes
- Obligatory dances, like the chaconne
- Obligatory themes, like sleep, storms, deus ex machina (which stirs up conflicts in Act III or resolves them in Act V), pastoral scenes, hopeless despairing love, violent romantic disappointment, evil spells, &c
- Composers’ ingenuity comes from ability to do novel things with these ingredients
Lully’s operas vanished from the stage with the passing of the tragédie lyrique. William Christie and Les Arts Florissants’ 1987 production of Atys was the first Lully opera performed in two centuries, and has rekindled interest in a composer who was a respected name rather than a living presence.