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Biography

Jean-Baptiste Lully, originally Giovanni Battista Lulli (November 28, 1632 – March 22, 1687), was an Italian-born French composer, who spent most of his life working in the court of Louis XIV of France. He took French citizenship in 1661.

Born in Florence, Italy, either the son of a miller or, as Lully claimed, a nobleman, Lully had little early education, musical or otherwise but he did have a natural talent to play the guitar and violin and to dance.

In 1646, he was discovered by the Duke of Guise and taken to France by him, where he entered the services of Mademoiselle de Montpensier (la Grande Mademoiselle) as a scullery-boy. With the help of this lady his musical talents were cultivated. He studied the theory of music under Nicolas Métru. A scurrilous poem on his patroness resulted in his dismissal.

He came into Louis XIV's service in late 1652 or early 1653 as a dancer. Subsequently he composed music for the Ballet de la Nuit, which pleased the King immensely. He was then appointed composer of instrumental music to the King and, in this position, conducted the royal string orchestra of the French court, Les Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi (Twenty-four Violins of the King) and Grande Bande ("large band"). He tired of the lack of discipline of the Grande Bande and, with the King's permission, formed his own group, Petits Violons.

Lully composed many ballets for the King during the 1650s and 1660s, in which the King and Lully danced. He also had tremendous success composing music for the comedies of Molière, including Le Mariage Forcé (1664), L'Amour Médecin (1665), and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670). As Louis XIV's aged, he was less able to dance and his interest in ballet waned. His last performance was in 1670. So Lully pursued opera. He bought the privilege for opera from Pierre Perrin and, with the backing of Jean-Baptiste Colbert and the king, created a new privilege, which essentially gave Lully complete control of all music performed in France until his death.

Lully was a notorious bisexual and libertine. In 1662, he married Madeleine Lambert, daughter of Lully's friend and fellow musician Michel Lambert, and proceeded to have ten children by her. But at the height of his career he felt confident enough to flaunt his relationship with Brunet, his page. Although his life is full of meteoric heights, his love affairs with boys and women brought him scandal several times, to the great displeasure of Louis XIV, and led to his renown as a sodomite.

Despite these scandals, he always managed to get back into the good graces of Louis XIV, who found Lully essential for his musical entertainments and who thought of Lully as one of his few true friends. In 1681 Lully was appointed as a court secretary to Louis XIV and was ennobled, after which he wrote his name Jean Baptiste de Lully and was addressed as "Monsieur de Lully".

On January 8, 1687, Lully was conducting a Te Deum in honor of Louis XIV's recent recovery from illness. He was beating time by banging a long staff against the floor, as was the common practice at the time, when he struck his toe, creating an abscess. The wound turned gangrenous, but Lully refused to have his toe amputated and the gangrene spread resulting in his death on the 22nd of March. He left his last opera, Achille & Polyxène, unfinished.

On his death-bed Lully wrote Bisogna morire, peccatore (You must die, sinner.)

Lully's music is from the Middle Baroque period, 1650-1700. Typical of Baroque music is the use of the basso continuo (or simply continuo) as the driving force behind the music. French Middle Baroque is exceptional in all of classical music as having the lowest pitch, 392 Hz for A above middle C (which in modern practice is usually 440 Hz).

Lully's music is known for its power, liveliness in its fast movements and deep emotional character in its sad movements. Some of his most popular works are his passacaille (passacaglia) and chaconne which are dance movements found in many of his works, including Armide & Renaud, and Phaëton. His Miserere, written for the funeral of the minister Sequier, is considered a work of genius. Equally acclaimed are his minor sacred compositions.

The influence of Lully's music produced a radical revolution in the style of the dances of the court itself. Instead of the slow and stately movements which had prevailed until then, he introduced lively ballets of rapid rhythm. He effected important improvements in the composition of the orchestra, into which he introduced several new instruments, and Lully enjoyed the friendship of Molière, with whom he created a new music form, the comédie-ballet which combined theater, comedy, and ballet.

Lully founded French opera (tragédie en musique or tragédie lyrique), having found Italian-style opera inappropriate for the French language. In collaboration with the poet and librettist in Quinault, Lully composed many operas and other works, which met with a most enthusiastic reception. Indeed, Lully has good claim to be considered the founder of French opera, forsaking the Italian method of separate recitative and aria for a dramatic consolidation of the two and a quickened action of the story, all of which were more congenial to the taste of the French public.

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