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ClassicsOnline Home » LULLY: Ballet Music for the Sun King
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)
Ballet Music for the Sun King
Lully's early childhood is veiled in obscurity. He was born on 28 November 1631, and although he claimed to be the son of Lorenzo de' Lully, a Florentine Gentleman it is more likely that his origins were humble. He learnt the violin from an oldshoemaker monk, and was taken from his native Florence to France by the Chevalier de Guise when he was ten or eleven, so that he could tutor the Chevalier, niece, Mademoiselle de Montpensier, in Italian. His violin-playing found him favour, for he was placed in the Mademoiselle's private orchestra, and was soon outshining the other violinists. His standing in the household suffered a sharp blow, however, when he was dismissed for having composed a satirical air at the expense of the Mademoiselle. By this time, however, he had already gained the attention of young King Louis XIV, and so joined the Royal court.
The King and Lully danced together in the 1653 production of the Ballet de la Muit. Less than a month later, on 16th March, Jean Baptiste Lully was appointed Compositeur de la Musique instrumentale de la chamber. This, and his friendship with the Roi Soleil was the starting-point of Lully's meteoric rise to fame and power in the world of music in France.
Several events took place fast on the heels of Lully's appointment as Compositeur de la Musique. In 1656 he was given his own orchestra, the Petits Violons, and in May 1661 he was appointed to the important position of Surintendant de la Musique de la Cambre. In March 1672, Lully received the patent to establish an Academie Royale de Musique, which subsequently forbade the performance of any theatre work without the written permission of Lully, under penalty of 10,000 livres fine and the confiscation of theatre, machines, costumes and other item.
Having manoeuvered himself into a position of total power in the musical world, Lully demonstrated that he was far from being a talentless opportunist. He has left a legacy of style and influence that helped pave the way for a whole tradition of French music, particularly in opera. He transformed the standard and practices of the orchestra, composed sacred music, and crowned his glory by creating the Tragedies Lyriques. These established an opera structure to rival the Italian, a structure that was rooted in the Ballet de Cour. Unfortunately, it is the circumstances of his death that are most notorious. While conducting a performance of his Te Deum. Lully accidentally struck himself on the foot with the large staff that he used to pound the floor to keep time. He contracted gangrene, which led to blood poisoning and his eventual death on 22 March 1687.
Scaramouches, Clowns and Harlequins
In 1581 Baltasar de Beaujoyeulx was commissioned by Catherine de Medici to produce Circe, ou le ballet comique de la royne, and as was the Italian custom, members of the royal family danced and appeared on stage. Beaujoyeulx claimed to have introduced an invention novelle and indeed, by virtue of the unity of action, dance, music, poetry and costumes, it is a significant turning point in the development of French dramatic music. Beaujoyeulx’s claims aside, it may have been this very custom of Royal involvement that was the most important factor. For some seventy years later, we find the young king, Louis XIV, becoming a great exponent and lover of dance. So, when in 1651 the thirteen-year-old monarch danced in the Ballet de Cassandre, we see the start of a new era.
Starting with l’Este from Ballet du Temps (1654), the music on this recording gives a brief overview of Lully’s early years at court, the dawning of Le Grand Siecle and in particular, the Ballet de Cour. In the Ballet du Temps, we see Lully in a dual role as composer and dancer - for along with Louis XIV, Moliere and his father-in-law Michel Lambert, he depicted the Hours, the Years and the Centuries.
In the Ballet des Plaisirs (1655) Lully was in turn a satyr, an Egyptian, a drunkard and an old man. It was in this ballet that Lully penned an air that was to become one of the most famous dances of the French court. It went through several manifestations from the Air pour le vieillard et sa famille to a ‘burlesque’ rendition in Lully's 1663 ballet Les Noces de village entitled La Mariee. This air made its Stamp on history in 1700, when Raoul Anger Feuillet published the first systematic dance notation: Choreographie, ou l’art d’ecrire la danse.
In his early works, Lully exploited comedic elements. Central to the production of the ballet de cour was the Commedia dell’arte tradition (mime with masks, of Italian origin), and in particular the figure of Scaramouche. In turn, Aradia has made this the central theme of this recording. The juxtaposition of Commedia dell’arte with airs in the French style obviously suited the young Italian, newly located in France. As luck would have it, at the time of the Ballet de l’Amour Malade (1657), the real Scaramouche, Tiberio Fiorilli, was in Paris with his troupe of actors. Fiorilli had developed all enigmatic character, Scaramouche, whose many guises and disguises combined buffoonery and pathos, not unlike the nineteenth-century Pagliacci. Lully was obviously drawn by the figure, for he himself played the role of Scaramouche in the Ballet de l’Amour Malade and in the Ballet interludes to Xerxes (1660).
The famous Italian composer, Frallcesco Cavalli (1602-1676) was commissioned to write an opera, Erole amante to celebrate the marriage of Louis XIV to Marie- Therese. In the event, Cavalli arrived in Paris with the work unfinished, and so at the last minute, a simplified version of his opera Xerxes was substituted. Lully was asked to supply ballet interludes, and because of the short notice, he used material from previous productions with no collection to Xerxes. Compared to the under-rehearsed opera, the six intermedes had a light comedic mood. There are Basques and Spanish peasants (in honour of Marie Therese), Clowns, Scaramouche, and a ship-owner with with his slaves, who carry monkeys dressed as clowns accompanied by sailors playing on trompettes marines.
Lully, however, obviously had to struggle with a synthesis of Italian and French style. The air Que les jaloux sont importuns may be the first authentic air written by Lully in French (The string parts, however, are the work of the author of these notes). This piece illustrates how well the young Florentine had already mastered the air de cour style and in a small way, how his dramatic experiences could be amplified into full-scale operatic proportions. Lully remained unconvinced by the French language as a medium for serious dramatic productions, and even some forty years after Lully's death, Sebastien de Brossard stated, Lully affirmed many times that the French language was not proper for large scale works (Catalogue des livres de musique theorique et pratique, 1724). It is well for us and for the history of French music that Lully did reconcile his difficulties, for he went on to satisfy the public with what they really wanted: continuous music with dramatic words sung only in French, the thirteen Tragedies Lyriques.
The Ballet d'Alcidiane et Polexandre (1658) is a substantial work, the airs and dances competing for attention with the spoken text. The instrumental music is superb, Lully having great command of the five-part texture as used in the French orchestra, The closing Chaconne des Maures has the same grandness of structure as the chaconnes of the Tragedies Lyriques.
Les Petits Violons and Aradia
At the time of Lully's arrival at court, the King's orchestra was the famous 24 Violons du Roi (also known as La Grande Bande). It seems, however, that the young Florentine was not impressed. The direct result of his dissatisfaction was that Lully was given his own orchestra les Petits Violons du Roi (also known as la Petite Bande or les Violons du Cabinet). This was the group used to perform the type of ballets heard on the present recording.
We do not know the exact size of les Petits Violons during Lully's lifetime. However, we do know the size of les 24 Violons du Roi and the principles behind their performance. In 1636, les 24 Violons consisted of six violins (or soprano line, Dessus), three distinct viola lines called the Haute-contre, Tailles and Quinte (each part had four players), and six bowed bass instruments (basse de violon, viola da gamba and/or violone).
Added to this, and perhaps the most important feature of the colour of French orchestral music, were oboes, recorders and transverse flutes doubling the dessus, and bassoons doubling the bass. In addition, as usual, a harpsichord plays throughout.
Les Petits Violons operated in the same way, with proportionally fewer string players than les 24 Violons du Roi. This is the model adopted by Aradia in the present recording.
In the spirit of the Scaramouches, Clowns and Harlequins, Aradia has attempted to recreate the sound of the Trompette marine or so-called mock trumpet. In track 16, you will heard a rendition of the music with trumpet, timpani and orchestra, followed by a reprise where we have added a number of buzzing instruments, because the Trompette marine was a string instrument whose bridge was not secure, but was allowed to vibrate freely, giving the overall effect of a buzzing sound like a caricature trumpet. We have obviously adopted a tongue-in-cheek approach, using the modern day counterpart: the kazoo.
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LULLY: Ballet Music for the Sun King