Timeline 023: The Arrival Of Opera In France And Jean Baptiste Lully

Sep 28, 2015

Though born the son of a humble miller in Florence, Italy, Jean Baptiste Lully was destined to become the “Father of French Opera.” His work and influence took this Italian art form and imbued it with French opulence and pageantry.

The spectacle and splendor of opera began in the aristocratic halls of Italy and spread to the blossoming opera houses of Venice. Opera became a commercial enterprise, with each opera house seeking ways to cut costs while bringing in more patrons. However this frugal approach to opera did not transfer to France.  King Louis XIV was called the French “Sun King” due to the sheer opulence of his court and his lavish patronage of the arts. Under his rule, France not only became the major political power in Europe but also a cultural center of the late 17th century. It was King Louis who gave the young dancer/composer Jean Baptiste Lully the royal privilege to compose opera in France.

Though Lully was born in Italy, he seemed made to create French dramatic music. He championed clear enunciation of the French language and a style of song that did away with the long dry verse of Italian opera for a more melodic form of singing. Lully was also responsible for marrying the French love of dance and ballet to this new form of opera. However his greatest contribution is perhaps the development of the French Overture. Up to this point, operas began with the chorus detailing the action for the audience. Lully standardized an instrumental opening marked with two distinct sections, the first usually slow with dotted rhythms and the second featuring more lively fugue-like material. This form and structure became very influential. You can hear it in the music of Bach and Handel as well as in the operatic overtures of Mozart.

At the age of 55, Lully was leading a rehearsal of a work honoring the king. He was pounding a cane on the ground in order to keep time for the 150 performers he was conducting. In the heat of the moment Lully accidentally struck his toe sending the sharp edge of his cane straight through. This wound developed an infection that threatened his life. Lully refused to let the physicians amputate and he died in 1687, leaving behind a legacy of tragedy in music.