He had a clever but vulgar face and heavy eyebrows. “His eyes were dark and red-rimmed and so small it was difficult to see them, while they, apparently, had difficulty in seeing,” though they sparkled with a malicious humor. His nose was fleshy, with spreading nostrils; his cheeks heavy and lined, and puckered with wry folds. He had thick lips, and when he was not jesting, his mouth wore an obstinate and disdainful expression. His chin was full and cleft, and his neck was thick.
Pierre Mignard and Edelinck try to ennoble him in their portraits, to make him thinner and give him more character. Edelinck makes his appearance like that of some great nocturnal bird of prey. Of all those who painted him, the sincerest seems to have been Coysevox, who was not troubled about making a show portrait but simply depicted him as he was in ordinary life, with his neck and chest uncovered, slovenly in appearance and sullen in expression.
Lecerf de la Viéville was ‘careful to correct the flattery of his official portraits:
“He was both fatter and smaller than the prints would lead us to believe though in other ways they are like enough; that is to say, he was not good-looking and had nothing noble about him, but his expression was whimsical and lively. He was also dark, with little eyes, a big nose, a large mouth, and a sight so short that he could scarcely see when a woman was beautiful.”
Lully’s morals we know, sadly enough. We know that with all his talent he reached his exceptional position only by sordid intrigue and a mixture of buffoonery and flattery which, quite as much as his music, gained him the protection of the king. We know by what tricks-shall we say by what perfidy?he supplanted Perrin and Cambert, the founders of French opera, and how he betrayed Moliere, whose friend and companion he was. It was well for him that Moliere died suddenly, for Lully would never have come out victor in the fight in which he so rashly engaged. Later on he was happily not called upon to meet such fierce adversaries; but he committed the fault of treating unkindly even those whom he thought inoffensive, and they rendered his hurts with interest. I am thinking at present of Guichard and La Fontaine, whose biting satires must have put him in the pillory. Guichard was a competitor whom Lully tried to destroy by accusing him of attempted poisoning. Guichard, however, did not take the trouble to prove his innocence but published some terrible pamphlets about Lully instead. La Fontaine, whom Lully had tricked by asking him for a poem for an opera and then refusing it, avenged himself by putting Lully’s portrait into a wicked little masterpiece called Le Florentin:
“The Florentine Shows at length What he is made of.
He reminds me of a wolf that has been made a pet; For a wolf keeps his own nature, As a sheep keeps his….”
I do not know if Lully was the wolf, but the sheep was certainly not La Fontaine, and it would be folly to believe all the spiteful things dictated by his wounded vanity. La Fontaine was an homme de lettres, and capable of much when his self-respect as an author was at stake. He admitted this himself in his Epitre a Madame de Thianges. More than that, he offered
Lully the poem of Daphne’ to set to music and was willing not only to retract his taunts but to sing Lully’s praises as well. With Lecerf de la Vieville it is another matter:
“Lully had a good heart but was more like a Lombard than a Florentine. He was neither deceitful nor spiteful; his manners were agreeable and friendly; he was without arrogance and would meet the least of musicians on terms of equality though he was of blunter speech and less gracious in manner than is usual with a man who has lived a long time at court.”
It is possible that when Lecerf knew Lully he showed him-self more of a good fellow, for he was then a successful man and no longer had any need to trick people. People of his kind, provided they do well, bear a grudge against no one. A man who had risen from lowly birth and who had so many insults to wipe out before he made his fortune was proof against all humiliation. He had something else to do but think of his enemies; he had himself to think of.
Lully was extremely ambitious. It was not enough to be absolute master of the whole world of music; he must get himself ennobled and be made secretary to the king. This was not accomplished without difficulty, and the story of his efforts is well worth reading in La Viéville’s account, for there we have a good picture of his impudent tenacity. To Louvois, who waxed indignant at such pretensions in one who, he said, had no recommendations and had done no service except that of having caused a laugh, Lully replied:
“‘You would do as much for yourself if you could!’ The re-tort was a cool one; and there was no one in the kingdom but the Maréchal de la Feuillade and Lully who would have dared to reply to Louvois in that way.”
However, Lully had the last word, and was made secretary to the king.
“The day of his reception he offered the old courtiers and important people of the court a dish of his own makingan opera. There were twenty-five or thirty people present that day who were entitled to the best places. The chancellor and his staff were there in a body, two or three rows of serious-looking men in black cloaks and beaver hats, in the first rows of the gallery, listening to the minuets and gavottes of their brother musician with an admirable air of gravity.”
The saucy ambition of this great plebeian artist was accompanied by justifiable pride, and Lully felt himself to be the equal of the noblest. And his demand for the rights of genius was a foreshadowing of Gluck, whom Lully resembled in many ways.
Like Gluck, Lully understood the all-powerfulness of money in modern society, and used his business head as the means of acquiring a large fortune. His posts of superintendent of chamber music and music master to the royal family are estimated to have brought him thirty thousand francs. His marriage in 1662 to the daughter of the celebrated Lambert, music master of the court, brought him a dowry of twenty thousand francs. Besides this he had the receipts from the opera and exceptional honorariums from the king. He conceived the idea of investing the greater part of his money in projects to make a new suburb on the Butte des Moulins. He did not consult a business man in the matter but did all his own work, and, as Edmond Radet has shown, worked out calculations, negotiated purchases of land, superintended building operations, and settled terms with the workmen. He never let any one do things for him. In 1684 he was the proprietor of six buildings which he had built and from which he enjoyed the rent of apartments and shops. He had a country house with a garden at Puteaux and a second one at Sevres. And finally he set about purchasing a lordly estate, the county of Grignon, for which he bid sixty thousand pounds above the first President. That gave offense; and a letter of the time laments that such things should be possible:
“We have come to a pretty pass when a mountebank has the temerity to purchase such estates! The riches of men of his kind are greater than those of the highest ministers of other European princes.”
At his death he left fifty-eight sacks of louis d’or and Spanish doubloons as well as silver plate, precious stones, diamonds, real and personal property, charges, pensions, etc.; in all worth about 800,000 francs and equal to about half a million dollars today.
His fortune and his titles did not turn his head at all. There was no risk of that. It was not in him to play the bourgeois gentilhomme or to display his vanity for the benefit of noble lords. He amassed wealth for himself, not for others. That was what was least easily forgiven him.
“He was a mean person. The courtiers called him `le ladre’ (the scurvy fellow), not because he did not invite them often enough to his table but because he fed them without profusion. He used to say that he did not wish to be like those people who made a marriage feast every time they entertained a noble lord who would scoff at them directly their backs were turned. There was good humor in his meanness.”
At heart he was not miserly. He knew how to spend with advantage, especially when paying respect to the court. He spent better still when he wished to give himself any pleasure. He led a merry life. Lecerf says that “he inclined to wine and the table like a rather dissolute Frenchman, but he inclined to avarice like an Italian.” His debauchery in company with the Chevalier de Lorraine was known to all; this open profligacy, in which even some of his admirers find the explanation if not the excuse for a certain carelessness in his work, contributed perhaps to his premature death.
All these things did not prevent him from being a family man at times. He divided his life into two parts, but up to the end he knew how to-remain on good terms with his wife. He had a great regard for her and for his father-in-law, Lambert, to whom he gave the use of a suite of rooms in his house in the Rue Sainte-Anne and whom he helped to get a country house at Puteaux. He had so much confidence in his wife’s wisdom that he gave his money into her care, and in his will it was to her, not to his sons or followers, that he left absolute control and management of his workthe Opéra.
This clever man found means, when dying, of making a discreet end. As you know, toward the end of 1686, Lully was conducting a Te Deum in the Church of Les Feuillants in the Rue Saint-Honoré, on the occasion of the king’s convalescence, when he struck himself violently on the foot with the stick he used for beating time. A small abscess formed on the little toe, and for want of proper attention the wound became gangrenous and so caused his death on March 22, 1687, at fifty-four years of age. As long as there was a hope of recovery, he kept his malicious spirit, as may be seen in anecdotes about him of a more or less authentic nature. One of these represents him as trying to cheat heaven itself. His confessor, says the story, would consent to give him absolution only on condition that he throw into the fire all that he had written of his new opera, Achille et Polyxène. Lully submitted to this verdict in a Christian spirit and gave the score to the confessor, who forth-with burned the diabolical manuscript. Lully seemed to be better. One of the princes who came to see him then learned of this action:
” `What! Baptiste!’ he exclaimed. `You have thrown your opera into the fire? Good Lord! Were you fool enough to believe the idle talk of that Jansenist, and go burn your fine music?’
” `Gently, sir, gently,’ whispered Lully. `I knew what I was about I had another copy.’ Shortly after this he had a re-lapse.
“This time the thought of his inevitable end gave him a noble remorse and made him say and do the finest possible things, for the Italians are masters in the niceties of penitence, as in other matters. Lully had transports of contrition fitting to his country. He donned sackcloth and ashes and made honorable reparation.:..”
His pompous epitaph in the church of Saints-Peres reads:
“God, who had given him a greater gift of music than any other man of his century, gave him also, in return for the inimitable chants he composed in His praise, a truly Christian patience, in the sharp pain of the illness of which he died… after having received the sacraments with resignation and edifying piety.”