Music Essays – Lully – The Musician

With all his vices this crafty person, this arch-knave, this miser, this glutton, this rake, this cur—whatever name his companions were pleased to call him-with all his vices he was a great artist and- a master of music in France.

The “King’s Music,” of which the superintendent had the management, was divided into three departments: the Chambre, the Chapelle, and the Grande Ecurie. The Grande Ecurie was composed of nothing but instrumentalists and formed the company of musicians for hunting and processions and fetes in the open air. The Chambre comprised divers virtuosos, a band of twenty-four violins (or Grand Band) which played at the king’s dinners, concerts, and court balls; also “The Little Violins,” which accompanied the king on his journeys and voyages. The Chapelle was, at the beginning of the reign, almost exclusively concerned with vocal music.

These were the musical means that Lully had at his disposal. He doubled their power by combining what had been kept separate until then; the Chapelle and the Chambre thenceforth aided one another by introducing the instrumental and vocal methods of the theater into the religious music at Versailles, and even by giving a stately and triumphal character to the amusements of the Chambre, all of which accorded well with the king’s taste. Besides this, Lully enlarged his own musical domain enormously by annexing a new musical province which was to become at once very important—the province of opera. And of that province he constituted himself a sort of hereditary fief by securing the exclusive right to enjoy it during his life; and after him it was “to pass to any of his children who should be appointed and recognized to the reversion of the office.” He fortified his powers by Draconian interdictions and safe-guarded himself against all rival endeavors by the recognized right of being able to establish schools of music in Paris wherever he judged necessary for the advantage of the Academy, and even by the right of having his music and his poems printed according to his liking. Thus he arrogated to himself a monopoly of music. No one could stand up against him. He crushed all possible rivals and by every available means established unity of government and unity of style in French musical art, which had been so brilliant but so anarchical before his coming. He was the Lebrun of music, but more absolute than he, for Lully’s domination lived on after his death.

What efforts of will must this little Florentine peasant have exercised to arrive at such a position, for his debut in art had been a very humble one.

He had known merely how to sing and play the guitar when he arrived in France at the age of twelve or thirteen with the Chevalier de Guise. A Franciscan friar had been his only master. Later on when he had become famous, he still played the guitar:

“If he saw one, he would amuse himself with it and strum it to death, and he got more music out of it than others could. He composed a hundred minuets and a hundred courantes for it but did not collect them.”

At Paris, while in service, he discovered a new talent and amused himself by scraping a violin. The Comte de Nogent heard him and gave him lessons. He rapidly became one of the finest violinists of his time.

“He played divinely. Since the time of Orpheus, Amphion, and those other gentlemen, no one had drawn such sound from a violin as Lully. . . . But he had already put away his violin for several years before he became lord of the Opéra. From the day that the king made him superintendent, he ignored the violin so completely that there was not one in his house. It seemed as if he wished to free himself from the subjection of the instrument and as if he would rather discard it altogether than play a little air; but he refused great lords and the companions of his debauches alike, neither from shyness nor politeness but because he would not be known as anything but a great master. The Marechal de Grammont was the only person who found a means of making him play. He had a footman called Lalande, who later became one of the best violinists in Europe. At the end of a meal the Marechal begged Lully to hear the man and to give him a little advice. Lalande came and played, and doubtless did his best. Lully, however, could not help hearing that he had played some of the notes wrong. He took the violin from the servant’s hand and, having once begun, went on for three hours; he warmed to the music and left off again with reluctance. . . .” (Lecerf de la Viéville )

His talents as a violinist were so universally recognized that his playing in time became a byword. When Mme. de Sévigne wished to praise a virtuoso extravagantly, she said, “He plays the violin better than Baptiste.” It was through the violin that Lully’s good fortune began. He was admitted first of all into the king’s Grand Band; then was commissioned in 1652 to make a general inspection of the king’s violinists and was given the direction of a new band formed by himself, that of the Petits violons.

But his ambitions went higher still. “Having recognized,” says an account of 1695, “that the violin was beneath his genius, he gave it up and devoted himself to the harpsichord and the study of musical composition under the teaching of Metru, Roberday, and Gigault, the organist of Saint-Nicolasdes-Champs.”

It may seem surprising that the creator of French opera should have three organists for his masters. But, as Pirro says, the school of organ in France was then a school of musical eloquence—”the language of the organ was like an oration.” It was in this school that Lully learned the elements of the rhetoric of which he became a master. Moreover, these organists wrote for all kinds of instruments, and they were learned in symphonic music. Gigault and Roberday had broad tastes and inquiring minds. Roberday loved things Italian, was an enthusiast for Frescobaldi and acquainted with Cambert, with Bertalli ( the music master of the emperor), and with Cavalli,, an organist like himself. He must have known something of the first experiments in Italian opera in France. Gigault, whose eclecticism favored Titelouze, the old organist of Rouen, quite as much as Frescobaldi, took his model from singing. It was the time when Nivers was urging organists “to study methods of singing”; for, he said, the organ ought to imitate the voice.

Both Gigault and Roberday had a certain “boldness in using dissonances”; and Pirro reminds us that one of the traits most admired in Lully by Frenchmen of his time was his skill in employing “false harmonies.”

There was no doubt that Lully profited by the example of his illustrious predecessors at court, the composers of the royal ballets, masters who for the past twenty years had sought to make a musical poem of the Air de cour, giving it an expressive character as his father-in-law Lambert had done, and making it a finished model of fine French song. In examining a book of Lambert’s airs one is struck by the similarity between his style and Lully’s.

Boësset was one of the greatest of Lully’s French precursors and offered him admirable precedents of dignified pathos and noble melancholy in music. Certain of his fine airs with their broad style of declamation are early models of the great lyrical monologues in Amadis and Armide and are the foundation of the Louis XIV style in music.

Besides these French masters, Lully was in communication with some of his most celebrated compatriots, especially with the Venetian, Cavalli. Cavalli’s musical genius was much greater than Lully’s, and it dominated the whole of Italian opera writers in the seventeenth century (not excepting Monteverdi himself). Cavalli came to Paris and produced Ercole in 1662, when he was in his full glory. Lully was only making his debut as a musical composer; two years previously he had arranged the production of Cavalli’s Serse for the French stage and had written some ballet music for it. How could he es-cape the influence of such a powerful collaborator, even temporarily? It is true he could never have attained Cavalli’s richness in music, nor the vigor of his feeling and strange power, which foreshadowed the advent of Handel and Gluck. But Cavalli’s gift of picturesque vision and intensity of feeling must have struck Lully as much as the freshness of his pastoral visions.

He may have been also acquainted with some of the compositions of the Florentine, Cesti, choirmaster to the emperor. There had been at the beginning of Louis XIV’s reign constant emulation between the courts of Paris and Vienna, each seeking to surpass the other in magnificence and in the excellence of their artists. Cesti was certainly well acquainted with French taste. He was idle and gifted, a much more refined musician than Lully, a poet of elegiac emotions, and also one of the creators of comedy in music; yet he wrote certain kinds of overtures, symphonies, instrumental sonatinas, and prologues to opera which are quite in Lully’s style. And the same with Cesti’s airs; for though they are generally of a different style, one may find among them recitative melodies, the form of which is repeated and recurs with identical words in the course of the same scene, after the manner of Lully.

Lastly, Lully could scarcely ignore Luigi Rossi, who, twenty-five years before, had brought Italian opera to Paris and had himself produced one of the best examples of it.

But whatever he may have borrowed from Italian masters, Lully’s borrowings always seem to be not those of an Italian seeking to Italianize the country of his adoption but those of a Frenchman taking from the art of other countries only what will accord with the spirit of his nation and exactly serve his genius. Lully’s thought and style are thoroughly French. So much was he French and so conservative in spirit that while the Italians were propagating opera throughout Europe, Lully was its declared enemy until he was forty years of age. No one could have disparaged the early efforts of Perrin and Cambert¬ more pertinaciously than he. Until 1672, the year he produced his first opera, he maintained ( according to Guichard and Sablières) that opera was impossible in the French language. All his ambition was centered on the ballet-comedy in the old French style; it was only by slow degrees, when en-lightened by Perrin’s success as well as Molière’s opinions, that he set about founding a lyric theater in France. This he decided to do unaided and keep the glory of it for himself.

But from the day of his decision no one could have entered into the spirit of the new art with keener intelligence or de-voted more energy and perseverance to it. From 1672, the date of the inauguration of his operatic theater, to 1687, the date of his death, he wrote and produced a new opera every year.

Lecerf de la Viéville tells us:

“He produced one opera a year, and he took three months to write it. He applied the whole of his energies to it and worked with extreme assiduity. The rest of the year he did little to it, except for an occasional hour or so at nights when he could not sleep and on mornings which he could not spend in pleasure. He kept his mind always fixed, however, on the opera that he was evolving or had just evolved, and if anyone happened to learn what he was singing at any time, it always proved to be an extract from the opera on hand.”

We need not be astonished at his spending only three months of the twelve on composition; that was but part of his work, for he had not only the production but its interpreters to think of.

The first business was to secure a poet, for in those days musicians did not aspire to be their own poets. Lully was as capable of writing his own poem as any other, for he was a man of humor and imagination:

“He had a lively wit and original ideas; he could tell a story perfectly though with an exuberance that was more Italian than French. . . . He is known to have written some charming verse, both in French and Italian. All the Italian words in Pourceaugnac were of his own composition.”

There is no doubt he retouched some of the passages in the poems of his operas. But he had not much faith in his own facility as a poet and was too lazy to burden himself with heavy tasks. So he sought and found an author—Quinault.

We will not say that it was a happy choice. But it was not a haphazard choice, for Lully exercised his intelligence in it and picked out from among greater poets one whose art was best suited to Lully’s own music; and he gave him his exclusive favor in spite of the remonstrances of nearly all the clever men of his time. In reality; he fashioned his poet and made him, so far as future generations were concerned, the poet of the impressive and impassioned Armide.

It is not my intention to study Quinault and his work here. He was, as Perrault says, one of those happy geniuses who succeed in all they undertake:

“He was tall and well made, with languishing, prominent blue eyes, fair eyebrows, a large smooth forehead, a long face, a good nose, and an agreeable mouth; he had a great deal of character and a manly air, fascinating manners and a gentle and enthusiastic spirit. In writing and speech he was very apposite; and few people could equal the charm of his intimate conversation.”

He was a clever lawyer, a distinguished orator, an auditor in the Chamber of Accounts, a prolific author (being capable of writing as many as three comedies and two tragedies in a year), and a perfect man of the world.

“He was agreeable without insincerity, seeing good in all things, speaking ill of no one, especially of the absent, and yet never palliating their faults. All of which brought him a great many friends and no enemies. He had the secret of making himself universally loved.”

The sweetness of his character may be judged from the fact that in spite of Boileau’s bitterness toward him, Quinault him-self never held a grudge; more than that, he sought him out

and became his friend. Boileau himself admits the perfect sincerity and exceeding modesty of the man who was for so long his victim.

All these traits of character—his astonishing facility and adaptability in work which allowed him to have several things in business and art on hand at once; his sweetness and agreeableness, which would make him the docile instrument of a strong will all these qualities destined him to be Lully’s choice; for Lully was in search of a mechanic and not a partner for his work.

One may well call it work, for it was no light matter to serve Lully. He secured Quinault as his poet, says Lecerf, and guaranteed him four thousand francs for each opera, provided he served as Lully’s employee.

“Quinault used to seek out and arrange several subjects for opera. Then he took them to the king, who chose one. After ‘this he wrote out a plan of the design and progress of the piece and gave a copy of this plan to Lully, who added, ac-cording to his fancy, diversions, dances, and little songs by shepherds, mariners, and such. Quinault then fashioned the scenes and showed them to the French Academy.” (Lecerf de la Viéville)

He showed them, in particular, to his friend Perrault. People thought to be well informed said that he also took counsel with Mlle. Serment, a young girl whom he loved and who had a good deal of intelligence.

“When Quinault returned, Lully put no confidence in either the French Academy or Mlle. Serment. He examined the poem word by word though it had already been reread and corrected. He added more corrections or cut the poem down if he thought it necessary, and there was no gainsaying his criticism! In Phaeton he made Quinault change whole scenes twenty times over although they had been approved by the Academy. Quinault made Phaëton extremely hardhearted, and some of his speeches to Theone were quite insulting. That made all the more for Lully to scratch out. Lully wished Quinault to make Phaëton ambitious but not brutal… . When De Lisle (Thomas Corneille) wrote the words of Bellerophon, he was driven to despair by Lully. For the five or six hundred verses contained in that piece, De Lisle was obliged to write more than two thousand.”

So you see the kind of supremacy the musician held over the poet. And it was not only words or situations that had to be altered, but sometimes even the characters themselves. In fact, the obedient poet was not unlike an assistant of the great painters of that time, who did not paint the whole of their pictures but allowed some of the work to be done by others under their direction.

If Lully inflicted much hardship on the poet, at least he recognized the worth of such a collaborator and remained obstinately faithful to him in spite of the efforts made to break his allegiance.

“A certain number of people, both clever and distinguished, not being able to endure the success of Quinault’s poems, began to pretend they were bad and tried to make other people believe the same. One day when these people were supping together, they came to Lully at the end of the meal, each bearing a glass; then putting the glasses to his throat, they shouted, `Give up Quinault, or you are a dead man!’ This jest caused much laughter, and when it had subsided, the company began to speak seriously on the subject, saying all they could to give Lully a-distaste for Quinault’s poetry. But they did not succeed.

If Lully preferred this collaboration even to that of Racine, it was not because Racine was unwilling to give his aid; it was rather because Quinault was more likely to translate Lully’s musical ideas into verse. Lully was so sure of his collaborator’s aptitude in understanding him and of his docility in following him that in certain cases he wrote his music before he had seen the poem.

“In the matter of diversions in the piece, he composed the airs first of all. Afterward he made a rough sketch of verses for them and indicated what he wanted for airs with movement. He would then send the papers to Quinault, who wrote verses to fit his purpose.” (Lecerf de la Viéville )

Let us see Lully at work after he had approved a scene:

“He read it through until he knew it by heart. Then he sat down at his harpsichord, with his snuff-box beside him, and sang the words over and over again, banging the keys, which were covered with snuff and very dirty, for he was an untidy man. When he had finished singing, the music was’ so fixed in his head that he could not forget a note of it. A secretary, Lalouette or Colasse, was then called, and Lully would dictate to him. The next day he would have dismissed it from his mind. He went through the same performance with the symphonies with words, and on days when Quinault brought him nothing, he worked at airs for the violin. If he sat down to work when he did not feel in the humor for it, he often left it. He would get up at night and go to the harpsichord; whatever house he was in, he would leave it directly if an inspiration seized him, for he never lost a favorable moment.”

Another anecdote shows us the true musician, one who knew how to find inspiration from the noises about him and heard melodies in Nature’s own rhythms—the foundation of all music.

“One day he went riding; and the trotting of his horse gave him the idea of an air for the violin.”

Lully was always watchful of Nature:

“When he wished to write a thing naturally, he always went to Nature; he made Nature even the foundation of his symphonies and was glad to adapt her to his music.”

In making allusion to a celebrated scene in Isis, Lecerf tells us that on a winter’s day in the country he himself was struck by the realism of Lully’s musical descriptions.

“When the wind howled and blew through the doors of a great house, it made a noise like the symphony of Pan’s lamentation.”

The imitation of declaimed speech, the imitation of the rhythms of the voice and of things, the imitation of Nature—all these were Lully’s realistic sources of inspiration and the instruments with which he worked. We shall presently see the use he made of them.

If Quinault could not write a poem without getting every-one’s opinion about it, the same was not true of Lully; for he neither consulted the Academy nor his mistress:

“He went to no one for help or counsel in his search for in-formation. He was even possessed by a dangerous impatience, which would not allow him to listen to other people’s arguments. He vowed that if anyone told him his music was worth-less, he would kill the maker of such a remark. Such a failing might lead one to suspect him of vainglory and presumption if one did not know from other evidence that he had neither. He must have gone astray, nevertheless, in many places in his work.”

But he never admitted that he had been advised; he only al-lowed he had been assisted. As an artist he was idle and vain, despising hard work; and he often got assistance in the matter of filling in his harmonies:

“He himself wrote all the parts of the principal choruses, duets, trios, and quartets. But outside this important work he put in only the treble and bass of his score, leaving the counter-tenor, the tenor, and the fifth to be filled in by his secretaries, Lalouette and Colasse.” (Lecerf de la Viéville )

Whatever we may think of these methods today, they were in accordance with the spirit of the time; nor were the other arts any better, and Lully merely imitated the ways of the great painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who did not trouble to finish what they had sketched and established in their houses regular factories for pictures. Nevertheless, Lully looked upon himself as the sole author of his work, and woe betided anyone who had the presumption to pass himself off as a collaborator! He was like Michelangelo, who turned out the companions who had helped to cast the bronze statue of Julius because they boasted that the statue was by Michelangelo and themselves. Lully dismissed Lalouette because “he had been giving himself the airs of a master and boasted that he had composed some of the best pieces in Isis.”

When his opera was written, Lully went to sing and play it to the king. “The king wished to have a foretaste of his works,” but no one else was allowed to know anything about them before that.

A work was by no means finished when the writing was done. It had to be produced, and this was not the least fatiguing part of the business. Lully was not only a composer; he was also director of the Opéra, conductor of the orchestra, stage manager, and director of the schools of music whence the cast was recruited. He had everything to get together; orchestra, chorus, and singers; and he did it all himself.

In the matter of the orchestra he was helped by three good musicians: Lalouette, Colasse, and Marais, who conducted under his direction. He presided at the choosing of the executants, or rather he was sole judge.

“He would have only good instrumentalists. He tested them first by making them play “Les songes funestes” from Atys. He supervised all the rehearsals and had so nice an ear that from the far end of the theater he could detect a violinist who played a wrong note. He would run up to the man and say, `You did that. It is not in your part.’ The artists knew him and tried to do their work well. The instrumentalists particularly never dared to embellish their parts, for he would not allow anymore liberties from them than he would from the singers. He thought it far from proper that they should assume a greater knowledge than his own or add what notes they pleased to their tablature. If this happened, he got angry and would make lively corrections. More than once he broke a violin on the back of a man who was not playing to his taste. But when the rehearsal was at an end, Lully would send for the man, pay him three times the value of his instrument, and take him out to dine. Wine would calm his anger. If one man was made an example of, another might gain a few pistoles, a meal, and some useful information.” (Lecerf de la Viéville )

By this severe discipline Lully at length got together the best orchestra of his time in Europe. It is perhaps an exaggeration to say he was the first man to train an orchestra in France and that before him (according to Perrault) musicians did not know how to play from a score and had to learn their parts by heart. But he certainly did improve instrumental execution, especially in the violins; and he created traditions in the con-ducting of orchestras which rapidly became classic and were followed in France and even served as a model throughout Europe. Among the many foreigners who came to Paris to study under him was an Alsatian, Georg Muff at, who especially ad-mired the perfect discipline and strict time of Lully’s orchestra. He said that Lully’s method was characterized by trueness of tone, by smoothness and evenness of execution, by clean attack, and by the way the bows of the whole orchestra bit into the first chord, as well as by the irresistible “go,” the well-defined rhythm, and the agreeable combinations of vigor and flexibility, of grace and vivacity. But of these qualities the best was the rhythm.

Lully took even greater pains with the singers than he did with the orchestra. It was a matter of making both good musicians and good actors. Part of his cast came from Perrin and Cambert’s company, but the most famous of his artists, with the exception of the bass, Beaumavielle, were discovered and trained by Lully.

“From the moment that he had discovered singers he liked,” says Lecerf, “he interested himself in their training to an extraordinary extent.”

“He himself taught them how to enter and walk about the stage and how to be graceful in gesture and action. He began their education in a room; in this way he instructed Beaupui how to play the character of Proteus in Phaeton, showing him every gesture. To the rehearsals only necessary people were admitted—the actors, the poet, and the machinist. He assumed the right of rebuking and instructing the actors and actresses; he would stare at them with his hand above his eyes so as to aid his short sight and would not overlook anything that was badly done.” He took a great deal of trouble but did not always succeed.

He had to turn out La Forest, who had a splendid but rough bass voice. He undertook to train it after the manner of a bird-trainer with a bird. He let La Forest play the small part of Roland and wrote the part of Polyphemus for him. But after five or six years of labor, La Forest was still so stupid that Lully saw he was only wasting time on him, and he dismissed him. If Lully sometimes made these miscalculations, he had at least the joy of making some of the finest singers of the century. There was Duménil, a former scullion who became, as Pougin says, the Nourrit of the seventeenth century. Lully had to teach him everything; for many years he gave him patient instruction, making him at first sing small parts, and afterward more important ones, until he was at last a perfect interpreter of all his great tenor roles—Perseus, Phaëton, Amadis, Médor, and Reynold. Then there was the famous Marthe de Rochois, the glory of the seventeenth-century lyric stage—”the greatest artist,” says Titon du Tillet, “and the most perfect model for declamation that has ever been known on the stage.” Colasse discovered her in 1678, and Lully trained her. She was little, slight, very dark, and not at all nice-looking, though she had beautiful black eyes and an expressive face. Her voice was slightly hard, but she had great force of feeling, unerring judgment, quick intelligence, and in gesture and bearing a regal dignity. She made an incomparable Armida, and the memory of it lived all through the eighteenth century. Her mimic art was a model for the Comédie Française actors; people particularly admired “the way she interpreted what was called the ritornella, which is played while an actress enters and comes forward on the stage, where, as in a play without words, she must in silence let her feeling and passion show itself on her face or in her actions.”

All Lully’s great singers were also great actors. Beaumavielle was a powerful tragedian, Duménil a perfect actor, and Clédiere’s dramatic talents were scarcely less than his; while Saint-Christophle and Le Rochois seem to have equaled the most celebrated actresses of the Comédie Française in nobility and tragic passion. Lully’s opera was a school of declamation and dramatic action, and in that school he himself was master.

Is that all? Not yet.

“He took almost as great a share in the dance as in anything else. Part of the ballet, Les festes de l’amour et de Bacchus, was composed by him; and he played a part nearly as important as Beauchamp’s in the ballets of the operas that followed. He improved the entrances and imagined expressive steps to suit the subjects; when there was need of it, he would caper before his dancers, to make them better understand his ideas. He had, however, never learned to dance, and thus did so only by fits and starts. But his habit of watching others and his extraordinary genius for everything belonging to the stage caused him to dance, if not with great good breeding, at least with a very charming vivacity.” (Lecerf de la Viéville )

Such was the enormous burden which this little man heaped on his own shoulders. There was not a single department in the empire of opera which he did not direct and keep under his master eye. And in this world of the theater, so difficult to man-age that it annoyed every musician and director of the Opéra in the eighteenth century, not one of his pupils dared to flinch. Nor did anyone presume to rebel against this little Italian sprung from nobody knew where, this kitchen drudge who jabbered French.

“He had considerable authority over the whole musical re-public, first of all, through his talent, his offices, his riches, his favors, and his influence. He had two maxims which brought him the submission of this musical world (which is ordinarily to its leaders what the English and Poles are to their princes) : he paid splendidly, and he allowed no familiarity. He was probably liked by the actors, for he would sup with them and maintain terms of good friendship. But he would not have joked with the men, and he never had a mistress among the women of his theater.” (Lecerf de la Viéville )

This precaution was necessary for anyone who meant these ladies to be virtuous, or at least, as Lecerf says, to have the appearance of virtue:

“He was careful to preserve the good name of his house. The Opéra of that time was not hardhearted, but it was prudent and shrewd.”

A story (which has, however, been denied) says that Lully once kicked Le Rochois when she was about to become a mother, in order to teach her her folly. This brutality may be doubtful, but it was likely enough in Lully’s character; and other deeds attest his callousness- in any. matter that inconvenienced him, for he allowed no lapses in his service:

“I can assure you that under his reign the actresses could not have colds for six months in the year nor the actors be drunk four days in the week. They had to get used to something altogether different.”

Perhaps Lecerf is a little inclined to exaggerate his hero’s power, for the Opéra singers often caught cold even in Lully’s time. La Bruyère, in a piece called La Ville, tells us that Le Rochois had a cold and was not able to sing for a week. But such colds were perhaps less formidable enemies of art than they became later on, for the actors and their dodges had to contend with an actor greater and more cunning than the whole lot of them put together. We know what sort of anarchy reigned in the Opéra after Lully’s death, but as long as he lived all went well and without any talk.

One may imagine the force of will Lully exercised to maintain a firm control over this crowd of musicians when one thinks that a century later Gluck had great difficulty in establishing order in the mutinous Opéra set and in bending the capricious minds of the singers and the orchestra to his own strong will. And it is no small praise to Lully to say that Gluck in the greater part of his stage reforms—as well as in many of his artistic ideas—brought back opera, after a century of anarchy, to the point where Lully had left it.