Music Essays – The Grandeur And Popularity Of Lully’s Art

There were many different elements in Lully’s opera: ballet-comedy, court airs, popular airs, recitative-drama, pantomimes, dances, and symphonies—a mixture of the old and the new. One would say his work was heterogeneous if one thought only of the elements that composed it and not of the mind that controlled it all. But by the astonishing coherence of Lully’s mind he made a kind of block of his materials, a strong erection where every sort of substance seemed embedded in mortar and an integral part of his singular edifice. It is the edifice as a whole which must be admired. If Lully has greatness and merits a high place among the masters of art, it is not because he was a poet-musician but rather a musician-architect. His operas are well and solidly constructed though they have not that, organic harmony which characterizes Wagner’s dramas and the operas of our own time, all of which are more or less directly evolved from the symphony and make us feel, from beginning to end, that the themes grow and ramify like a tree and its branches. Instead of a living unity in Lully we have a dead unity—a unity born of reason, of a fine and well-balanced sense of proportion, a Roman construction. Think of the shape-less constructions of Cavalli and Cesti and the whole of Venetian opera—collections of airs piled up anyhow, where each act is like a drawer into which as many objects as possible have been crammed, one on the top of another! We therefore understand Saint-Evremond—who was not otherwise an indulgent critic—when he says: “I shall not do Baptiste the dishonor of comparing his operas with Venetian operas.” There may be more musical genius in one of Cavalli’s beautiful airs than in the whole of Lully’s work, but we must remember that Cavalli’s genius squandered itself. Lully had the fine quality of our classic century: he knew how to dispose his talents, and he had a sense of order and composition.

Lully’s works seem like buildings with clear and dignified lines. They have a majestic peristyle and a great portico of strong, lifeless-looking columns in the shape of a heavy overture and an allegorical prologue around which the orchestra, the voices, and the dances group themselves. Now and then an overture may give access to the peristyle within the temple itself. In the inner part of the opera a clever balance is held between the different dramatic elements—between the “spectacle” on the one hand ( and by that I mean the ballet, the concert airs, and the interludes) and the drama on the other. As Lully became more master of his work, he tried not only to harmonize its different elements but to unite them and establish a certain relationship between them. For example, in the fourth act of Roland he gets dramatic feeling out of a pastoral interlude. The scene is a village wedding, with hautboys, choruses, shepherds and shepherdesses, concerted duets, and rustic dances; and quite naturally, the shepherds talk among themselves in Roland’s presence and tell the story of Angelica, who has just gone off with Médor. The contrast between the quiet songs and Roland’s fury has great dramatic effect, and it has often been used since. More than that, Lully cleverly tried to introduce progressive musical and dramatic effects in his opera. Possibly he remembered a criticism of Atys which complained that the first act was “too beautiful”; for toward the end of his career he wrote Armide, “a supremely beautiful piece of work,” says La Viéville, “with a beauty that increases in every act.” “It is Lully’s Rodogune. . . I do not know how the human mind could imagine anything finer than the fifth act.”

Generally speaking, Lully endeavored to bring his operas to as decisive and solemn a conclusion as possible, in choruses, dances, and apotheosis. He was not afraid on occasions to finish up with a dramatic solo (like that in the fifth act of Armide, or the fourth act of Roland) when the character of the situation was strong enough to carry it off.

All his work is eminently theatrical though it may not always be good drama. Lully had an instinct for dramatic effect in the theater; and we have remarked that the chief beauty of his symphonies, and even of his overtures, lies, as Du Bos and Marpurg say, in the use he makes of them. When taken out of their places they lose a great deal of their meaning. I think also that their beauty was due in an extraordinary degree to the implicit obedience on the part of the performers to the commands of their conductor. The music is written with so keen an eye to particular effects that there is a likelihood of its losing its force under the direction of anyone but the composer. What Gluck said about his own music may be applied to Lully’s art:

“The presence of the composer is, so to speak, as necessary to his work as the sun is necessary to the works of nature; he is its soul and life, and without him all is confusion and chaos.”

It is also nearly certain that the feeling for this art has been lost to a great extent. It was lost soon after Lully’s death al-though his operas continued to be played for nearly another century. The most understanding of the critics agreed that people did not know how to perform his music when he was not there. The Abbé du Bos writes:

“Those who saw Lully’s operas performed during his lifetime say that there was in them an expressiveness which is no longer found today. We recognize Lully’s songs quite well, but the spirit that used to animate them has gone. The recitatives seem soulless, and the ballet airs leave us almost unmoved. The performance of his operas takes longer now than when he directed them himself although they should take a shorter time because many of the violin airs are no longer repeated as they used to be. The actors no longer pay attention to Lully’s rhythm but take liberties with it either through incapacity or presumption.”

Rousseau confirms this opinion and in his Lettre sur la musique française says: “Lully’s recitative was rendered by actors in the seventeenth century quite differently from what it is now. It was then livelier and less spun out; it was less sung and more declaimed.” Like Du Bos, he also notes that the operas in his time took much longer to perform, “according to the unanimous opinion of all those who had seen them in the old days; and whenever they are reproduced now, it is necessary to make considerable cuts.”

It must not be forgotten that musical execution became heavier in style between the time of Lully’s death and Gluck’s appearance; this perverted the character of Lully’s music and was also one of the causes—and not the least—of Rameau’s comparative failure.

What form, then, did the true interpretation of Lully’s work take? We know from Lecerf de la Vieville that Lully taught his singers a lively but not extravagant manner of singing recitative so that it was something like natural speech. Also Muffat tells us that Lully’s orchestra played in strict time, with rigorous accuracy, with perfect balance, and with great delicacy; and that the dances were so lively that they were spoken of as “buffoonery.” Strict time, accuracy, liveliness, delicacy—such were the characteristics noted by connoisseurs in the operatic work of the orchestra and artists at the end of the seventeenth century.

And this is how Rousseau, in the second part of his Nouvelle Heloise, speaks of the performance of these same operas. The singing he calls noisy and discordant bellowing; the orchestra, an endless clatter, an eternal and wearisome purring, without melody or rhythm, and shamefully out of tune; and the dances are described as solemn and interminable. Thus we have want of rhythm, want of life, and want of delicacy—all of which is the exact opposite of what Lully realized.

I can only come to the conclusion, therefore, that when people judge Lully today they commit the grave error of judging him according to the false traditions of the eighteenth century, which had gone altogether in the wrong direction; and in this way he has been made responsible for the heaviness and coarseness of interpretations formed—or deformed—by his successors.

In spite of this misinterpretation (or, who knows? because of it, for glory often rests on a misunderstanding), Lully’s fame was great. It spread over all countries and, what was almost unique in the history of French music, it reached all classes of society.

Foreign musicians came to put themselves under Lully’s tuition. “His operas,” says La Viéville, “attracted Italian admirers, who came to live in Paris. Teobaldo di Gatti, who played a five-string bass violin, was one of them; he composed an opera called Scilla that was esteemed for its fine symphonies.” Jean-Sigismond Cousser, who was the friend and counsellor of Reinhard Keiser, the talented creator of German opera at Hamburg, spent six years in Paris at Lully’s school, and when he returned to Germany, he carried the Lully traditions with him and introduced them into the conducting of orchestras and musical composition. Georg Muffat also stayed six years in Paris; this excellent master was so strongly impressed by Lully that his compatriots reproached him for it. Johann Fischer was a copyist of music in Lully’s service. I do not know if the solemn and stirring Erlebach knew Lully personally, as is generally supposed; but in any case he had an intimate knowledge of his style and used to write overtures “after the French manner.” Either has endeavored to show Lully’s influence on Handel, and even on Bach. As for Keiser, there is no doubt that Lully was one of his models. In England, the Stuarts did all they could to acclimatize French opera. Charles II vainly tried to bring Lully to London, and sent Pelham Humfrey and one or two other talented English musicians of the seventeenth century to Paris to improve themselves under his direction. It is true that Humfrey died too young to develop his gifts to the full; but he was one of the masters of Purcell, who thus indirectly benefited from Lully’s teaching. In Holland, Christian Huygens’ correspondence shows the attraction of Lully’s opera; and it has already been mentioned that when the Prince of Orange wanted a march for his troops he applied to Lully.

“Both Holland and England,” says La Viéville, “were full of French singers.”

In France Lully’s influence on composers was not limited to the theater but was exercised on every kind of music. D’Anglebert’s Book of the Harpsichord, published in 1689, contains transcriptions of Lully’s operas; and the triumph of the opera no doubt led composers of harpsichord music to try their hand at the description of character. The style of organ music under-went similar changes.

Besides musicians, amateurs and people at court also felt the spell of Lully’s charm. In looking through Mme. de Sévigné’s letters, one is surprised not only at the admiration which this enthusiastic Marquise lavishes on Lully but—what is more astonishing—at the quotations she gives from passages in his operas. One feels that she had a well-stored memory. She was not a musican, however, and represented only the average dilettante; if phrases of Lully’s operas were always running in her head, it meant that the people about her were always singing them.

And indeed Arnauld, horrified by ‘Quinault’s wanton verses, writes: “The worst is that the poison of these lascivious songs is not confined to the place where they are sung; it is spread abroad through the whole of France, for numbers of people labor to learn these songs by heart and take pleasure in singing them wherever they may be.”

I shall not speak of Saint-Evremond’s well-known comedy, Les Operas, which gives us Mlle. Crisotine, a young girl who has gone mad through reading operas, and Tirsolet, a young man from Lyons,, who has also gone mad through too much opera. “I returned to Paris,” says Guillaut, “about four months after the first performance at the Opéra. The women and young people already knew the music by heart, and there is hardly a household whose members cannot sing whole scenes. Nothing is talked of but Cadmus, Alceste, Thesée, or Atys. They are always asking for Roi de Scyros, of which I am very tired; there is also a Lycas peu discret, which annoys me very much; while Atys est trop heureux and Les bienheureux Phrygiens drives me to despair.”

It is true Saint-Evremond’s comedy followed Lully’s first operas, during the first phase of people’s infatuation for them. But the infatuation continued:

“The Frenchman restrains his nature for that alone, and only for opera finds a lasting passion,” wrote La Fontaine to De Niert, about 1677.

But the world continued to sing Lully’s airs :

“And whoever does not sing, or rather roar out Some kind of recitative, is not in the fashion.”

In 1688 La Bruyère, when drawing the portrait of a man of fashion, said: “Who knows how to sing a whole dialogue from the opera, and all Roland’s passion, in a boudoir as he does?”

There is doubtless nothing surprising in the fact that people of fashion were infatuated by Lully, but it is surprising that the general public and the common people found even greater de-light in the music than the aristocrats. La Viéville notes the transports of the opera public for Lully’s work and is astonished at the correctness of their taste. “The people must have infallible instinct,” he remarks, “when they admire what is really fine in Lully.” Further he says:

“Several times in Paris when the duet from the fourth act of Persée was being sung, I have seen the audience so attentive that they remained motionless for a quarter of an hour with their eyes fixed on Phineas and Merope; and then when the duet was over, they would testify by an inclination of the head how much pleasure it had given them.”

The charm of the opera extended far beyond the opera house. Lully’s airs were sung in the humblest houses and in the very kitchens where he himself had worked. La Viéville says that the air, “Amour, que veux-tu de moi?” from Amadis was sung by every cook in France.

“His songs were so natural and of such insinuating charm,” writes Titon du Tillet, “that if anybody had a love of music and a good ear, he could remember them quite easily at the fourth or fifth hearing; so that both persons of distinction and ordinary people sang the greater part of his operatic airs. It is said that Lully was delighted to hear his songs sung on the Pont-Neuf and at street corners, with other words than those in the opera. And as he was of an odd turn of mind, he would some-times have his coach stopped and call the singer and violinist to him, in order to give them the exact time of the air they were playing.”

His airs were sung in the streets and played upon instruments, and even his overtures were sung to words adapted to them. Others of his airs became popular songs, some of them being already of that nature; and thus, as his music came partly from the people, so it returned to them.

Generally speaking, it may be said that Lully’s music came from many sources; it was the reunion of different streams flowing from very different regions and so found itself at home with all classes. The great variety of these sources is one more similarity between Lully’s art and Gluck’s. But the tributary streams of Gluck’s music flowed from different countries, from Germany, Italy, France, and even England; and, thanks to this cosmopolitan formation, Gluck was really a European musician. The constituent elements of Lully’s music are almost entirely French, and French in every kind of way, being composed of vaudevilles, court airs, ballet-comedies, tragic declamation, and such. The only Italian part about him was his character. I do not think we have had many other musicians who were more French, and he is the only musician in France who preserved his popularity throughout an entire century. For he reigned in opera after death as he had done during life; and as he kept Charpentier back during his lifetime, so he was a stumbling block to Rameau after his death; and he continued to make himself felt in Gluck’s time and after it. His vogue belonged to old France and the esthetics of old France; and his reign was that of the French tragedy from which opera sprang, and which, in the eighteenth century, opera fashioned to its own likeness. One understands the reaction against that art in the name of a freer French art, which had existed before that time, and which might otherwise have blossomed forth.

But it must not be said, as people are inclined to say today, that the faults in Lully’s art are the faults of a foreigner and an Italian, and that they hindered the development of French music. They are French faults. There is not one France but two or three, which are engaged in a perpetual conflict. Lully belongs to the France which, through her great classic masters, produced the dignified and thoughtful art that is known to the whole world—an art that has been evolved at the expense of the exuberant, unruly, and rather slovenly art of the age that preceded it. To condemn Lully’s opera as not French would be to run the risk of condemning Racine’s tragedy as well; for Lully’s opera is the reflection of that tragedy and, like it, is the free and popular expression of the French mind. It is to the glory of France that his multiple soul did not limit itself to one ideal only; for the important thing is not that this ideal should be ours but that it should be great.

I have tried to show that Lully’s work in art was, like classic tragedy and the noble garden of Versailles, a monument of that vigorous age which was the summer of our race.