The Italian-born composer who became the Surintendant de la musique de la chamber du roi (the Superintendent of Music to the King of France), Jean Baptiste Lully had a humble beginning: He was born in Florence, Italy, the son of a working-class miller.
From Dishwasher to Guitarist
Lully was not well schooled; but with the help of a Franciscan friar, he learned basic techniques on the guitar. After the death of his mother when he was only 13, Lully was taken to live in France, where he worked as kitchen-boy and Italian-language teacher for a French princess, Mademoiselle de Montpensier. The princess indulged his talent for music, arranging for Lully to study music theory. He was dismissed, however, after he composed a “scurrilous song” (it’s said that he sang, in his irreverent ditty, about the “sigh” the princess produced while “at stool,” or on the toilet).
From Violinist to Ballet
In 1652, after his dismissal from the princess’s staff, Lully entered the service of King Louis XIV—first as a dancer, then as a composer for the Ballet. His talent so impressed King Louis that he was appointed to head the king’s private violin band, the Petits Violons. His musical interest eventually turned from ballet to opera, and he composed the music for the comedies of Molière, including Le Mariage forcé (1664), L’Amour médecin (1665) and Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1670). Eventually, his musical talent brought such success that by 1674, no opera could be performed anywhere in France without his permission.
Always fiery, Lully repeatedly found himself in trouble with King Louis XIV—often because of his love affairs with both men and women. His talent always won him a reprieve, however, as the King considered him both the best composer and the best friend he had.
From Ballet to Opera and Sacred Music
In addition to the graceful ballets and raucous operas, Lully’s works include many sacred compositions including the Miserere.
The Ill-Fated Te Deum
On January 8, 1687, Lully was conducting a Te Deum in honor of the king’s recent recovery from illness. It was customary at the time to keep time by banging the floor with a large staff; and in an unfortunate move, Lully struck his own toe—causing an injury which became infected. First, the toe swelled from abscess; then, gangrene set in. Lully refused to permit doctors to amputate his toe; and so the gangrene spread throughout his body, causing his death on March 22, 1687.
Here, for your listening pleasure, is the first part of that Te Deum.