Summary · Music at the Court of the Sun King · The search for a French cultural
identity
· Lully's career at court · The birth of Comédie ballet and Tragédie lyrique · Music during Louis XIV's day Articles
Music
History of music

Music at the Court of the Sun King

Dances and rituals in Versailles of Louis XIV

In 1643 King Louis XIII died and was succeeded by his son Louis XIV with a small problem: he was only 5 years old and so in his place ruled his mother Anne of Austria and Cardinal Julius Mazarin. Mazarin was an Italian who had served at the court of Antonio Barberini in Rome where he had seen Italian works such as stefano landi's Saint Alexis. When he arrived in France, he became cardinal and then prime minister and had various Italian operas performed at the court in Paris, which, although they had been Frenchised, were not very successful for mainly political reasons.
Here we come to the heart of the matter: France wanted to build a strong cultural identity that was not influenced by the style of Italian opera, even if, in the end, it did not succeed.

portrait of Luise XIV, The sun King

The search for a French cultural identity

The unacceptable characteristics of Italian opera for the French were: the incomprehensible text, the structure that did not respect Aristotelian canons, the lack of ballets and the consequent focus on melody rather than rhythm. What scandalised the French most was the presence of castrati who reigned in European theatres. For all these reasons, when in 1648 the first revolt broke out in which the parliamentarians rebelled against Mazarin's government that wanted to centralise all power over itself, many of those Italian artists were forced to flee or were imprisoned. However, some managed to stay: two years earlier, a young Florentine had arrived in France and had been employed at the court of the Grand Mademoiselle Anne Marie Louise, Duchess of Montpensier, to help her practise her Italian. This young man knew how to play the guitar, the violin and had received a fair amount of musical training, we are talking about Giovanni Battista Lulli, better known as Jean Baptiste Lully.

Lully's career at court

In 1652 the fringe ended and Lully was employed at the court of Louis XIV. By this time, however, he had distinguished himself more as a great dancer and violinist than as a composer. But actually, the year before he had done his first assignment as composer for a ballet written for the visit of Charles II of England to the grand mademoiselle, written to entertain the most important members of the rebellion against Louis XIV. However, the Sun King turned a blind eye to this.

So, because of his talents as a dancer and violinist, Lully was hired at court in 1652, the year in which the fringe finally ended. The following year, a magnificent event was organised in the King's court, which at that time was still at the royal palace in the heart of Paris: "Le Ballet royal de la nuit", a grand ballet consisting of no fewer than 45 entrères and with sets by Giacomo Torelli, another Italian at the King's court famous for his fabulous stage machinery.

On this occasion the King, dressed in his famous stage costume, danced as the sun, a symbol that became the emblem of his kingdom. Lully also took part in the performance as a dancer and actor.

Re Luigi XIV vestito a sole

In the following years other large ballets were organised at the court in which Lully participated not only as a dancer but also as a composer. The first ballet composed entirely by him was "L'amour malade" in 1657. However, four years later Cardinal Mazarin died and Louis XIV finally took power without having to appoint a prime minister, thus creating the longest absolute monarchy in history.

Lully's affair ended with the King's gradual disinterest in him, as he could no longer tolerate the homosexual relations of which the composer made no secret.
His death was very tragic: he was rehearsing his Te Deum when he hit his foot with an iron stick he used to conduct. His leg became gangrenous and this led to his death.

The birth of Comédie ballet and Tragédie lyrique

Louis XIV believed in the neo-Platonic ideal that saw music as a means of creating a national identity. Louis wanted to consider a French style that would glorify him and move away from the Italian opera that had now conquered Europe, but ironically his greatest ally in this was the Italian Lully. So the King introduced Lully to the comedian and writer Moliere and in 1663 the French genre par excellence was born: Comédie ballet. This is an acted comedy that also features music and dance. To tell the truth, Lully had already written a current for a play by Molier two years earlier, but the difference is that in comédie ballet the ballet is an integral part of the narrative. This encounter was particularly fortunate, so much so that the two Baptists staged no fewer than 14 comédie ballets.

But the real revolution came when the opera was opened to the public in Paris in 1671 with a performance of an opera by Robert Cabré, which was a huge success. Unfortunately for him, the other two partners ran off with the proceeds and he was unable to pay the orchestra. Lully had the intuition to settle the orchestra's debts in exchange for the concession of the theatre, which he obtained from the King. From this moment on, Lully would devote his life to melodrama and thanks to him the Tragédie lyrique or French version of opera was born. It was at this point that King Louis' wish to have an exquisitely French opera to oppose the Italian one was fully realised. The tragédie lyrique also had a very important political role: the King expected total control over it, so much so that the opera was performed at court before being presented to the public. In addition, the King granted his faithful composer a monopoly on opera: anyone wishing to produce or publish an opera had to buy a licence from Lully. Thus French opera became yet another publicity tool with which to sing the praises of the king and show off the magnificence of the kingdom.

Following this same idea, in 1682 the King moved his entire court from Paris to Versailles, in the famous palace. This was a way of concentrating all the attention on himself, so that all the nobles, living in this fantastic palace, revolved around him just as the planets revolve around the sun. At Versailles the "deification" of the King was finally accomplished.

Music was so important to the King that he personally selected the musicians in a three-part selection process. At the end of this process, the King received the candidate in the War Room and informed him personally that he had been admitted or, if he had not been admitted, he consoled him by telling him to continue practising.

Music during Louis XIV's day

The King was awakened at 8 o'clock and, after various rituals including dressing and the seggetta (the expulsion of bodily needs, attended by many nobles close to the sovereign, who felt honoured).
At 10 o'clock the Musique de la capelle sang the grand and petit motets: sacred compositions sung by the choir and accompanied by a large orchestra.

At 1 p.m. the King ate in his flat, always surrounded by many spectators, in fact no one sat at the table and no one ate. The meal followed a specific ritual in which the music was provided by a reduced formation of the musicians of the cambre (chamber), the entire staff of the cambre (chamber) consisted of the King's traditional twenty-four violins to which flute players, lute players and singers were added, and all played together for ballets and major events.
The superintendent of chamber music was Lully himself for many years.

In the afternoons, the King would go for a walk in the park or, very often, to his favourite pastime: hunting.

Obviously, there was also a formation dedicated to hunting music: this was called the écurie, or stable, consisting only of wind instruments: trumpets, horns, bassoons and oboes. But the écurie also played at large open-air receptions, parades and carousels. Throughout the winter, balls and games were organised in the evening in private flats where the musicians of the écurie played all evening, sometimes even staging acts from the most fashionable operas of the time.
On summer evenings, however, people enjoyed open-air parties and boat trips on the Grand Canal, with the écurie playing in the open air. At 10 o'clock there was a solemn ceremony: dinner. This time the king's favourite ladies were admitted to the table, but they did not eat. Here, the full line-up of musicians from the cambre played and the magnificence of this event can be seen in the symphonies for the king's dinner by Michel-Richard de Lalande.

Around midnight it was time for bed and here the King had the opportunity to listen to music privately. He usually played a trio, as evidenced by Lully's trio symphonies.

But when Louis XIV was ill, he would retire to his room early and ask the guitarist Robert de Visée to come and play for him. The King was particularly fond of the guitar, an instrument he had been taught since his youth by Francesco Corbetta.

Portrait of Robert de Visée playing an antique guitar

The non-ordinary
Beyond the everyday, however, there were the great ceremonies, after all, Versailles was designed from the outset as a huge amusement park to distract the nobles from the riots and avoid new fringes. Already in 1664, i.e. long before the court moved there, a great three-day festival called "Les Plaisirs de l'Ile Enchantée" (The Pleasures of the Enchanted Island) was held in the unfinished gardens of Versailles. The theme of the three days was magic and the main protagonist was music. The ballets were performed in magnificent sets, of which we have evidence in some prints. In particular, on the last day for the performance of the ballet in Alcina's palace, the great rotunda was turned into a lake with three islands where the musicians were.
Alcina appeared from behind a rock carried by a huge sea monster, accompanied by two water lilies on whales and approached the palace which opened showing four giants and four dwarfs. At the sixth entrer, Roger, helped by the sorceress Melissa as Atlas, destroyed the spell with her magic wand and the destruction of the palace was represented by magnificent fireworks.

rappresentation of fireworks at the Theatre of Louis XIV

But in 1674 there was also room for a performance of Lully's Alceste, a tragédie lyrique, which was an enormous success at court. Antonio Bagniera (known as Signor Antonio) sang in this opera. He was a singer who was particularly appreciated for his voice and, fearing to lose his favour at court, grew up and voluntarily and secretly had himself castrated.
When his condition became clear, the King dismissed him, not accepting such an abomination that was normal in Italian opera.
However, Signor Antonio later managed to get himself readmitted to the court, so he could do nothing else. He was a little man of one metre and thirty feet, particularly ugly, but appreciated for his magnificent voice.


Thanks to these great events, the Sun King's court was seen throughout Europe as an unrivalled model and everything French set the fashion. Here Louis XIV had managed to centralise not only political power but also cultural power, extending the boundaries beyond the nation he ruled. For this, as we have seen, music was fundamental.

Luis XIV died at the age of 77, outliving all his children and leaving the kingdom in the hands of his great-grandson. But his musical identity, embodied in the figure of Lully, continued to reign throughout the 18th century.

By Stefano Vivaldini
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