Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Gnarly Demise of a Nasty Man

On November 28, 1632 – 284 years ago today – Giovanni Battista Lulli was born to a working class family in a working class neighborhood in Florence. As “Jean-Baptiste Lully”, his rags-to-riches life would see him climb to the very pinnacle Euro-music, becoming the first important composer of French-language opera, the all-powerful director of the Paris Opera, and confident to King Louis XIV of France, the great “Sun King” himself. Yet for all his fame and power, Lully would be almost entirely unknown today except for the way he died.

Here’s what happened.

Giovanni Battista was a very talented kid: early on he learned to play the guitar, the violin, to compose and to dance; he was said to excel at pretty much everything.

At the age of fourteen he caught the first of his lucky breaks. It was Mardi Gras in Florence; he was dressed as Harlequin and was clowning around with his violin on the street, amusing bystanders and picking up a few coins. He was noticed by a Frenchman named Roger de Lorraine, Chevalier de Guise who, as you might expect from all his names, was a very important person. The Chevalier de Guise was on his way back to France and had been looking for someone who could speak Italian to his niece, Anne Marie Louise d’Orleans, Duchess of Montpensier, someone else with a lot of names that just happened to be the cousin of the King of France.

The Chevalier took Giovanni Battista Lulli to Paris, where he became Jean-Baptiste Lully. He did indeed find employ as the Duchess’ “chamber boy” and he continued to hone his musical skills working with the Duchess’ household musicians.

Lully’s biggest break came in February 1653 when, at the age of twenty, he danced in a court ballet with the 14 year-old King Louis XIV. They became buds. Within a few months Lully’s rise to fame and fortune began when he was appointed Royal Composer of Instrumental Music and Director of Louis’ personal orchestra, a band called “The Little Violins.”

Lully was clever enough to make himself indispensible to his king, composing Court Ballets in which the King performed during the day and squiring the King around Paris at night on epic drinking and sexual binges that were legendary for their debauchery. (I do wish I could be more specific here, because we read that Lully had tastes that ran to genuine kink, but the literature never gets specific about those tastes beyond referring to the “bi-sexual demimonde” Lully habituated. We’re just going to have to use our imaginations.)

Lully was a murderously ambitious man and rumor had it that he would “eliminate” his competition by any means necessary. In 1661 – at the age of 29 – he was appointed Music Master of the Royal Family. In 1672, the 39 year-old Lully achieved his greatest coup: through a combination of bullying, threats, bribes, and astute politicking, he was granted a royal monopoly for the composition and performance of opera in France, a monopoly he used to crush what was left of his competition.

Jean-Baptiste Lully was a control freak, and the Royal Monopoly gave him complete control of every aspect of French opera. At the Paris Opera, he “taught” the singers how to perform their roles “gesture by gesture”; he showed the dancers what he wanted by demonstrating their dance steps himself; he even decreed whom his singers were allowed to sleep with. He insisted on military precision from his orchestras and was – by every account – a truly rotten person to work for.

And then, at the height of his fame and power and notoriety, everything came crashing down. Or should we more correctly say, Lully’s baton came crashing down.

It was January 8, 1687. Lully was conducting a Te Deum: a song of praise in honor of the King’s recent recovery from a serious illness. In those days, French opera “conductors” (if we can call them such) did not lead by silently wielding batons as conductors do today. No: they literally “beat time” by pounding a long wooden staff on the floor (the continuous, metronomic “clack!” of staff-against-floor was a ubiquitous element of early French opera). So back to Lully’s Te Deum: typical of the time, Lully led the performance by rhythmically banging a heavy, five foot-long (some sources say six foot-long) staff on the floor. In a moment of poor aim (or divine intervention), Lully smote one of his toes with the staff. We don’t whether he gamely continued or if he started hootin’ and hollerin’ in pain while jumping up and down on one foot.

What we do know is that the injured toe developed an abscess, after which gangrene set in. Inexplicably, Lully refused to let his doctors amputate the toe, and so the gangrene spread. He died on March 22, 1687, forever to be known as the man who did not so much put his foot IN it as to have put IT in his foot.

That Lully injured himself conducting a work in honor of the King’s recovery from an anal fistula adds a layer of irony to our story that we will not presently explore.

Knowing what we do of Lully’s personality, it is tempting to ascribe his gnarly demise to the cumulative power of group thought over many decades, as his singers, instrumentalists, dancers and colleagues must have repeated, mantra like, over-and-over again under their breaths, “I wish he’d smash his foot and die…”