The Royal Court was not enough for Jean-Baptiste Lully

The fleur-de-lis – the heraldic sign of France’s kings. © Charles Thibo

Many years ago, I visited the Château de Versailles, home to the French King Louis XIV (1638-1715). The past splendor of this impressive castle was and still is visible in the many golden ornaments, the vast park, the magnificent chandeliers and the huge paintings on the walls. I was disappointed nevertheless. It seemed to me a dead place. A house without a soul. So while  I wandered through the many rooms, I tried to imagine what life in this castle had been like, but somehow my fantasy could not be stimulated. The place remained dead.

Music for the Roi-Soleil

Today when I think of Versailles, I mostly think about the music that was composed and performed for Louis XIV. The Baroque composer Jean Baptiste Lully, of Italian descent, came to Paris as a young boy as an aide to a French noble family. He learned to play the violin and the harpsichord and studied composition. Gradually he climbed the social ladder, and by 1653, at the age of 23, the Royal family gave him the responsibility to compose ballet music for Louis XIV’s court.

Lully not only was a gifted musician, he also was talented as a comedian and a dancer. Together with the French writer Molière, he set up numerous comedy-ballets and short operas for entertainment. Within two decades he became the dominant figure in Paris as far as stage music was concerned, thanks to royal patents that the French king had granted him. Louis XIV also permitted the composer to write pieces for public performances and to charge the audience for its attendance.

Motets for a Parisian convent

Wealth thus followed fame, much to the anger of his competitors. Versailles was rife with smear campaigns and intrigues, but Lully was insatiable. He also set his sights on church music. A little known but beautiful work is “Les Petits Motets”, a set of eleven motets, i. e. compositions for voice and instrumental accompaniment. In Lully’s case the pieces are composed for three voices and basso continuo*. The Latin texts are inspired by Psalms or Christian prayers. Lully wrote the pieces for the Parisian convent of the Assumption in the Rue Saint-Honoré.

The recording by the French ensemble Les Arts Florissants has been highly praised by the magazine “Gramophone”: “The singers of Les Arts Florissants, especially the sopranos, are accomplished stylists, nurtured as they are by one whose mastery is consummate; their diction and command of the rhetoric are a joy.” So true. My personal favourites are “Laudate pueri”, “Exaudi Deus” and “Ave Coeli”. And even though this miniatures had a religious purpose in the 17th and 18th century, you can enjoy them today as simply heartening music, music that will make you feel good. Please enjoy!

 © Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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