The Reading Room

The Politics of Music under Louis XIV

Louis XIV of France was a renowned patron of the arts. He provided extravagant royal funds for theater, architecture, dance, and music. Artists who won his favor lived very well. Those without royal connections, though, found it hard to get anywhere. Legal barriers often stood in their way.
Jean-Baptiste Lully, the most famous French composer of the late seventeenth century, knew how to gain and take advantage of the king’s good will. For years, he held a royal monopoly on the production of operas. His music is still admired today, but we have to wonder what promising composers’ work we don’t have because of the kingdom’s restrictive policies.
Born Giovanni Battista Lulli, Lully was an Italian immigrant who made the French king’s acquaintance through the royal ballet. He became a French citizen and changed his name to the French form. Donald Jay Grout, in A Short HIstory of Opera, writes that “a combination of musical talent, ruthlessness, commercial shrewdness, and obsequious manners assured him a brilliant career under the patronage of Louis XIV.” In 1662 he became the music master for the royal family.
Louis set up “academies” — guilds, in effect — that established acceptable artistic styles and controlled who could practice the arts. In 1669, Pierre Perrin obtained a twelve-year privilege to create and direct the Academie de l’Opéra, enabling the first French-language operas. Later, Perrin fell on hard times and landed in a debtors’ prison. Lully abruptly reversed his previous disdain for French-language opera and got the directorship of the organization, now the Académie Royale de Musique, in 1672. He was granted a monopoly on opera productions in France. Works by others were performed, but only when he didn’t consider them a threat to his status.
Operas of the seventeenth century were grand spectacles that paid little attention to plot and characterization. Their target audience was the king. Each of Lully’s operas began with a prologue glorifying Louis. As long as they pleased the king, they were guaranteed success.
Before gaining authority over the Académie, Lully collaborated with Molière on several plays, providing incidental music for them. The best-remembered of these plays is Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which portrays a merchant aspiring to noble rank. We might see a bit of Lully’s character reflected in the protagonist.
Lully had a reputation as a ruthless music director. He was said to have assaulted performers when they played badly and even to have broken their instruments.
The manner death might be considered appropriate to his character. In January 1687, he was conducting a piece he wrote celebrating the king’s recovery from an illness. His custom was to conduct the musicians with a heavy staff, letting them hear the beat as well as seeing it. He struck his foot with the staff, and it got infected. He declined treatment and died in March.
While other composers, such as Handel and C.P.E. Bach, benefited greatly from royal favor, Lully was unique among major composers in basing his entire career on his ties to a powerful ruler. Exceptionally creative musicians have rarely been comfortable with lifelong ties to one patron. In some instances, such as Shostakovich and Stalin, such a relationship was perilous.
Admirers of early Baroque music hold Lully in high regard. He established a French style of opera independent of its Italian predecessors. Ballet formed an important part of it, a tradition that French operas maintained through the nineteenth century. At the same time, his power prevented any  other contemporary French composers from achieving fame. Until Rameau became well known in the 1720s, no other French Baroque composers gained a reputation among the masters, while numerous important composers arose in Italy and Germany.