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Learn About the Italian Baroque Composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully

Jean-Baptiste: Overview

  • Born: 1632 - Florence, Italy
  • Died: 1687 - Paris, France 
  • Historical Period: The Baroque era
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboards, songs, ballet, opera, choral, play  

Jean-Baptiste Lully, composer

JeanBaptiste Lully: The Legend Who Personified Music in France

Jean-Baptiste Lully's contribution to French music can be compared with the long reign of Louis XIV – an epitome of centralized power and absolutism. Born to a miller in Florence, Italy on the 28th of November 1632, his influence over the country’s musical landscape was short, albeit phenomenal. In his prime, his dominance as a manager and opera composer was unopposed, as were his achievements as the architect of all-sung French opera. He duly cemented his legacy as the very embodiment of the musical revolution in France.

Early Life

He was taken to Paris at the age of 12 by the Chevalier de Guise, after the death of his mother. He started serving there as an “Italian Conversationist” and “Garçon de Chamber” at the house of Mlle. Mlle de Montpensier. He also started receiving his musical training there and learning to dance as well as play violin and guitar. He received keyboard lessons under Roberday and Gigault and became the protégé of eminent singer and air de cour composer, Michel Lambert. He later went on to marry the daughter of his patron.


Jean started performing successfully as a music conductor, dancer, and violinist. He went on to create his own orchestra composed of stringed instruments which gained plaudits throughout Europe for its exceptional precision and quality of performance.    

However, apart form a small portion of sacred music, Lully’s work was made for the realm of theater. He had crafted music for more than 40 ballets and other entertainment factions in the theater. He collaborated with the famous dramatist Molière, composing the incidental music for Molière's comedy “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.” The music is still utilized to this date and offers brilliant complementation of the drama.    

His main achievement was the creation of 14 operas, dated between 1673 to 1687. He made excellent use of some French librettos, mainly provided by Philippi Quinault, ranging from heroic and pastoral to classical. Lully’s operas were mainly influenced by Italian counterparts of a slightly earlier period. The fact that he himself was part of some famous Italian operas which were performed between 1640 and 1660 also helped his cause. He essentially modeled his creations with the following intricate features of the Italian operas – an expressive and flexible, equipped with contrasting and recitative musical styles in the arias. His recitatives, in spite of being in French were distinctive, yet had their own way of expressiveness and were also highly notable for their proper declamation of words.       

Jean was extra careful while converting words through his music. He had gained the best insight by listening to top-drawn actors at “Comédie Française” and reproduced such inflections in his music. If closely analyzed, his arias are simple, structured, and quite short but are decorated by the performers with graceful ornamentations. The art of ornamentation played a huge part in the development of the singers in the 17th century. So, it was naturally expected of them to grace their solo arias in a delicate and skillful manner.      

In the early 1660s, his reputation was further lustered when he successfully revitalized the King’s violin band as a new archetype of orchestral standard. He became more and more favored in the French Court, earning the plaudits of King Louis XIV. In 1661, he was appointed as the superintendent at the royal musical establishment, cementing his legacy as the composer of both the sacred and the secular. He was crowned “Master of Music” of the Royal family in the following year. This prestigious appointment was accompanied with a high salary, further boosting his wealth. He became more and more ambitious, often leaving no stones unturned when it came down to fulfilling his own interests. He ruthlessly created his own monopoly over the French opera scene, virtually eliminating all rivals in the process.

His Best Works

Achille et Polyxène

This tragédie lyrique contains five acts and a prologue adapted from Virgil's Aeneid, and accompanied by Jean Galbert de Campistron’s French libretto. The first act was crafted by the composer himself while his pupil Pascal Collasse finished up the remaining acts and the prologue.


This piece is a combination of a libretto by Philippe Quinault and music by Lully. The story was influenced by “Orlando Furioso.” Ariosto’s epic poem.


Another masterpiece born from the 5th collaboration of Lully and Quinault, this opera is based on “Metamorphoses” by Ovid. This was the composer's first published score as per the records. 


Amadis was premiered at the “Théâtre du Palais-Royal” by the Paris Opera between the 15th and 18th of January 1864. It is based on the adaptation of “Amadis de Gaula” by Nicolas Herberay des Essarts.

Acis et Galatée

Unlike most of his works that were designated as “tragédies en musique,” the composer termed this as “pastorale-héroïque.” The opera had only 3 acts instead of the usual 5, had a basic pastoral theme and was based on “Metamorphoses” by Ovid. Also, Lully collaborated with Jean Galbert de Campistron for the French libretto.

Rich Traditions

Several aspects of Lully’s opera originated from French traditions. He definitely made ballet a favorite mode of entertainment in France. The “chorus” also gained importance under Lully, and in many of his scenes he has treated it in “rondo” fashion. The chorus was mainly utilized as a refrain, serving to unify the opera. 

He also developed an “orchestra of strings” to accompany the ballets and choral passages in his operas, supplementing them with percussion and brass instruments when required. However, sometimes his orchestras also offered solo performances through separate instrumental pieces. Several long scenes were dedicated to dancing and other forms of stage spectacles, elevating the level of the orchestra itself.    

He received special applaud in the March edition of “Mercure de France” in 1687. He was also quoted to have learned everything about music by the tender age of 17, further adding to his allure as a teen prodigy back in the days.

Jean-Baptiste Lully had managed to conjure a similar level of enemies along with admirers. He finally passed away on March 22, 1687 in Paris, under bizarre circumstances. He had accidentally struck his toe with a cane while directing a performance of “Te Deum”. He subsequently contracted gangrene after refusing to accept any sort of treatment and died two months later.   

Similar to the title of his spectacle “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” he offered the essence of a social climber. He claimed his father was a "Florentine gentleman,” when in reality he was a miller. In reality, he cannot be acclaimed as the creator of French Opera. However, he is duly acknowledged as the first composer who proved that French opera can be considered as a viable art form. His operas gained immense popularity and continued to be performed even posthumously. At present, they are almost never offered in their true form due to their length, but they do prove that Lully was indeed a master of the operatic, and at his prime, a composer of rare ingenuity.


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