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By the end of the seventeenth century, the music of France had become known throughout the civilized world. One of the aspects of the French people is their ability to borrow artistic ideas from other nations, add them to their own, yet create works that maintain their uniquely French characteristics.

King Louis XIII

When an Italian composer named Cavalli (who had been a pupil of Monteverdi’s) came to Paris in 1656, he performed a few operas of his own composition. The French were pleased, but thought their own composers could do better. Some of them quickly set about to do just that.

Plays with music were no new thing to the French. As we saw in Lesson 1, songs, dances, and acting had been part of French music since the days of Adam de la Hale.

At the court of Louis XIII, masquerades in which actors danced and sang were so fashionable that members of the court, and even the king himself, took part in them. But the idea of an entire play set to music, in which all the words were sung instead of spoken, was new to the French. When they heard Cavalli’s operas, they were not sure they were an improvement on their own simpler songs and dances.

Lully & French Opera

Jean-Baptiste Lully

The movement in favour of regular opera, however, was too strong to be resisted. Even before Cavalli’s appearance in Paris, the Abbé Perrin—who had heard some of the works of the early Florentines—wrote a pastoral play which Robert Cambert set entirely to music. This was therefore the first French opera.

What the Parisians seemed to dislike about the Italian opera was the recitative. With its lack of definite rhythm, it seemed to them like a sort of church plainchant.

Giovanni Battista Lulli (born about 1633) was, as his name shows, an Italian by birth; but he became a Frenchman in the course of his remarkable career.

Not only did he spend all his working life at the French court, but he wrote work after work for the French stage completely in the French style.

It is not surprising, therefore, that his name is better known in its French form as Jean-Baptiste Lully. To him belongs the credit of firmly establishing the kind of work which Cambert had begun, but unfortunately at the same time he must bear the discredit of having treated Cambert and other French artists extremely badly.

Perhaps the fact that he was treated rather badly in early life may be some excuse. He was brought to the household of a great lady, Madame de Montpensier, on account of his musical talents. Once there, his music was forgotten, and he was put to wash plates as a scullery boy.

He was turned out of the house because he had the impudence to make up sarcastic verses about his mistress. It is therefore not surprising that when he was about fifteen years old and secured a place in the king’s band, he determined to work his own way up and often used unscrupulous means of doing so.

The figure on the left holding the violin is generally identified as Lully

Lully had no practice in fair and honorable dealing. He was conscious of his lack of musical education, and did everything in his power to improve himself by taking harpsichord lessons, and composing songs, dances, violin solos, and church music.

However, he never felt his lack of moral training. Instead, he went on acting terribly towards other people whenever he could gain an advantage. He is one of the few men in music history who wrote good music but was himself despicable.

The first event of artistic importance in Lully’s life was his acquaintance with the great dramatist, Moliere. Lully provided incidental music to several of Moliere’s most brilliant comedies, and thereby demonstrated his skill as a composer of stage music. 

A costume from one of Lully’s opera-ballets

He also wrote a number of ballets—that is, sets of dances for performance in the theatre. He gradually increased his popularity with the king and court, and eventually “persuaded” the king to transfer the patent in opera from Cambert to himself.

From 1672 to 1687 (the year he died), he composed opera after opera. These were admired partly for their genuine merits, and partly because, by getting the right of producing operas entirely into his own hands, he ousted all rivals. 

His wealth and his fame led him to destroy the careers of his competitors while pursuing an increasingly immoral lifestyle. He was detested by churchmen, musicians, and composers across France.

Although God’s millstones grind slowly, they grind finely. Over time, the king learned of Lully’s intrigues and immoral choices, and distanced himself from him.

Lully himself was conducting a performance of his Te Deum (Latin for ‘To God’) written for the king. One of Lully’s habits was to hold a large staff and beat time with it on the ground. During the performance, he accidentally slammed his conducting staff onto his foot. It was horribly damaged and quickly became infected. The doctors declared it must be amputated.

Lully was horrified: he loved to dance, and couldn’t imagine life without it. As a result, he refused to have his foot amputated. It soon turned to gangrene and eventually spread up his leg to his brain, causing him a painful death. Few French composers shed tears for him.

Nevertheless, Lully was a gifted composer who wrote beautiful music. Listen to an excerpt from his opera Cadmus and Hermione.

Listen to an aria from Lully’s opera ‘Cadmus and Herminone’ (1 min):

Listen to the first minute of this aria. She sings in French: “This beautiful day is so pleasant and somber; it offers silence and shade to whomever wants to avoid the noise, and the great day.”

Couperin: French Master of the Harpsichord

François Couperin (born 1668) was a member of a family of French musicians, many of whom held good positions as organists (though they did not, like Lully, fight for high places). A few years after Lully’s death, Francois obtained the appointment of organist in the private chapel of the famous palace at Versailles.

Couperin’s harpsichord music

Like all other Parisians, he was thoroughly acquainted with Lully’s music. In fact, he arranged a number of Lully’s ballet dances for his favorite instrument: the harpsichord. He devoted himself to it as faithfully as Domenico Scarlatti.

Couperin’s most valuable work was the composition of sets of dances called ‘ordres‘ (French for ‘orders’). In these pieces, tunes in various styles are placed together so as to make effective contrasts.

Though these dances were founded on the style of Lully, they are much more delicate and beautiful than his. This is natural: Lully’s were written to be danced to, while Couperin’s were written to be listened to.

Moreover, instead of being written for an orchestra, they were written for one instrument, one which he loved and had studied closely. 

Couperin knew every little turn of phrase and rhythmic figure would be heard when played on his harpsichord. Lully, however, knew that only the general effect of his tune would be noticed when people in glittering dresses were dancing to it on the stage.

Couperin was an imaginative man who was not content to make graceful tunes or even satisfied to make his music for the harpsichord perfect in design. He liked to connect his pieces with ideas that could describe their character, as a great many modern composers do at the present day. 

Besides calling them by the name of the dance to which they belonged—such as courante, sarabande, gavotte, minuet, or gigue—he often invented special descriptive titles. In his first Ordre, the sarabande is called ‘La Majestueuse’ (French for ‘Majesty’); it uses large and dignified chords and some very bold discords.

Listen to ‘La Majestuese’ by Couperin on the harpsichord (2:30):

At other times, Couperin ignored the recognized dance rhythms and write pieces with all sorts of fancy titles. Some seem rather appropriate, such as the ‘Cuckoo’, whose double note can always be heard running through the pieces called by its name. Or ‘Les petits moulins a vent’ (the little windmills), whose perpetual movement is figured in flowing semiquavers. 

There is a remarkable set of little pieces called ‘Les Folies françoises, ou les Dominos’ (‘The French Follies, or the Dominos’, humorous titles) each of which represents some side of human nature, such as modesty, ardour, hopefulness, fidelity, perseverance, langour. While some seem to have little connexion with their subject, others like ‘La Coquetterie’ are full of delightful humour and insight.

The idea underlying ‘Les Folies’ is like that of 19th-century Romantic composer Robert Schumann’s ‘Carnival’: each piece pictures a particular character in a whimsical way. They are full of many different emotions

Listen to ‘Les Folies françoises ou les Dominos’ by Couperin (9 min)

The announcer provides the titles in French throughout the recording. You can follow along with the timecodes, too.

1. La Virginité / Virginity (0:11)
2. La Pudeur / Modesty (0:58)
3. L’Ardeur / Love (1:41)
4. L’Esperance / Hope (2:10)
5. La Fidélité / Faithfulness (2:47)
6. La Persévérance / Perseverance (3:36)
7. La Langueur / Langour (4:16)
8. La Coquéterie / The Coquette (5:17)
9. Les Vieux Galans Et Les Trésorieres Suranées / Old Galants and Treasureres (5:53)
10. Les Coucous Bénévoles / Voluntary Cuckoos (6:48)
11. La Jalousie Taciturne / The Taciturn Jealousy (7:15)
12. La Frénésie Ou Le Désespoir / Frenzy or Despair (8:13)

Couperin wrote other works for ensemble and voice which are characteristic of the early French baroque. The following examples come from a French music school in Paris and are performed by students. These specific movements can be heard in the piece above:

Listen to Couperin’s ‘Jubilemus, exultemus’ (2:30)

Latin:English:
Jubilemus, exultemus
Resonet coelum plausibus
Jubilemus et cantemus
Let us shout, let us exult
Let the heavens resound with applause
Let us shout and let us sing