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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 7119

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


In France, as in Italy, the regular musical drama was preceded by mysteries, masks, and religious plays, which introduced short musical parts, as also action, mechanical effects, and dancing. The ballet, however, where dancing was the prominent feature, remained for a long time the favorite amusement of the French court until the advent of Jean Baptiste Lulli. The young Florentine, after having served in the king's band, was promoted to be its chief, and the composer of the music of the court ballets. Lulli, born in 1633, was bought of his parents by Chevalier de Guise, and sent to Paris as a present to Mlle, de Montpensier, the king's niece. His capricious mistress, after a year or two, deposed the boy of fifteen from the position of page to that of scullion; but Count Nogent, accidentally hearing him sing and struck by his musical talent, influenced the princess to place him under the care of good masters. Lulli made such rapid progress that he soon commenced to compose music of a style superior to that before current in divertissements of the French court.

The name of Philippe Quinault is closely associated with the musical career of Lulli; for to the poet the musician was indebted for his best librettos. Born at Paris in 1636, Quinault's genius for poetry displayed itself at an early age. Before he was twenty he had written several successful comedies. Though he produced many plays, both tragedies and comedies, well known to readers of French poetry, his operatic poems are those which have rendered his memory illustrious. He died on November 29,1688. It is said that during his last illness he was extremely penitent on account of the voluptuous tendency of his works. All his lyrical dramas are full of beauty, but "Atys," "Phaeton," "Isis," and "Armide" have been ranked the highest. "Armide" was the last of the poet's efforts, and Lulli was so much in love with the opera, when completed, that he had it performed over and over again for his own pleasure without any other auditor. When "Atys" was performed first in 1676, the eager throng began to pour in the theatre at ten o'clock in the morning, and by noon the building was filled. The King and the Count were charmed with the work in spite of the bitter dislike of Boileau, the Aristarchus of his age. "Put me in a place where I shall not be able to hear the words," said the latter to the box-keeper; "I like Lulli's music very much, but have a sovereign contempt for Quinault's words." Lulli obliged the poet to write "Armide" five times over, and the felicity of his treatment is proved by the fact that Gluck afterward set the same poem to the music which is still occasionally sung in Germany.

Lulli in the course of his musical career became so great a favorite with the King that the originally obscure kitchen-boy was ennobled. He was made one of the King's secretaries in spite of the loud murmurs of this pampered fraternity against receiving into their body a player and a buffoon. The musician's wit and affability, however, finally dissipated these prejudices, especially as he was wealthy and of irreproachable character.

The King having had a severe illness in 1686, Lulli composed a "Te Deum" in honor of his recovery. When this was given, the musician, in beating time with great ardor, struck his toe with his baton. This brought on a mortification, and there was great grief when it was announced that he could not recover. The Princes de Vend?me lodged four thousand pistoles in the hands of a banker, to be paid to any physician who would c

ure him. Shortly before his death his confessor severely reproached him for the licentiousness of his operas, and refused to give him absolution unless he consented to burn the score of "Achille et Polyxène," which was ready for the stage. The manuscript was put into the flames, and the priest made the musician's peace with God. One of the young princes visited him a few days after, when he seemed a little better.

"What, Baptiste," the former said, "have you burned your opera? You were a fool for giving such credit to a gloomy confessor and burning good music."

"Hush, hush!" whispered Lulli with a satirical smile on his lip. "I cheated the good father. I only burned a copy."

He died singing the words, "Il faut mourir, pécheur, il faut mourir" to one of his own opera airs.

Lulli was not only a composer, but created his own orchestra, trained his artists in acting and singing, and was machinist as well as ballet-master and music-director. He was intimate with Corneille, Molière, La Fontaine, and Boileau; and these great men were proud to contribute the texts to which he set his music. He introduced female dancers into the ballet, disguised men having hitherto served in this capacity, and in many essential ways was the father of early French opera, though its foundation had been laid by Cardinal Mazarin. He had to fight against opposition and cabals, but his energy, tact, and persistence made him the victor, and won the friendship of the leading men of his time. Such of his music as still exists is of a pleasing and melodious character, full of vivacity and lire, and at times indicates a more deep and serious power than that of merely creating catching and tuneful airs. He was the inventor of the operatic overture, and introduced several new instruments into the orchestra. Apart from his splendid administrative faculty, he is entitled to rank as an original and gifted, if not a great, composer.

A lively sketch of the French opera of this period is given by Addison in No. 29 of the "Spectator." "The music of the French," he says, "is indeed very properly adapted to their pronunciation and accent, as their whole opera wonderfully favors the genius of such a gay, airy people. The chorus in which that opera abounds gives the parterre frequent opportunities of joining in concert with the stage. This inclination of the audience to sing along with the actors so prevails with them that I have sometimes known the performer on the stage to do no more in a celebrated song than the clerk of a parish church, who serves only to raise the psalm, and is afterward drowned in the music of the congregation. Every actor that comes on the stage is a beau. The queens and heroines are so painted that they appear as ruddy and cherry-cheeked as milkmaids. The shepherds are all embroidered, and acquit themselves in a ball better than our English dancing-masters. I have seen a couple of rivers appear in red stockings; and Alpheus, instead of having his head covered with sedge and bulrushes, making love in a fair, full-bottomed periwig, and a plume of feathers; but with a voice so full of shakes and quavers, that I should have thought the murmur of a country brook the much more agreeable music. I remember the last opera I saw in that merry nation was the 'Rape of Proserpine,' where Pluto, to make the more tempting figure, puts himself in a French equipage, and brings Ascalaphus along with him as his valet de chambre. This is what we call folly and impertinence, but what the French look upon as gay and polite."

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