Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) was a French composer of Italian extraction (born Giovanni Battista Lulli). At 14 he was taken to France and found himself working in the kitchen of the court of king Louis XIV’s cousin, where his musical ability was discovered (He had been taught the guitar as a child in Florence.)
Lully was a prodigious musical talent and a born entertainer. He was also a dedicated careerist who played, sang, danced, intrigued and bribed his way to the top of the musical establishment at the French Court. By 1653 he was Louis’ “compositeur de la musique instrumentale”, composer-in-residence, so to speak, for the king’s own “petite bande” which he trained to a high standard. By the early 1660s, by now a naturalised Frenchman, he was in charge of all Court entertainment, as well as of music for the king’s chamber, and for the royal family.
He established the final form of the French overture, reformed the performance of both ballet (where he introduced the inclusion of female dancers) and opera. His output includes about 20 operas, countless ballets, many “pastorales” and “divertissements”, and a fair amount of sacred music, especially in the latter part of his life when a new marriage for the king brought about a lessening in the excesses of Court entertainment.
It could be said that sacred music killed him – whilst conducting a performance of a Te Deum he had written to celebrate the king’s recovery from illness, he hit his own foot with the staff or cane he used to beat the time and died as a result of gangrene from the resulting wound.