Lully: Overture and Passacaille, from Armide

Jean-Baptiste Lully was born November 29, 1632, in Florence, Tuscany—he was christened Giovanni Battista Lulli—and died March 22, 1687, in Paris. He completed his opera Armide in 1686, and he led it at its premiere on February 15 of that year at the Paris Opéra. These are the first San Francisco Symphony performances of selections from the work. The two excerpts performed in these concerts are scored for string orchestra, distributed here among modern orchestral strings: violins, violas, cellos, and basses. Performance time: about seven minutes.

Jean-Baptiste Lully rose from humble circumstances to become the dominant figure in French music, and in seventeenth-century France he couldn’t have managed that ascent without impressive talent, political savvy, and the willingness to leave some casualties along the route. We know little about his origins. His father came from peasant stock but had moved up just a little bit in life such that he, his brothers, and a cousin owned a chestnut forest, which provided their livelihood.

Young Giovanni Battista presumably learned from a Franciscan friar how to play the guitar and the violin, and somehow he was chosen by the visiting Chevalier de Guise to travel to France to serve as Italian-language tutor to the chevalier’s niece, Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans, a cousin of Louis XIV who resided in the Tuileries Palace; her high rank earned her the appellation “Grande Madame.” His title was garçon de chambre, but whatever his duties were, it was his skill as a dancer and musician that began to turn heads. His noble employer saw to it that he received top-level training in music and dance, and before long he began participating in both endeavors in court entertainments. The king took note of him and in 1653 appointed him Compositeur de la musique instrumentale (Composer of Instrumental Music). Even then, Lully continued to appear as a dancer in increasingly high-profile roles, and since Louis XIV had a passion for dancing in his own court ballets, the two grew close both onstage and off.

France was governed by the regency of Cardinal Mazarin at the time, but when Mazarin died and the twenty-three-year-old king assumed real power in 1661, he lost no time appointing Lully to be Surintendant de la musique de la chambre du roy (Superintendant of Music for the King’s Chamber) and bestowing French citizenship on him.

That decade Lully embarked on a series of stage collaborations with the actor-producer-playwright Molière. It was a fruitful collaboration for a while, giving rise to such popular comédies-ballets as George Dandin, Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, and Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. In 1671 their partnership crumbled, apparently because Molière was caught withholding profits from his composer-colleague. Even at that, Lully was prospering, enough so that in 1670 he had begun constructing a very grand mansion near the Palais-Royal, a building that stands yet today. In the wake of their breakup, Lully set his artistic bar higher; his wealth enabled him to purchase the royal monopoly on producing opera and, in 1672, he accordingly became head of Académie Royale de Musique, otherwise known as the Paris Opéra.

He now turned his energies toward composing serious operas—tragédies en musique—dramatic works based on complicated tales from ancient or Renaissance authors, the music and dancing supported by high production standards that drew on technologically imaginative theatrical strokes. From 1674 until his death in 1687, Lully would compose and produce fourteen of these tragédies en musique. They set tales drawn from such revered authors as Ovid, Euripides, Apuleius, Hesiod, Ariosto, and Tasso, turned into high-style poetic librettos by such literary notables as Thomas Corneille and Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, but mostly by the dramatist and libretto specialist Philippe Quinault (1635-88). These works reigned for decades as the definition of French operatic style, practically to the point of calcification. Lully viciously fought off interlopers in the operatic world, and even after his death his works remained so revered that attempts to advance on them—by Rameau, for example—set off heated debates among aesthetically inclined Frenchmen well into the eighteenth century.

His tragédies en musique mark the highpoint of his oeuvre. Neglected for two centuries, these works have been increasingly revived in the past twenty-five years, winning ardent admiration for such among their number as Atys, Persée, Isis, and Psyché. Some connoisseurs cite Armide as his masterpiece. The final collaboration between Lully and Quinault, it draws its matter from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata. The subject was selected by Louis XIV, but scheduling issues prevented the piece from being premiered at court. It remained for many years in the repertory of the Paris Opéra, enjoying revivals from 1692 through 1766 (in the latter years emended to reflect a more modern taste.

The story involves the sorceress Armide, who, during the First Crusade, ensnares Renaud, a Christian knight and her enemy; but on the verge of killing him, she falls in love with him and casts a spell to make him love her, too. Some of Renaud’s fellow soldiers manage to break the spell, and Renaud flees her grasp, leaving her hopeless and desolate. But we need not worry about the story (which in reality is far more complicated than that), because the two pieces performed here are instrumental numbers that have little if any compelling connection to the plot.

Lully’s tragédies en musique dependably opened with an Overture cast in the standard structure found in this opening music for Armide. A strongly accented strain in duple time launches the overture and then is repeated. It used to be always said that this opening section was of stately character; but in recent years, practitioners of historically informed performance have been investing considerable vigor in the tempo, which is not indicated in the score. After two go-rounds, the music flows more swiftly, and then it returns briefly to the mood and meter of the opening; after which the entire second part is repeated.

These strains are played by a string orchestra divided into five parts. This was Lully’s standard orchestral disposition, although in the course of an opera he would inject variety by contrasting this basic texture with sections that used wind instruments or that employed a smaller string group. The five-part string orchestra was known as the grand choeur (great choir) of Lully’s orchestra, and he designated the parts as (from top to bottom) dessus, haut-contre, taille, quinte, and basse. These were rendered respectively by violins; small, medium, and large violas; and a low-pitched instrument slightly larger than a modern cello and tuned a whole-step lower. In these performances, the parts are assigned to a modern orchestral string section consisting of violins, violas, cellos, and double basses. In his historical collection Les Hommes illustres qui ont paru en France (1969-1701), the author Charles Perrault (more remembered for his publication of fairy tales), wrote of Lully’s accomplishment as an orchestral composer: “Before him, people cared only about the melody in the treble part, while the bass line and inner parts were mere accompaniment and a rough sort of counterpoint, which the players on those parts more often improvised in performance. . . . Monsieur Lully made all the inner parts sing almost as agreeably as the treble; he inserted into those parts admirable fugal passages, and especially some completely novel tempos and rhythms previously unknown to most composers.”

A favored form of French Baroque composers was the passacaille. Such pieces (often encountered under the Italian name passacaglia) became codified in the 1620s, by the Italian composer Girolamo Frescobaldi, as a series of continuous variations over a mostly unvarying bass line, cast in triple time. French composers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries often used the passacaille for sustained dramatic climax, perhaps to conclude an instrumental suite, a ballet, or an opera. In Armide, Lully places his passacaille near but not at the end. It falls in the last of the work’s five acts, at a moment in Scene Two when Armide goes off to consult the spirits of the underworld, leaving the still-enchanted Renaud to be entertained by Pleasures and by Demons disguised as Happy Lovers.

Here again we encounter the basic five-part string disposition, although we also find passages of Lully’s contrasting reduction to just three parts. (In the original edition, the first occurrence of this three-part texture is marked for flutes, but in the arrangement played here, it is rendered by strings alone.) In a production of the opera, this music would accompany a ballet; and when the dancing is done, the opera continues directly into more of the passacaille, now expanded with a vocal component—first in an air sung by A Lucky Lover, then by a section for four-part chorus with five-part orchestra (plus flutes), with the two alternating to build up an immense movement. For present purposes, we will hear the music only to the point where the orchestra would be joined by the vocal parts. Even at that, one marvels at the momentum Lully builds up through the repetitions of the bass line and the constant melodic variations that play out above it.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings:  For the Armide Overture and Passacaille: Christophe Rousset conducting Les Talens Lyriques (Virgin Classics)  |  Sigiswald Kuijken conducting La Petite Bande (Accent)  |  For the complete opera Armide: Ryan Brown conducting Opera Lafayette (Naxos)  |  William Christie conducting Les Arts Florissants on DVD or Blu-ray (Fra Musica) 

Reading:  Jean-Baptiste Lully: the Founder of French Opera, by R.H.F. Scott (Peter Owen)  |  Jean-Baptiste Lully and the Music of the French Baroque, edited by John Hajdu Heyer (Cambridge)  |  Jean-Baptiste de Lully and his Tragédies Lyriques, by Joyce Newman (University of Rochester Press)