Among the Great Masters of Music: Scenes in the Lives of Famous Musicians Lulli byWalter Rowlands
That Amazon of princesses, granddaughter of Henry IV., and cousin of Louis XIV., the Duchesse de Montpensier (better known, perhaps, by the name of "La Grande Mademoiselle"), once asked the Chevalier de Guise to bring her from Italy "a young musician to enliven my house." The chevalier did not forget the great lady's whim, and noticing, one day in Florence, a bright-eyed boy of twelve singing to the music of his guitar, said to him, "Will you come with me to Paris?" The lad, a poor miller's son, without hesitation answered, "Yes;" and thus the young Lulli got his start in the world.
He soon gained experience of the uncertainty which attended the favour of royalty, for, after a few days, "La Grande Mademoiselle" grew tired of her new toy, and sent him to the kitchen, where he became a cook's boy. Here, in the intervals of his work, surrounded by pots and pans, and eatables of all kinds, he often played upon his violin, or sang to his guitar. He is credited with having set some verses to music, at this time; among them the popular "Au Clair de la Lune," which the numberless readers of "Trilby" will remember was sung by La Svengali, on that famous night at the Cirque des Bashibazoucks. Some couplets reflecting on his mistress were sent to the young musician, and, composing a pretty air to the words, he sang them to the frequenters of the kitchen. This disrespectful act reached the ears of the duchess, who thereupon expelled Lulli from her house.
His talent for the violin had, however, attracted the attention of some people of influence, and he was placed under tuition, and finally made one of the court musicians. At nineteen years old, he played for the first time before the king, who was much pleased, and appointed him Inspector of the Violins, and organised for him a band of young musicians, who were called Les Petits Violons, to distinguish them from the Grande Bande des Violons du Roi. Lulli was then chosen to compose dance-music for the ballets performed at court, and afterward the entire musical portion of these entertainments was entrusted to him. He became also a collaborator of Molière, furnishing the music for many of the great dramatist's plays, and even acting in some of them.
His greatest fame was won in the composition of operas, for which the poet Quinault wrote the words, and he is justly considered to be the founder of French opera. Among Lulli's operas are "Armide," "Isis," "Atys," "Alceste," "Psyche," "Proserpine," and "Bellerophon." The composer did not reach old age, but died in 1687, about fifty-four years old, wealthy and honoured, and a great favourite of Louis XIV., who had made him "Superintendent of the King's Music," and treated him with much liberality. His death was caused, one might say, by an illness of the king. When Louis recovered from this sickness, Lulli was commanded to write a Te Deum in grateful celebration of the event. At the first performance, the composer himself conducted, and while beating time with his baton, accidentally struck it against his foot, causing a bruise, which developed into an abscess of such a malignant character that the entire foot, and then the leg were affected. Amputation was advised as the only hope of saving the patient's life, but Lulli hesitated in giving his consent, and it was soon too late. From all accounts, the closing scene of Lulli's life was not marked with that awe which generally attends a death-bed. He desired absolution, but his confessor would not absolve him, except on the condition that he would commit to flames the score of his latest opera. After many excuses, Lulli at length acquiesced, and pointing to a drawer, where was the rough score of "Achille et Polixene," it was burned, the absolution granted, and the priest went home satisfied.
Lulli grew better, and one of the young princes visited him.
"What, Baptiste," said he, "have you burnt your opera? You were a fool for giving such credit to a gloomy confessor, and burning such good music."
"Hush! hush!" whispered Lulli, "I knew well what I was about,- I have another copy of it!"
But this was not all. Unhappily, this joke was followed by a relapse, and the prospect of certain death caused him such dreadful remorse for his deceit to the priest, that he confessed all, and submitted to be laid on a heap of ashes, with a cord around his neck, which was the penance recommended him! He was then placed in bed, and expired singing, "Il faut mourir, pecheur, il faut mourir!" to one of his own airs.
Many anecdotes are told about Lulli, of which we will repeat one or two.
So fatal was the influence of success and its attendant fortune upon Lulli's career, that he entirely laid aside his violin, and refused to have such a thing in his house, nor could any one prevail upon him to play upon one. Marshal de Gramont, however, was his match. He determined not to be entirely deprived of his favourite treat, and devised the ingenious plan of making one of his servants, who could bring more noise than music out of the instrument, play upon the violin in Lulli's presence; whereupon the ex-violinist would rush to the unfortunate tormentor, snatch the fiddle from him, and seek to allay his disturbed equanimity (which, much to the delight of those within hearing, always took him a long time to accomplish) by playing himself.
At the first performance of "Armide," at Versailles, some delay prevented the raising of the curtain at the appointed hour. The king, thereupon, sent an officer of his guard, who said to Lulli, "The king is waiting," and was answered with the words, "The king is master here, and nobody has the right to prevent him waiting as long as he likes!"
Hippolyte de la Charlerie, who painted Lulli as a boy in the kitchen of "La Grande Mademoiselle," was a Belgian artist, who died young, in 1869, the same year that he sent this picture to the Paris Salon.