Italian Elements in the Comédies-Ballets of Molière and Lully

John S. Powell

(presented at the 19th International Congress of the IMS, 1-7 July 2012,
Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome)


          A decade before Roger de Lorraine, the chevalier de Guise, brought back to Paris an adolescent Florentine named Giambattista Lulli as an Italian teacher for his 18-year-old niece, Italian music and theater was all the rage at the French court.   Cardinal Richelieu had an Italian-style theater built in the Palais-Royal, then known as the Palais-Cardinal (image).  After Richelieu’s death in 1642, his successor, Cardinal Giulio Mazzarini, began to import Italian opera singers—some of which doubled as secret agents—and he used opera productions as a smokescreen for his own political manoevers.  Between 1643 and 1646 Mazarin brought to Paris the composers Marco Marazzoli and Luigi Rossi, the singers Leonora Baroni and Atto Melani, the stage designer Giacomo Torelli, and the poet Francesco Buti.  Mazarin also had the old Palais-Cardinal theater remodelled, and it became the first opera theater in Paris.

         Meanwhile, Lully’s star began to rise.  With the help of his patroness Mlle de Montpensier, first cousin to Louis XIV, Lully began to appear in court ballets alongside the adolescent king, who was 6 years Lully’s junior; here we see Louis XIV dancing the role of the Sun in the Ballet de la Nuit (1653) (image).  Lully’s music for the so pleased the king that he appointed the young Florentine composer of the king’s instrumental music and put in charge of the Petits Violons du Roy.  In 1661, Lully was promoted to Superintendant of the music of the King’s Chamber (Surintendant de la musique de la chambre du roi) and director of the Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi. 

          During the 1650s and 1660s Lully composed for and danced in many court ballets…most famously for the comédies-ballets that he wrote in conjunction with Molière.   By its very nature, court ballet was a collaborative venture:  the ballet organizer decided on the subject and the overall plan of the ballet, while spoken verses and sung lyrics were delegated to poets; various composers would provide vocal and dance music, while ballet masters would plan the choreography.  Whereas Lully initially composed instrumental numbers, by the late 1650s he began to compose the vocal music…first in Italian, then in French.   A systematic study of the court ballets during this period charts Lully’s growth as a composer, his assimilation of the French vocal and dance forms, and his mastery of the French style.  This study, however, is beyond the scope of the present paper.  Instead, I am going to concentrate on specific musical features within the dozen comédies-ballets that reveal their roots in contemporary Italian forms and styles.

          As mentioned earlier, Lully began his musical career as composer of instrumental music.  His temperament was disposed toward the broadly comic—more specifically, the buffo—and he excelled both singing and dancing on-stage.   In fact, during during the period of 1653-57, the contrast is striking between “Baptiste” who dazzled his audience by singing (most likely, improvising) in his native language, and Lully the composer of French airs…who, initially, proved to be a pale imitator of contemporary court composers:  Anthoine Boesset, Louis de Mollier, and Michel Lambert.  An example of Lully’s buffo personality is a vocal ensemble (score) for the Ballet de l’Impatience (1661)(image).  The lyrics for this ensemble do not appear in the printed livret where it is described as a “Récit crotesque”(image).  Its music, however, is preserved in a MS copied by the king’s music librarian (image).  This is a comic conversation between a music teacher and a homophonic chorus of his “disciples”…all sung by Italian singers at court (image).   Within the ensemble, changes of meter and musical texture are frequent, along with characteristic comic “patter singing”.  This is Lully’s “crotesque” style…in the sense of “grotesque” as being "humorously ridiculous" (as defined in Richelet's 1680 Dictionnaire françois).  Another «Récit crotesque italien» is listed in a handwritten livret for the Ballet des Bienvenus of 1655, and sheds more light on the term “crotesque”.  Here the performance is described as “partly vocal, partly instrumental, depicting characters dressed bizarrely and making many funny postures and bodily actions” (image).   A costume drawing for an unnamed court ballet illustrates the visual side of “la musique grotesque” (image).

          Such « Récits crotesques » will become a staple of the Molière-Lully comédies-ballets.  For instance, in Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (image), the protagonist encounters two Italian singing apothecaries and a troupe of dancing clowns, who are accompanied by a mixture of diverse instruments (image).  After bidding him “good day” in homophony (score), they prescribe laughter, dance, and good cheer as a remedy for his chronic melancholy, and then chase Pourceaugnac around the stage with oversize syringes in an attempt to administer an enema ( . . .starts on p. 9 of score).  This clearly was a favorite scene, as its action is depicted in the frontispiece of the published play (image).   From these humble roots, the « récit crotesque » will develop into the musical finales to Molière later comédies-ballets—specifically, the Turkish Ceremony of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and the Medical Initiation Ceremony of Le Malade imaginaire.  In these instances, the exotic Italian lyrics will be replaced by pseudo-Turkish in the former, pseudo-Latin in the latter.

          In the court ballets of the 1650s Lully frequently juxtaposed the Italian style and the French style.   In the Ballet de la Galanterie du temps (1656) we have his first serious solo air, “Venere io son,” still composed to Italian lyrics (image)--for which the music is unfortunately lost.  The following year, in the Ballet de l’Amour malade (1657), Lully placed in opposition a French and Italian song, respectively on the subject of jealousy and flirtation.  The differences in both style and form are immediately evident.  The Chanson contre des jaloux (score) follows the formal plan of the contemporary French air:  binary structure, median caesura accompanied by a change of meter (here from common-time to triple meter), and varied repetition of the last line of verse (« des amants fait comme des ennemis ») ( ).  The Italian aria (score. . .p. 2) follows an entirely different plan:  an opening A section in 3/2, followed by a B section in triple meter, and a repeat of the A section; then a new triple meter C section that is longer than the previous ones.   The presence of a segno toward the beginning (image) suggests a dal-segno repeat of the opening section. ( )

     Two years later, the Ballet de la Raillerie (1659) gave the first indication of a change of direction.  In the famous intermedio, personifications of French Music and Italian Music, each singing in her own native language, point out the faults of each other’s musical manner.  La Musique Françoise satirizes Italian music, mimicing her « longs fredons ennuyeux » (score. . .mm. 45-56) and her “chants extravagants” (mm. 28-33) which she compares with her own “langueurs.”  Italian Music in turn ridicules these very “langueurs,” and illustrates them (mm. 35-43) with a cascade of 7-6 suspensions on the words “languenti e mesti lai”.   Through humor and juxtaposition, Lully’s dialogue dramatizes the conflict between music of tenderness and intimacy, and music of passion and drama.  

          By the time of his collaboration with Molière, Lully’s vocal music began to admit Italian features into the French forms.  In fact, throughout the decade of his collaboration with Molière, Lully would introduce elements of contemporary Italian opera in the comédies-ballets.  His immediate models were Cavalli’s operas Xerse and, more importantly, Ercole amante…which were performed at the French court in 1660 and 1662 respectively.  To cater to French tastes Lully was called upon to augment these production with ballets.  As Cavalli remained in Paris during these two years, Lully must have become quite familiar with the famous Italian composer and his music.

          Evidence of the impact that Cavalli’s operas made on Lully can be witnessed in the third intermède of the comédie-ballet Les Amants magnifiques (1670).  This intermède is a self-contained pastorale en musique with its own cast of singing characters independent from the characters of the spoken play.  Its hauntingly-beautiful sommeil scene (score)( ) no doubt was inspired by a similar sleep scene in Ercole amante (score, video)—and prefigures the later sommeil scenes in Atys (video) and Armide (video).  Take note of the bit of recitative (score) that introduces this scene…it is one of Lully’s first attempts at setting French lyrics in recitative style ( ).

       The proving ground for Lully’s formation as an opera composer would be in the genre of the lament, or plainte.  This type of solo song differed profoundly from the French air in three important ways :  (1) in its scenic function, (2) in its formal structure, and (3) in the incorporation of expressive musical traits borrowed from Italian music.   In court ballets, the solo air, or récit, served to announce a ballet entrée—and consequently it was tied to the dance that followed it.   The plainte, on the other hand, stood alone, and hence it became the dramatic focus of the scene.   With regard to form, the French air was entirely predictable:  a binary structure, with the A section repeated, and varied repetition of the last line of verse of the B section.  The plainte, however, was less formally predictable.  It typically consisted of several sections of contrasting character, frequently interspersed with reprises of the main section, and often framed by instrument ritornelli.  Again, Lully could look to Cavalli for a model—the moving lament of Deianira, Hercules’s spouse, in Act 2, sc. 5 of Ercole amante (score)(video).  Two years later, Lully composed a moving lament in Italian, for the Ballet des Amours déguisés (score)( ).

          I could devote the remainder of this talk to tracing the development of the Lullian plainte (image), from its first appearance in the Ballet des Amours déguisés, to the the Plainte de Tircis (score) in La Princesse d'Elide (1664), the Plainte d'Adriane (score) in the Ballet de la Naissance de Vénus (1665), the Plainte de Vénus (score) in the Ballet de Flore (1668), and the cantata-like Plainte italienne in Psyché (score)(video), his last collaboration with Molière.  However, one example will have to suffice.  We will consider the Plainte de Cloris ("Ah! mortelles douleurs") from the 1668 comédie-ballet George Dandin.  This is an extended, rondo-form, intercalated with instrumental ritornelli (score).  By now Lully has forged his own musical style while incorporating Italianate expressive features: such as frequent repetition of words, drooping tetrachords, chromaticism, audacious melodic intervals, dramatic use of rests, exclamations, chains of 7-6 suspensions …just to name a few.   The frequent change of meter to accommodate the text is a vestige of the French air ( ).

          In conclusion, it is clear that Italian music played a key role in the formation of Lully's mature style--which is in itself a product of "les goûts réunis."