By Rebecca Smith
On 17 February 1673, Molière, performing in The Imaginary Invalid, bellowed, “Your Molière’s an impertinent fellow … If I were a doctor, I’d have my revenge …when he fell ill, I’d let him die without helping him. I’d say: ‘Go on, drop dead!’”
In this fourth performance of the play, Molière was already very sick with tuberculosis. Collapsing on stage, he was carried off in his chair and taken home. Hemorrhaging badly, he asked for his wife and for a priest, and died within hours.
Do deaths come any more noteworthy, on-the-job, ironic than that?
One that qualifies is, surprisingly, that of Molière’s long-time musical collaborator, Jean-Baptiste Lully.
While rehearsing a performance of “Te Deum” for Louis XIV, Lully flamboyantly brandished his conductor’s cane and accidentally pierced his own foot. He refused surgery, the wound became infected and he died of gangrene on 3 March 1687.
Two real-life, stage-to-demise histories, oddly connected.
In Lully, we are talking about the inventor of the comedie-ballet, the musical genius of French opera, the Superintendent of Music for the King. By the time of his death, Lully, from his lowly birth in 1632 as an Italian and a miller’s son, had risen to enjoy great wealth in money, gold, gems and fame.
And widespread admiration and approval? That is debatable. Lully often left stunned those around him, being of a most unusual character. A 2000 film about him Le Roi Danse, by Gerard Cobiau, explores that.
There is mystery about Lully. Somehow, in his humble Italian environment, he met and convinced the Duc de Guise to take him to France to teach Italian to his nephew. Somehow, in his new home, he transitioned to from tutor to dancer and violinist. Then as a dancer at the Court, he made the acquaintance of another dancer, the future King Louis XIV.
He wrote ballets for his new associate’s paramour, Marie Mancini, and, as Louis ascended to the throne, he manipulatively matched his endeavors to Louis’s moods: romantic, clownish, or classically tragic. Once established and fully backed by royal power, Lully rapaciously bought up librettos, (many by Pierre Perrin which had been produced with Molière) thus reaping the royalties. With rights in hand, he became “the” composer of opera and contracted performers with exclusivity.
Starting in 1664, in his solid Court position, he joined with Molière and together they produced nine comedie-ballets, a new stage form incorporating song and dance into the presentations. He then introduced the “lyric tragedy”, the first being Cadmus et Hermione in 1673. He composed one per year till his death.
He was deplored by many (La Fontaine reportedly called him “The Scoundrel”) for his power grabbing, demanding personality and his sexual exploits at court, which may have included homosexual, termed “Italian mores”, activity. He was safely married to Madeleine Lambert, whose father was the composer Michel Lambert, with whom he had six children, but his attentions to the king’s favored Madame de Maintenon and later to a young page finally threatened his royal status.
In the period of the French Revolution, Lully’s connections to the monarchy rendered him unpopular but eventually composers Handel, Gluck, Campra, Rameau, Purcell and Vivaldi found their way back to him and included his stylings in their compositions. Even Bach credited him in the Ouverture in the French Style.
However inglorious his death, Lully’s name is forever enveloped in glory and esteem. He exemplifies the words of the 18th century English man of letters, Samuel Johnson, “The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time.”
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