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Second Sight - Music with Wilfrid Mellers

2. The Sun King - Lully's musical homage

'... Le Concert Spirituel, under Hervé Niquet, capture to perfection both the surface grace ... and ... the innermost heart of the music ...'


Louis XIV called himself, and was universally known as, Le Roi Soleil, which more or less equated him with God. No European civilization ever paid grander homage to Man in the Highest than did Louis's court at Versailles in the second half of the 17th and the first fifteen years of the 18th century. Although the King's titanic and tyrannic power was basically military, its culture nurtured poets, painters, sculptors, architects and composers who revealed that Heroic pretention could embrace a wide range of human experience, sometimes extending to both heights and depths.

Racine was a great tragic, and Molière a great comic, dramatist whose awareness of human contradictoriness must intermittently have challenged royal infallibility; while the finest composer who worked for Louis XIV, François Couperin, was 'dit le Grand' not because he extolled the panoply of power but because he intimately explored, especially in his suites of harpsichord pieces pointedly described as 'ordres', the inexhaustible variety and the psychological oddities of human nature.

But Couperin was not Louis XIV's State Composer. The man employed to project the royal-divine image to the world-at-large was Jean-Baptist Lully, by birth a Florentine but accorded, in the musical set-up of the French court, a power almost as absolute as that of his royal master. He was mainly an opera and ballet composer, making theatre-pieces that drew parallels between Versailles and the legendary paradises of classical antiquity by way of aural seductions, visual spectacles, and terpsichorean agility, for both the Concert Master and the King himself were accomplished dancers, joyously creating intellectual order out of corporeal capers.

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Copyright © 30 September 2000 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK







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