Clearly the most successful musician of his time, in terms of power and financial wealth, Jean-Baptiste Lully was almost singularly responsible for the shape of French opera during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Born Italian, he died a wealthy Frenchman at the early age of 54. Although most remembered for his opera compositions, he was also a talented violinist and dancer. His business sense and, some say, unscrupulous manner, made him one of the most powerful musicians in all of France, if not Europe. His patron and friend King Louis XIV further cemented Lully's position at the top of Europe's musical elite. Lully's operas remain his legacy, but he also composed over 30 ballets, motets, incidental music, dances, and marches.
Lully was born the son of a miller who lost custody of him after his mother died. While in his early teenage years, Lully was taken to France by the Chevalier de Guise in March 1646. He served as a musician and page in Mlle de Montpensier's court until she was exiled, in 1652, to her estate at St. Targeau for her role in the Fronde. During his service with the Montepensier court, Lully was schooled in guitar, violin, and dance. His talents brought him to the attention of the young King Louis XIV. After his release from the Montepensier court, Lully joined the King's court, as a composer and dancer. He became the leader of a small string ensemble formed by the King. Lully's prestige at the court, as well as throughout France, grew even more when he was appointed the Superintendent of Music and subsequently, the Master of Music for the Royal Family.
When Lully began composing opera in the 1670s, Italy was the center of great opera. Opera in France was in its infancy. Lully's operas, which were based on Italian models but with French libretto, helped popularize the art form. He composed one a year between 1673 and 1680, and then again between 1682 and 1686. Besides being the premier opera composer in Paris at the time, Lully ensured his exalted position by securing patent rights which would ultimately allow him to determine what opera could be performed and severely limiting performances of operas he himself had not approved of. These patent rights, obtained from librettist Pierre Perrin who had been jailed for debt problems, were for the sole right to form the Royal Academy of Music. Lully bargained with Perrin for those rights, paying off his debts and providing him with a lifetime stipend. Lully formed the Royal Academie in March 1672. A year later, in April 1673, restrictions were passed that limited productions performed outside of the academie's auspices to no more than two singers and six players.
Lully was naturalized a French citizen in December 1661. On July 24, 1662, he married the daughter of his mentor and royal chief musician, Michel Lambert. King Louis XIV attended Lully's wedding to Madeleine Lambert and became the godfather of their eldest son. In 1681, Lully was granted Lettres de Noblesse and named one of the Secretaires du Roi. During a performance celebrating the recovery of the King from an illness, Lully accidentally hit his foot with his conducting staff. An infection resulted, and it ultimately killed him. When Lully died in 1687, he left his wife, six children, and an estate with an estimated value of 800,000 livres, a value more than 500 times the annual salary of an average court musician.