The soundtrack to Louis XIV’s life was written by Italian-born composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. Lully was born November 28, 1832 in Florence, Italy. He was brought to France as a boy where he worked scrubbing pots in the kitchen of a princess, Mademoiselle de Montpensier, as well as giving occasional Italian lessons. Montpensier saw his talent and arranged for him to study music theory.
He started working for Louis XIV as a dancer and then he composed a song for a ballet that pleased the king so much that he appointed him the head of his ensemble of 24 violins. At this point, Lully decided it would be politic to become French. He composed many full ballets for the court, including one in which both the king and Lully danced. When he met the playwright Molière, they collaborated to create the first examples of musical theater. One of his more famous pieces is “Marche pour la cérémonie des Turcs” from Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Lully’s music is Baroque. He revolutionized ballet by picking up the pace and substituting lively movements for the traditional stately ones. He is also credited with introducing new instruments to the orchestra, although this is debated.
Lully died in a most bizarre way. Louis XIV had just recovered from an illness and Lully was performing a Mass to thank God for sparing the life of the king. Rather than a baton as is used today, Lully was keeping time with a long staff. He accidentally hit his toe; an abscess formed, became infected, and turned gangrenous. Lully refused to have the toe amputated, the gangrene spread and he died on March 22, 1897.
Today’s expression, mettre les bâtons dans les roues (metruh lay baton dah lay rue) means “to put sticks in wheels” or to create difficulties for someone. The English equivalent is “to put a spoke in the wheel.” Before wheels had spokes as we know them today, they were solid wooden discs. The spoke was the central hole of the wheel; putting a stick or spoke in it stopped the wheel from turning. The baton in Lully’s foot stopped him just as definitively, although he lingered for about three months. Ouch.