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  • Writer's picturePaul


If you were asked to think of a dangerous job, it’s likely something along the lines of a steeplejack, a high-rise window cleaner, an oil rig driller, or a deep-sea fisherman might be among the first come to mind. Conductor of an orchestra would probably feature—well, somewhat lower on your list.

But tell that to the seventeenth century French–Italian composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, who in 1687 injured himself so severely during a vigorous performance of his motet Te Deum that it eventually brought about his untimely death.

Don’t lute now: Jean-Baptiste Lully serenades his friends (Public domain)

Lully has been asked to perform his Te Deum—a setting of a traditional Christian hymn of thanks written for orchestra and two choirs—to celebrate the recovery from surgery of his financial patron Louis XIV of France, in whose court he had long been employed as musical director.

Lully was to conduct the performance himself. But back then, orchestras tended to be conducted not by waving a small tapering baton in the air, but by tapping a full Gandalf-style staff against the ground. And midway through the performance, Lully’s foot happened to accidentally come between the heavy staff in his hand, and the floor of the hall.

The resulting injury quickly turned gangrenous, and Lully died of complications resulting from it in March 1687. According to legend, when it became clear that the only possible cure would be to amputate his leg, Lully refused on the grounds that he would no longer be able to dance.

And if that isn’t a full commitment to the music, I don’t know what is.

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