Of all the professions throughout history, you’d think that composers would have it easy. From the safety of the concert hall, they don’t have to deal with foreign armies, murderers, drug dealers, or street gangs. Oddly enough, though, composers have suffered some totally bizarre deaths. Drownings, murders, poisonings, insect bites, and bicycle accidents…those are just some of the many ways history’s most brilliant musical minds have gone down. Among the strangest, however, is the death of Jean-Baptiste Lully.
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) was an Italian-born French composer, instrumentalist, and dancer. He was most known for being the court composer of King Louis XIV of France, one of the most powerful absolute monarchs in the history of Western civilization. For a short period of time, Lully’s dominance of the musical world rivaled Louis’ in the political; he was a wildly popular composer who essentially created French opera. In 1672, he was given by King Louis the equivalent of a monopoly on French opera. He had complete control over the genre and could check his rivals.
At the age of only 55, when Lully was at the peak of his career, the oddest of tragedies occurred. In the 17th century, conductors did not use the small batons we see today. Instead, they would take a large rod or staff with a pointed end onto the stage with them and pound the stage floor to keep the tempo consistent for the orchestra.
Lully was using such a staff in January of 1687 while conducting his Te Deum, a composition celebrating King Louis XIV’s recovery from a surgery that removed an anal fistula. While conducting, he accidentally stabbed his foot – his pinky toe, to be specific. The toe quickly developed an abscess, and, over the course of just a few days, the abscess blossomed into full-blown gangrene that spread throughout his foot and leg.
At the time, the only viable treatment for a gangrenous limb was amputation. Lully, however, refused. As he was a dancer, he claimed he would rather die than no longer be able to dance. Well, it isn’t like gangrene to sit and take a picnic, so it spread like wildfire throughout his body. He died just two months later.
As a result of Lully’s accident, conductors thought better of hauling a giant ass stick on stage. Not only was it loud and ineffective, but a dude freaking died from it. So, how about a Plan B? By the 1800’s, the modern baton was born and rapidly gaining popularity. Some sources actually say that the modern baton was influenced by the bow of the concertmaster (or principal violin), who was the leader of the ensemble before there were conductors with giant staffs.
To this day, Lully’s incident remains one of the more incredible deaths, not only of European composers, but of notable folks in the history of European civilization.