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Christoph Willibald Gluck

Christoph Willibald GluckBorn: 2-Jul-1714
Birthplace: Erasbach, Bavaria, Germany
Died: 15-Nov-1787
Location of death: Vienna, Austria
Cause of death: Stroke
Remains: Buried, Zentralfriedhof, Vienna, Austria

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Composer

Nationality: Germany
Executive summary: Orfeo ed Eurydice

Operatic composer, German by his nationality, French by his place in art, born at Weidenwang, near Neumarkt, in the upper Palatinate, on the 2nd of July 1714. He belonged to the lower middle class, his father being gamekeeper to Prince Lobkowitz; but the boy's education was not neglected on that account. From his twelfth to his eighteenth year he frequented the Jesuit school of Kommotau in the neighborhood of Prince Lobkowitz's estate in Bohemia, where he not only received a good general education, but also had lessons in music. At the age of eighteen Gluck went to Prague, where he continued his musical studies under Czernohorsky, and maintained himself by the exercise of his art, sometimes in the very humble capacity of fiddler at village fairs and dances. Through the introductions of Prince Lobkowitz, however, he soon gained access to the best families of the Austrian nobility; and when in 1736 he proceeded to Vienna he was hospitably received at his protector's palace. Here he met Prince Melzi, an ardent lover of music, whom he accompanied to Milan, continuing his education under Giovanni Battista San Martini, a great musical historian and contrapuntist, who was also famous in his own day as a composer of church and chamber music. We soon find Gluck producing operas at the rapid rate necessitated by the omnivorous taste of the Italian public in those days. Nine of these works were produced at various Italian theaters between 1741 and 1745. Although their artistic value was small, they were so favorably received that in 1745 Gluck was invited to London to compose for the Haymarket. The first opera produced there was called La Caduta dei giganti; it was followed by a revised version of one of his earlier operas. Gluck also appeared in London as a performer on the musical glasses.

The success of his two operas, as well as that of a pasticcio (a collection of favorite arias set to a new libretto) entitled Piramo e Tisbe, was anything but brilliant, and he accordingly left London. But his stay in England was not without important consequences for his subsequent career. Gluck at this time was rather less than an ordinary producer of Italian opera. Handel's well-known saying that Gluck "knew no more counterpoint than his cook" must be taken in connection with the less well-known fact that the cook in question was an excellent bass singer who performed in many of Handel's own operas. But it indicates the musical reason of Gluck's failure, while Gluck himself learned the dramatic reason through his surprise at finding that arias which in their original setting had been much applauded lost all effect when adapted to new words in the pasticcio. Irrelevant as Handel's criticism appears, it was not without bearing on Gluck's difficulties. The use of counterpoint has very little necessary connection with contrapuntal display; its real and final cause is a certain depth of harmonic expression which Gluck attained only in his most dramatic moments, and for want of which he, even in his finest works, sometimes moved very lamely. And in later years his own mature view of the importance of harmony, which he upheld in long arguments with Grétry, who believed only in melody, shows that he knew that the dramatic expression of music must strike below the surface. At this early period he was simply producing Handelian opera in an amateurish style, suggesting an unsuccessful imitation of Hasse; but the failure of his pasticcio is as significant to us as it was to him, since it shows that already the effect of his music depended upon its characteristic treatment of dramatic situations. This characterizing power was as yet not directly evident, and it needed all the influence of the new instrumental resources of the rising sonata-forms before music could pass out of what we may call its architectural and decorative period and enter into dramatic regions at all.

It is highly probable that the chamber music of his master, San Martini, had already indicated to Gluck a new direction which was more or less incompatible with the older art; and there is nothing discreditable either to Gluck or to his contemporaries in the failure of his earlier works. Had the young composer been successful in the ordinary opera seria, there is reason to fear that the great dramatic reform, initiated by him, might not have taken place. The critical temper of the London public fortunately averted this calamity. It may also be assumed that the musical atmosphere of the English capital, and especially the great works of Handel, were not without beneficial influence upon the young composer. But of still greater importance in this respect was a short trip to Paris, where Gluck became for the first time acquainted with the classic traditions and the declamatory style of the French opera -- a sphere of music in which his own greatest triumphs were to be achieved. Of these great issues little trace, however, is to be found in the works produced by Gluck during the fifteen years after his return from England. In this period Gluck, in a long course of works by no means free from the futile old traditions, gained technical experience and important patronage, though his success was not uniform. His first opera written for Vienna, La Semiramide riconosciuta, is again an ordinary opera seria, and little more can be said of Telemacco, although thirty years later Gluck was able to use most of its overture and an energetic duet in one of his greatest works, Armide.

Gluck settled permanently at Vienna in 1756, having two years previously been appointed court chapel-master, with a salary of 2000 florins, by the empress Maria Theresa. He had already received the order of knighthood from the pope in consequence of the successful production of two of his works in Rome. During the long interval from 1756 to 1762 Gluck seems to have matured his plans for the reform of the opera; and, barring a ballet named Don Giovanni, and some airs nouveaux to French words with pianoforte accompaniment, no compositions of any importance have to be recorded. Several later pièces d'occasion, such as Il Trionfo di Clelia (1763), are still written in the old manner, though already in 1762 Orfeo ed Euridice shows that the composer had entered upon a new career. Gluck had for the first time deserted Metastasio for Raniero Calzabigi, who, as Vernon Lee suggests, was in all probability the immediate cause of the formation of Gluck's new ideas, as he was a hot-headed dramatic theorist with a violent dislike for Metastasio, who had hitherto dominated the whole sphere of operatic libretto.

Quite apart from its significance in the history of dramatic music, Orpheus is a work which, by its intrinsic beauty, commands the highest admiration. Orpheus's air, Che faro, is known to everyone; but still finer is the great scena in which the poet's song softens even the ombre sdegnose of Tartarus. The ascending passion of the entries of the solo (Deh! placatevi; Mille pene; Men tiranne), interrupted by the harsh but gradually softening exclamations of the Furies, is of the highest dramatic effect. These melodies, moreover, as well as every declamatory passage assigned to Orpheus, are made subservient to the purposes of dramatic characterization; that is, they could not possibly be assigned to any other person in the drama, any more than Hamlet's monologue could be spoken by Polonius. It is in this power of musically realizing a character -- a power all but unknown in the serious opera of his day -- that Gluck's genius as a dramatic composer is chiefly shown. After a short relapse into his earlier manner, Gluck followed up his Orpheus by a second classical music-drama (1767) named Alceste. In his dedication of the score to the grand duke of Tuscany, he fully expressed his aims, as well as the reasons for his total breach with the old traditions. "I shall try", he wrote, "to reduce music to its real function, that of seconding poetry by intensifying the expression of sentiments and the interest of situations without interrupting the action by needless ornament. I have accordingly taken care not to interrupt the singer in the heat of the dialogue, to wait for a tedious ritornel, nor do I allow him to stop on a sonorous vowel, in the middle of a phrase, in order to show the nimbleness of a beautiful voice in a long cadenza." Such theories, and the stern consistency with which they were carried out, were little to the taste of the pleasure-loving Viennese; and the success of Alceste, as well as that of Paris and Helena, which followed two years later, was not such as Gluck had desired and expected. He therefore eagerly accepted the chance of finding a home for his art in the center of intellectual and more especially dramatic life, Paris. Such a chance was opened to him through the bailli Le Blanc du Roullet, attaché of the French embassy at Vienna, and a musical amateur who entered into Gluck's ideas with enthusiasm. A classic opera for the Paris stage was accordingly projected, and the friends fixed upon Jean Racine's Iphigénie en Aulide. After some difficulties, overcome chiefly by the intervention of Gluck's former pupil the dauphiness Marie Antoinette, the opera was at last accepted and performed at the Académie de Musique, on the 19th of April 1774.

The great importance of the new work was at once perceived by the musical amateurs of the French capital, and a hot controversy on the merits of Iphigénie ensued, in which some of the leading literary men of France took part. Amongst the opponents of Gluck were not only the admirers of Italian vocalization and sweetness, but also the adherents of the earlier French school, who refused to see in the new composer the legitimate successor of Lully and Rameau. Marmontel, Laharpe and D'Alembert were his opponents, the Abbé Arnaud and others his enthusiastic friends. Rousseau took a peculiar position in the struggle. In his early writings he is a violent partisan of Italian music, but when Gluck himself appeared as the French champion Rousseau acknowledged the great composer's genius; although he did not always understand it, as for example when he suggested that in Alceste, "Divinités du Styx", perhaps the most majestic of all Gluck's arias, ought to have been set as a rondo. Nevertheless in a letter to Charles Burney, written shortly before his death, Rousseau gives a close and appreciative analysis of Alceste, the first Italian version of which Gluck had submitted to him for suggestions; and when, on the first performance of the piece not being received favorably by the Parisian audience, the composer exclaimed, "Alceste est tombée", Rousseau is said to have comforted him with the flattering bonmot, "Oui, mais elle est tombée du ciel." The contest received a still more personal character when Piccinni, a celebrated and by no means incapable composer, came to Paris as the champion of the Italian party at the invitation of Madame du Barry, who held a rival court to that of the young princess. As a dramatic controversy it suggests a parallel with the Wagnerian and anti-Wagnerian warfare of a later age; but there is no such radical difference between Gluck's and Piccinni's musical methods as the comparison would suggest. Gluck was by far the better musician, but his deficiencies in musical technique were of a kind which contemporaries could perceive as easily as they could perceive Piccinni's. Both composers were remarkable inventors of melody, and both had the gift of making incorrect music sound agreeable. Gluck's indisputable dramatic power might be plausibly dismissed as irrelevant by upholders of music for music's sake, even if Piccinni himself had not chosen, as he did, to assimilate every feature in Gluck's style that he could understand. The rivalry between the two composers was soon developed into a quarrel by the skillful engineering of Gluck's enemies. In 1777 Piccinni was given a libretto by Marmontel on the subject of Roland, to Gluck's intense disgust, as he had already begun an opera on that subject himself. This, and the failure of an attempt to show his command of a lighter style by furbishing up some earlier works at the instigation of Marie Antoinette, inspired Gluck to produce his Armide, which appeared four months before Piccinni's Roland was ready, and raised a storm of controversy, admiration and abuse. Gluck did not anticipate Richard Wagner more clearly in his dramatic reforms than in his caustic temper; and, as in Gluck's own estimation the difference between Armide and Alceste is that "l'un [Alceste] doit faire pleurer et l'autre faire éprouver une voluptueuse sensation", it was extremely annoying for him to be told by Laharpe that he had made Armide a sorceress instead of an enchantress, and that her part was "une criaillerie monotone et fatiguante." He replied to Laharpe in a long public letter worthy of Wagner in its venomous sarcasm and its tremendous value as an advertisement for its recipient.

Gluck's next work was Iphigénie en Tauride, the success of which finally disposed of Piccinni, who produced a work on the same subject at the same time and who is said to have acknowledged Gluck's superiority. Gluck's next work was Écho et Narcisse, the comparative failure of which greatly disappointed him; and during the composition of another opera, Les Danaïdes, an attack of apoplexy compelled him to give up work. He left Paris for Vienna, where he lived for several years in dignified leisure, disturbed only by his declining health. He died on the 15th of November 1787.

The great interest of the dramatic aspect of Gluck's reforms is apt to overshadow his merit as a musician, and yet in some ways to idealize it. One is tempted to regard him as condoning for technical musical deficiencies by sheer dramatic power, whereas unprejudiced study of his work shows that where his dramatic power asserts itself there is no lack of musical technique. Indeed only a great musician could so reform opera as to give it scope for dramatic power at all. Where Gluck differs from the greatest musicians is in his absolute dependence on literature for his inspiration. Where his librettist failed him (as in his last complete work, Écho et Narcisse), he could hardly write tolerably good music; and, even in the finest works of his French period, the less emotional situations are sometimes set to music which has little interest except as a document in the history of the art. This must not be taken to mean merely that Gluck could not, like Mozart and nearly all the great songwriters, set good music to a bad text. Such inability would prove Gluck's superior literary taste without casting a slur on his musicianship. But it points to a certain weakness as a musician that Gluck could not be inspired except by the more thrilling portions of his libretti. When he was inspired there was no question that he was the first and greatest writer of dramatic music before Mozart. To begin with, he could invent sublime melodies; and his power of producing great musical effects by the simplest means was nothing short of Handelian. Moreover, in his peculiar sphere he deserves the title generally accorded to Haydn of "father of modern orchestration." It is misleading to say that he was the first to use the timbre of instruments with a sense of emotional effect, for Bach and Handel well knew how to give a whole aria or whole chorus peculiar tone by means of a definite scheme of instrumentation. But Gluck did not treat instruments as part of a decorative design, any more than he so treated musical forms. Just as his sense of musical form is that of Philipp Emmanuel Bach and of Mozart, so is his treatment of instrumental tone-color a thing that changes with every shade of feeling in the dramatic situation, and not in accordance with any purely decorative scheme. To accompany an aria with strings, oboes and flutes, was, for example, a perfectly ordinary procedure; nor was there anything unusual in making the wind instruments play in unison with the strings for the first part of the aria, and writing a passage for one or more of them in the middle section. But it was an unheard-of thing to make this passage consist of long appoggiaturas once every two bars in rising sequence on the first oboe, answered by deep pizzicato bass notes, while Agamemnon in despair cries: "J'entends retentir dans mon sein le cri plaintif de la nature." Some of Gluck's most forcible effects are of great subtlety, as, for instance, in Iphigénie en Tauride, where Orestes tries to reassure himself by saying: "Le calme rentre dans mon coeur", while the intensely agitated accompaniment of the strings belies him. Again, the sense of orchestral climax shown in the oracle scene in Alceste was a thing inconceivable in older music, and unsurpassed in artistic and dramatic spirit by any modern composer. Its influence in Mozart's Idomeneo is obvious at a first glance.

The capacity for broad melody always implies a true sense of form, whether that be developed by skill or not; and thus Gluck, in rejecting the convenient formalities of older styles of opera, was not, like some reformers, without something better to substitute for them. Moreover he, in consultation with his librettist, achieved great skill in holding together entire scenes, or even entire acts, by dramatically apposite repetitions of short arias and choruses. And thus in large portions of his finest works the music, in spite of frequent full closes, seems to move pari passu with the drama in a manner which for naturalness and continuity is surpassed only by the finales of Mozart and the entire operas of Wagner. This is perhaps most noticeable in the second act of Orfeo. In its original Italian version both scenes, that in Hades and that in Elysium, are indivisible wholes, and the division into single movements, though technically obvious, is aesthetically only a natural means of articulating the structure. The unity of the scene in Hades extends, in the original version, even to the key-system. This was damaged when Gluck had to transpose the part of Orpheus from an alto to a tenor in the French version. And here we have one of many instances in which the improvements his French experience enabled him to make in his great Italian works were not altogether unmixed. Little harm, however, was done to Orfeo which has not been easily remedied by transposing Orpheus's part back again; and in a suitable compromise between the two versions Orfeo remains Gluck's most perfect and inspired work. The emotional power of the music is such that the inevitable spoiling of the story by a happy ending has not the aspect of mere conventionality which it had in cases where the music produced no more than the normal effect upon 18th-century audiences. Moreover Gluck's genius was of too high an order for him to be less successful in portraying a sufficiently intense happiness than in portraying grief. He failed only in what may be called the business capacities of artistic technique; and there is less "business" in Orfeo than in almost any other music-drama. It was Gluck's first great inspiration, and his theories had not had time to take action in paper warfare. Alceste contains his grandest music and is also very free from weak pages; but in its original Italian version the third act did not give Gluck scope for an adequate climax. This difficulty so accentuated itself in the French version that after continual retouchings a part for Hercules was, in Gluck's absence, added by Gossec; and three pages of Gluck's music, dealing with the supreme crisis where Alceste is rescued from Hades (either by Apollo or by Hercules) were no longer required in performance and have been lost. The Italian version is so different from the French that it cannot help us to restore this passage, in which Gluck's music now stops short just at the point where we realize the full height of his power. The comparison between the Italian and French Alceste is one of the most interesting that can be made in the study of a musician's development. It would have been far easier for Gluck to write a new opera if he had not been so justly attached to his second Italian masterpiece. So radical are the differences that in retranslating the French libretto into Italian for performance with the French music not one line of Calzabigi's original text can be retained.

In Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride, Gluck shows signs that the controversies aroused by his methods began to interfere with his musical spontaneity. He had not, in Orfeo, gone out of his way to avoid rondos, or we should have had no "Che faro senza Euridice." We read with a respectful smile Gluck's assurance to the bailli Le Blanc du Roullet that "you would not believe Armide to be by the same composer" as Alceste. But there is no question that Armide is a very great work, full of melody, color and dramatic point; and that Gluck has availed himself of every suggestion that his libretto afforded for orchestral and emotional effects of an entirely different type from any that he had attempted before. And it is hardly relevant to blame him for his inability to write erotic music. In the first place, the libretto is not erotic, though the subject would no doubt become so if treated by a more modern poet. In the second place a conflict of passions (as, for instance, where Armide summons the demons of Hate to exorcise love from her heart, and her courage fails her as soon as they begin) has never, even in Alceste, been treated with more dramatic musical force. The work as a whole is unequal, partly because there is a little too much action in it to suit Gluck's methods; but it shows, as does no other opera until Mozart's Don Giovanni, a sense of the development of characters, as distinguished from the mere presentation of them as already fixed.

In Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride, the very subtlety of the finest features indicates a certain self-consciousness which, when inspiration is lacking, becomes mannerism. Moreover, in both cases the libretti, though skilfully managed, tell a rather more complicated story than those which Gluck had hitherto so successfully treated; and, where inspiration fails, the musical technique becomes curiously amateurish without any corresponding naiveté. Still these works are immortal, and their finest passages are equal to anything in Alceste and Orfeo. But Écho et Narcisse we must, like Gluck's contemporaries, regard as a failure. As in Orfeo, the pathetic story is ruined by a violent happy ending, but here this artistic disaster takes place before the pathos has had time to assert itself. Gluck had no opportunities in this work for any higher qualities, musical or dramatic, than prettiness; and with him beauty, without visible emotion, was indeed skin-deep. It is a pity that the plan of the great Pelletan-Damcke critical édition de luxe of Gluck's French operas forbids the inclusion of his Italian Panide e Elena, his third opera to Calzabigi's libretto, which was never given in a French version; for there can be no question that, whatever he owed to France, the period of his greatest began with his collaboration with Calzabigi.

Father: Alexander Gluck (forester)
Wife: Marianne Pergin (m. 15-Sep-1750 in Vienna)
Daughter: Marianne (his niece, adopted)

    Stroke 1779
    Stroke 1781:(partial paralysis)

Is the subject of books:
Gluck and the Birth of Modern Opera, 1963, BY: Patricia Howard



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