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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Gluck, the Quiet Revolutionary

Christoph Willibald Gluck, born 2 July 1714, is one of those composers we always hear about when we study music history. Gluck revolutionised opera; Gluck saved us from the horrors of Baroque operatic nonsense and made opera real; Gluck was a revolutionary. These were the things my teachers always said, and then they proceeded to play a recording of Che farò senza Euridice, a piece I always found a bit, well, dull. How was that revolutionary, a word we use to describe Beethoven's Eroica, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring?

When the 300th anniversary of the birth of Gluck was commemorated in 2014 I decided to do some digging, because I knew next to nothing about him and had only seen a couple of his operas staged. If Gluck was revolutionary then he was a quiet one, but still, I thought I should investigate. Here's what I discovered.

Duplessis: Christoph Willibald Gluck

Gluck (and for the record, it's not "Glück") was born in Erasbach, now part of Berching in the Neumarkt district of Bavaria in southern Germany. His ancestry was Bohemian and he came from a long line of foresters and gamekeepers. When he was about three his family returned to live in northern Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic but then part of the Habsburg Empire, the capital of which was Vienna.

Despite undertaking studies in logic and mathematics at the University of Prague from 1731, Gluck left university without taking a degree. The next definite move of which we know is his arrival in Milan in 1737.

In Milan Gluck studied with Giovanni Battista Sammartini, best known as one of the first composers to devote his energies to the then-new form of the concert symphony. In Milan Gluck would have found much to inspire his interest in music for the theatre, both in opera and ballet.

Riccardi: Giovanni Battista Sammartini

It was in Milan that Gluck began his career as an opera composer. For the 1741/42 Carnival season he set a libretto by the acknowledged master of the Baroque opera seria form, Pietro Trepassi, better known as Metastasio. The opera, Artaserse, was followed by three more for Milan at the rate of one a year. In between these he wrote operas for other cities: Venice, Crema and Turin. Most of these operas set Metastasio librettos, showing that right from the start of his career, Gluck was well-grounded in the traditions of Baroque opera seria with its string of da capo arias, exit and hierarchy conventions, and convoluted plots often based on classical mythology or history and often involving disguises. And writing eight operas in four years for four different cities was no mean start for a beginner, either.

For nearly a decade - from 1743 to 1752 - Gluck had no permanent base. Grove refers to him during this period as being an "itinerant maestro di capella"; that is, a travelling composer-for-hire. Two operas were written for London and performed in The King's Theatre in 1746, a venue long-associated with Handel, who by that stage had given up opera entirely and was writing oratorios.

We next hear of Gluck in Pillnitz, near Dresden, where his opera The Marriage of Hercules was performed in 1747. But it was his next opera which marked his true entry into the writing for the upper ranks of the nobility; it also marks the first documented occasion on which we know Gluck was in Vienna. To celebrate the birthday of the Empress Maria Theresa in 1748, Gluck composed Semiramide riconosciuta (Semiramide Recognised). What's more, the venue was the newly-renovated Vienna Burgtheater or Court Theatre, a theatre which would soon play a major part in Gluck's life.

Most of the operas I've mentioned so far don't survive complete; in some cases only a handful of arias are known today. Semiramide riconosciuta - another Metastasio libretto - does survive complete, and this aria of vengeance in response to rejected advances shows even at this stage Gluck only allows enough vocal display insofar as it illustrates the contempt and anger of the character. [listen]

Gluck's style was criticised by many as being rough and uncultured, and his part-writing was regarded as less than competent. The opera was hugely successful regardless, receiving 27 performances, and Metastasio said it was "exalted to the stars" despite Gluck's music, which he described as "archvandalian".

Pietro Metastasio (c. 1770)

In the years which followed, Gluck worked in Hamburg, Copenhagen and Prague. One of the operas for Prague, Ezio, set another text by Metastasio and was premiered in 1750. This aria from the second act shows a wonderful combination of the new and the old. There's no coloratura, despite the rage and fury of the text, but the old da capo structure is maintained. The orchestral writing is very modern and could easily have come from a contemporary symphony. [listen]

In September 1750, Gluck married Maria Anna Bergin, the daughter of a wealthy Viennese merchant. He was 36, and Maria, who brought a considerable personal fortune to the marriage, was 18. Journeys to Vienna, Prague and Naples followed, with La clemenza di Tito premiered in Naples in 1752. This Metastasio libretto is the original version of the text which was adapted for Mozart's second-last opera nearly half a century later. Gluck was chosen by the management of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples specifically because of his unique and unusual style. This aria, Se mai senti spirarti sul volto, provoked the most comment because of its highly expressive harmonies. [listen]

From 1752, Gluck entered a more stable period of his life when he made Vienna his base. Through judicious networking, he eventually managed to score the post of musical director of the court theatre with particular responsibility for concerts. Over the next few years he worked hard in Vienna, adding extra duties to his post. He soon became musical director of the French theatre (that is, writing music for French plays performed at court), and then, in 1759, he was also made composer for the ballet performances.

There was at this time a strong move to reform theatrical entertainment, taking elements of Italian opera, French spoken drama, and ballet, and combining them into a more fluid art form. The opera Gluck composed in 1755 - L'innocenza giustificata (Innocence Justified) - was major step in this direction. There were dramatic recitatives, choruses and ballet sequences, and the whole work ran more fluidly than the usual stop-start motion of opera seria. [listen]

The other real innovation in Gluck's work in Vienna in the late 1750s was comic opera. In all he wrote seven comic pieces between 1758 and 1761, and while mostly forgotten today, they show that in the years leading up to Gluck's most famous opera, he was experimenting with many different forms of theatrical expression.

He also wrote ballets. Gluck was part of the reform movement in ballet in the 1750s and 1760s as much as he was in opera. He had composed a number of ballets for the court theatre before the arrival in Vienna of the Tuscan poet Ranieri Calzabigi, but it was to be in ballet that these two great minds had their first collaboration: Don Juan.

Don Juan was one of the first attempts to tell a complete story using only pantomime and dance. Pantomime is the dance equivalent of recitative, where the dancers interact with gestures to convey plot, and Calzabigi was well-acquainted with the then-current debates as to the future of ballet, and its potential as a stand-alone medium (rather than a diversion in the middle of an opera, or a little sequence of formal dances tacked on the end).

The music for Don Juan - telling the story of the infamous libertine perhaps better known from Mozart's Don Giovanni - comprises more than 30 movements and takes three-quarters of an hour. The final scene, in which Don Juan is taken to hell, was later re-used by Gluck in the revised version of his Orpheus opera. [listen]

Bellotto: Vienna from Belvedere (1758)

Don Juan created a sensation in Vienna, and Gluck's music was highly praised (especially the ending) and imitated. It was as important a step in the history of ballet as Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake would be more than a century later.

And so, the year after Don Juan, Calzabigi and Gluck collaborated on one of the most famous works of the era, and certainly Gluck's most famous opera, Orfeo ed Euridice (Orpheus and Eurydice). Here, all of Gluck's experiments and experiences of twenty years in the theatre came to the fore, and the result was a radically new form of opera.

At the top of the list was a complete reassessment of the relationship between the singer and the opera. In opera seria, the virtuosity of the singer was paramount; in Gluck's Orfeo there is no coloratura to distract, and Calzabigi's text, which tells the story simply and without high-flown metaphors, was as important as Gluck's music.

Other radical departures from Italian opera practice included a much greater reliance on the chorus and the inclusion of pantomime and ballet, even in the original Italian version for Vienna (the ballet was expanded in the later French version for Paris). As for the singing cast, there are only three singers: Orpheus, Eurydice and Amore (or Cupid).

The work created much comment, but was mostly praised for its innovations, although many were puzzled by the sheer simplicity of the aria which has ever since been regarded as the highpoint of the work. [listen]

Orfeo ran for 19 performances in its first season in 1762, and was revived several times the following year. Gluck was granted an annual pension, mainly as an inducement to keep him in Vienna.

In the years immediately following, Gluck received commissions for new operas from cities other than Vienna, but few were prepared to have works as radical as Orfeo. A new work for Bologna was followed by more operas for Vienna, including a new version of Ezio. In 1764 he produced another new ballet, Les amours d'Alexandre et de Roxane, sometimes called Alessandro. [listen]

More operas for Vienna - and elsewhere - followed in the remainder of the 1760s and two of these stand out as major achievements. The first, Telemaco, was first performed in 1765 in a production that seems to have been a disaster. People present, including Calzabigi (who didn't write the text) blamed the singers. Certainly Gluck's music is sublime, such as in this aria in the second act for the title character. [listen]

The other major achievement from this period in Vienna was Alceste, another collaboration with Calzabigi which was first performed in 1767. This noble tragedy, based on Euripides, created a stir when the singers chosen to perform it were not established opera stars, but rather singer-actors better known for their work in comedy. The work, which is dark and serious, was not a popular success, but it was another step even further in the operatic reforms which began with Orfeo five years before. Again there is much for the chorus to sing, ballet is included as part of the action, and a much more fluid approach to the narrative and musical structures. It's also very beautiful. [listen]

Gluck's Orfeo, Telemaco and Alceste were mentioned by Calzabigi in a letter as being works which - in contrast to old fashioned Metastasio-style operas - required "actresses who sing what the composer has written, without inserting a trunkful of notes by repeating 30 or 40 times either a Parto or an Addio decked out in musical hieroglyphics". And there, in a nutshell, is a neat summary of what the revolution in opera was all about.

The Viennese phase of Gluck's career came to an end with one more major work, Paride ed Elena (Paris and Helen), a five act work with a text by Calzabigi. First performed in Vienna in 1770, this work again puzzled many who heard it. Opera was even by 1770 felt to be lacking something if it didn't have coloratura showstoppers, but Gluck and Calzabigi crafted a subtle and beautiful work. The two sides of the story - Troy and Sparta - are given different musical styles, the passion is understated, and the characters are more three-dimensional than perhaps ever before. [listen]

In 1770 Gluck turned 56 and he clearly felt that it was time for a change. He'd been in Vienna for nearly 20 years but there were fewer opportunities for the sorts of operas he had been developing. It was around this time he started composing lieder, setting texts by Klopstock, and while these only make up a small part of his overall output they did influence later generations of German-language artsong composers.

A more distant city - Paris - beckoned. Various contacts in the French capital paved the way for Gluck to write his final series of operas there, and he arrived in late 1773. Over the next six years, based in Paris but regularly returning to visit Vienna, Gluck had a huge influence on what eventually became a full scale reform of French opera. As musicians before and since discovered, working in Paris was not easy, especially for a foreigner. Gluck's music was strange to the French orchestral players and he had to rehearse and rehearse, drilling his singers and instrumentalists as he prepared for the premiere of his first French opera, Iphigénie en Aulide (Iphigenia in Aulis). [listen]

Gluck's Parisian operas - all of them - aroused hostility and admiration in equal measure. His music inspired pamphlet wars and huge debates, both inside and outside the theatres. Not long after the premiere of the first Iphigenia opera, Louis XV died, meaning the theatres closed for a time. This allowed Gluck the opportunity to prepare his next assault on Paris, a French revision of the Orpheus opera as Orphée et Euridice.

Orphée, and a revised version of Iphigénie, were hugely successful. Smaller French language pieces followed before his next major Parisian opera, a French version of Alceste, first performed in 1776.

Raguenet: Paris from the Pont Neuf (1763)

Perhaps most controversial among Gluck's French operas was his Armide of 1777. A grand, five-act drama, this set a libretto which had been famously used by Jean Baptiste Lully nearly a century before. It was seen as a direct affront to French sensitivities for someone - especially an Austrian! - to take it upon themselves to re-set a text which "belonged" to the long-dead Lully. The battles began all over again and at its premiere Armide was received coolly. But eventually Gluck's work surpassed Lully's in public esteem and lived on in an unbroken performing tradition which lasted half a century. [listen]

Gluck composed two more operas for Paris, but he was spending less time in the city each year and staying longer in Vienna each time he returned. In 1779, his second Iphigenia opera was performed and it was - to quote Grove - and "almost undisputed triumph". Iphigénie en Tauride (Iphigenia in Tauris) is regarded today as an undisputed masterpiece. [listen]

It was in 1779, during preparations for his last French opera, Echo and Narcissus, that Gluck suffered his first stroke. He was paid a record sum for the work, but the attendances were poor and Gluck sensed the tide of public opinion was shifting against him. Intrigues developed - they had never really gone away - and in some disgust he left Paris for the last time in October 1779.

Back in Vienna, he resisted attempts from some to have him return to Paris. He was now 65 and had had enough. When formally invited to compose a new opera for Paris, Les Danaïdes, he recommended a younger composer from Vienna be given the commission, and thus began the Parisian career of one Antonio Salieri.

In Gluck's final years his operas were still being staged at the court theatre in Vienna, showing his pre-eminence among Habsburg composers in the early 1780s. In addition to revivals of earlier works, a German-language version of the second Iphigenia opera was staged, but in reality he was largely retired after about 1780. In his final years he continued to teach and to support and promote younger composers in Vienna, including both Salieri and Mozart. Ill health dogged him, including two more strokes, and he died on 15 November 1787 at the age of 73.

Wiedner Hauptstraße Nr. 32, Gluck's house in Vienna, where he died

Christoph Willibald Gluck has for too long been judged on the basis of a single work - his Orpheus opera - which has rarely been presented in its original and most radical form. This work is also far from representative of his work as a composer of some 46 operas, in addition to the ballets, lieder and instrumental works. Very little of his pre-Orpheus music has been recorded and I think Gluck's time in the sun still awaits as his music has yet to known as well as it should be.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in November, 2014.

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