This month marks the tercentenary of Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (2 July 1714 -15 November 1787), opera composer of the early Classical period, and a great reformer and contributor to the development of opera as an art form.
He was born in a little town, Erasbach in modern-day Bavaria, to a long line of foresters. His early years are not clearly documented. In 1717, the family moved to Bohemia, where he was introduced to music through the church choir. He began studying logic and mathematics (but failed to complete the degrees) in 1731 at the University of Prague, where both Italian opera and oratorio thrived. In 1737, he was in Milan, studying “practical knowledge of all the instruments” under Giovanni Battista Sammartini, and generally immersing himself in Milan’s vibrant opera scene, especially in one of its emerging opera houses, the Teatro Regio Ducal, where his first opera Artaserse was performed in 1741. It was performed at the Milanese Carnival in 1742 to much acclaim, and subsequently Gluck wrote an opera for each of the next four Carnivals, often with renowned castrato Giovanni Carestini in the lead roles. He wrote operas for other cities (Turin, Venice) as well.
In 1745, he travelled to London to take up the post of house composer at the King’s Theatre. Unfortunately, the theatre remained closed for most of his time there, due to the Jacobite Rebellion. But some good did come of his visit, as he became familiar with Handel, who he acknowledged as a great influence on his style. Handel’s remark “Gluck knows no more of contrappunto (counterpoint) than my cook” is often interpreted as a putdown, but Handel’s cook was Gustavus Waltz, a fine singer and contrapuntist, so the comment might not have been meant as such an insult.
Gluck’s travels took him to Dresden, Vienna, Copenhagen, Paris, Rome and Prague among other destinations. In 1756, he was awarded the Order of the Golden Spur by Pope Benedict XIV. He finally settled in Vienna, where he became Kapellmeister.
He is remembered for his great contribution to opera reform, and the influence he had on composers that followed him, from Salieri and Mozart to Berlioz to Weber to Wagner.
Gluck felt that both of the main Italian operatic genres (opera buffa and opera seria; ie comic and ‘serious’ opera) had veered too far off course. In his view they had become tired, stereotyped, dull, superficial and ossified. He wished opera to regain its focus on drama and feeling, and make the text matter as much as the music. He wished also to do away with recitativo secco (dry recitative accompanied only by harpsichord) which crippled the flow. This was a radical idea, and would pave the way for the through-composed operas of Puccini and the grandiose, larger-than-life music dramas of Wagner. Through the reforms, Baroque opera was ‘cleansed of much of its fat’, and Italian opera took on the spirit of French opera.
Orfeo ed Euridice (1761) is widely considered the first of his ‘reform’ operas and one of his major works. Gluck explained himself at the writing of his next ‘reform’ opera Alceste (1767): “I have striven to restrict music to its true office of serving poetry by means of expression and by following the situations of the story, without interrupting the action or stifling it with a useless superfluity of ornaments”.
Gluck was able to spread his ideas to France. His former pupil Marie Antoinette had in 1770 married the future King Louis XVI. Under her patronage he signed a contract for his operas to be staged at the Paris Opera. The première of his opera Iphigénie en Aulide (1774) was hugely controversial, with the city sharply divided into ‘Gluckists’ and ‘Piccinnists’ after the famed Italian composer Niccolò Piccinni. Unhappy with the progress of rehearsals, Gluck postponed the performance, despite the fact that the King and Queen were due to attend. This and several other actions by him sorely tried the patience of the monarchy, behavior that might have lost ordinary mortals their head. To say the Gluck took opera seriously is a gross understatement.
Gluck’s health was plagued by a series of strokes through his mature years, and died of one in Vienna in 1787.
His musical legacy includes around 35 complete full-length opera, and about a dozen shorter operas and operatic introductions, and several ballets, trio sonatas and other instrumental and choral works. He left behind in Paris a lively school of disciples, which included Salieri, Sacchini, Cherubini, Méhul and Spontini, and who would go on to dominate the French stage during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic years. Gluck’s music had a deep influence on Mozart, particularly in the writing of his opera Idomeneo and the Masonic passages in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). The influence extends to Rossini in his serious operas, to Berlioz in his opera Les Troyens, and to Wagner’s own quest for the high moral ground in opera.
Although Gluck wrote no operas in German, his most celebrated work Orfeo ed Euridice in particular was deeply inspiring for German opera. Variations on its plot (the subterranean rescue mission in which the hero must control or conceal his emotion) emerge in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Beethoven’s Fidelio and Wagner’s Das Rheingold.
Although the Gluck milestone is regrettably not being celebrated in opera houses around the world with as much fuss as the recent bicentenaries of Verdi and Wagner or the centenary of Britten, Gluck’s place in music history as the radical reformer of 18th-century opera is secure.
(An edited version of this article was published on 27 July 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)