Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (1714-1787)
By Tel Asiado
Quoted from J.A. Hiller about Gluck, "Wochentliche Nachrichten" (24th October 1768): "Gluck's imagination is immense. The confines of all national music are thus too narrow for him: out of Italian and French music, out of that of every people, he has made a music that is his own; or rather, he has sought in nature all the sounds of true expression and conquered them for himself."
The Bohemian-German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck was born on July 2, 1714 in Erasbach, Upper Palatinate. His father, Alexander Johannes Gluck, was a forester and huntsman in the Upper Palatinate, now the western extreme of Czechoslovakia. Czech was Christoph Gluck's native tongue. The young Gluck went to school at Kamnitz and at Albersdorf near Komotau, where he first came in contact with music. In 1732 Gluck went to Prague to study. It's not certain whether he studied in a university or not, or where he cultivated his knowledge of French and Italian languages, but one thing was certain: music attracted him more and more at this time. While in Prague, he devoted himself to instrumental music. He was also an excellent singer, and most likely came in contact with opera at the houses of princely and aristocratic patrons. He earned some money by playing the organ at various churches, at the same time he gave singing and violoncello lessons.
At age 22, he left Prague and moved to Vienna, where the youthful Prince Ferdinand Philipp Lobkowitz took him into his service as chamber musician. He continued his musical studies and heard much Italian opera.
The following year, Prince Melzi heard about Gluck's talent and induced him to accompany him to Milan. There, he became chamber musician to Melzi as well as pupil of the Italian composer Giovanni Battista Sammartini. He became a very close friend of Sammartini, who also tutored him. During this time, he got exposed to many contemporary operas.
Gluck's first opera, "Artaserse," was given in Milan in 1741. The libretti was produced by Pietro Metastasio and the work was dedicated to the governor of Milan, Count Traun. The first performance was well received by the general public, although the rehearsal was critically judged by a select audience. Other operas by Gluck followed elsewhere in Italy, including "Cleonice" (originally called "Demetrio" ), "Demofoonte," "Tigrane," and "Ippolito." In 1745, at the invitation of Lord Middlesex, Gluck accompanied Prince Lobkowitz to England. On the way, they visited Paris where Gluck became acquainted with French opera and admired Rameau.
Gluck also performed operas in London during 1745-46, where he met Handel and the latter's music. Although Handel thought him to be a poor contrapuntist, they became friends. After further travel (Dresden, Copenhagen, Naples, Prague) he settled in Vienna in 1752 as Konzertmeister of the Prince of Saxe-Hildburghausen's orchestra, then as Kapellmeister. He also became involved in performances at the court theatre of French 'operas comiques' as composer and arranger, and he wrote Italian dramatic works for court entertainments. His friends tried, at first unsuccessfully, to procure a court post for him; but by 1759 Gluck got a salaried position at the court theatre and soon after was granted a royal pension.
In 1760, Gluck met the poet Ranieri Calzabigi and the choreographer Angiolini, and with them wrote a ballet-pantomime "Don Juan" (1761), which embodied a new degree of artistic unity. The next year they wrote the opera "Orfeo ed Euridice", the first of Gluck's so-called 'reform operas,' another libretto by Calzabigi. In spite of its disconcerting novelty, this opera made a tremendous impression, and enthusiastic admirers grouped themselves against advocates of the school of Metastasio (by now 64 years old). In 1763, he visited Venice and Bologna with Dittersdorf, the singer Chiara Marini and her mother. The singers of the newly built theatre at Bologna gave a concert for Gluck, who was to write an opera for them. This was "Il trionfo di Clelia," which he finished. But after a visit to Parma, he was recalled to Vienna. The following year, he composed an 'opera comique,' "La rencontre imprevue," and the next year two ballets. He followed up the artistic success of "Orfeo ed Euridice" with a further collaboration with Calzabigi, "Alceste" (1767), this time choreographed by Noverre; a third, "Paride ed Elena" (1770), was less well received.
In 1769, Gluck and his wife adopted his niece Marianne Hedler, who showed considerable musical talent in musical circles by her singing.
Gluck around this time decided to apply his new ideals to French opera, and in 1774 he gave "Iphigenie en Aulide" as well as "Orphee" a French revision of "Orfeo ed Euridice" in Paris. It was a triumph, but it also set the ground for a controversy between Gluck and Italian music (as represented by Piccinni) which flared up in 1777 when his "Armide" was given, following a French version of "Alceste" (1776). "Iphigenie en Tauride" followed in 1779, his greatest success, along with his greatest failure, "Echo et Narcisse." He now acknowledged that his career was over. Unwilling to give up new experiments and to repeat merely what the public wanted, he decided to leave Paris. He fell ill with several apoplectic seizures, recovered, returned to Vienna by end of October 1779, and retired from public life.
He revised "Iphigenie en Tauride" for German performance, and composed some songs, but abandoned plans for a journey to London to give his operas. In 1781 he suffered from a stroke which partly paralyzed him. At the command of Joseph II, the German version of "Iphigenie en Tauride" was performed. The following year, a special performance of Mozart's "Die Entfuhrung," which Gluck was anxious to hear, was arranged for him in August. He was much delighted that he invited Mozart to dinner. In 1783 Gluck went to Mozart's concert, where Mozart improvised variations on a theme from "La Rencontre imprevue." Notably, Gluck's relations with Mozart were friendly but reserved. This was due to the fact that Gluck patronized Antonio Salieri, Mozart's natural opponent, something the Mozarts were not sympathetic about. Leopold and Wolfgang were said to have mistrusted Gluck ever since their first visit to Vienna in 1768, and when Mozart went to Paris in 1778, Leopold Mozart instructed him to avoid Gluck.
Gluck died in Vienna in the autumn of 1787. He was widely recognized as the doyen of Viennese composers and the man who had carried through important reforms to the art of opera. Although his opera reforms were not exclusively his own, (several other composers notably Jommelli and Traetta, both like Gluck, were French-influenced), he worked along similar lines - outlined in the preface he wrote, probably with Calzabigi's help, to the published score of "Alceste." He said: "When I undertook to write the music of "Alceste," I resolved to divest it of all those abuses, introduced either by the mistaken vanity of the singers or by the too great complaisance of composers, which have so long disfigured Italian opera and made of the most beautiful of spectacles the most ridiculous and wearisome. 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 ..." [Eric Blom's translation from Einstein's biography of Gluck in Dent's 'Master Musicians' series.]
Gluck aimed to make the overture relevant to the drama and the orchestration apt to the words, and to break down the sharp contrast between recitative and aria. "Orfeo ed Euridice" exemplifies most of these principles, with its abandonment of simple recitative in favour of a more continuous texture (with orchestral recitative, arioso and aria running into one another) and its broad musical-dramatic spans in which different types of solo singing, dance and choral music are fully integrated. In short, it had a simpler, direct plot, based on straightforward human emotions.
Gluck's historical importance rests on his establishment of a new equilibrium between music and drama, and his greatness in the power and clarity with which he projected that vision. He dissolved the drama in music instead of merely illustrating it. His convincing operas exerted a strong influence on his younger contemporary Mozart, into the 19th century, and perhaps beyond. One wonders if they discussed opera in specifics at their meetings, an interesting angle to note if Gluck ever imparted his operatic concepts to Mozart. Gluck's works include several operas (plus 'operas comiques'), four ballets, many vocal works, sonatas for two violins and bass, eight trio sonatas, and symphonies.
Naxos (3) 8 660066/8 (147 minutes: DDD) Alceste
Decca 467 248-2DH Arias
Archiv Production (2) 459 616-2AH2 Armide
Erato (2) 22920-45002-2 Iphigenie en Aulide
Telarc Classics (2) CD80546 Iphigenie en Aulide
Decca compact Opera Collection (2) 470 424-2DOC2 Orfeo ed Euridice
EMI CDS5 56885-2 Orphee et Eurydice
Blanks, Harvey. The Golden Road. Rigby Limited. (Australia. 1968)
Einstein, Alfred. Gluck. Translated by Eric Blom. McGraw-Hill Book Company, with revisions, J.M Dent & Sons Ltd. (New York, 1964.)
Kennedy, Michael. The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press, (Oxford, 2001)
Sadie, Stanley (Ed.). The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music, The MacMillan Press Ltd, (London. 1994)
Sadie, Stanley (Ed.). The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd Edition Groves Dictionaries. (New York, 2000.)
Liner Notes to the CDís as noted above.
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