Gluck, Christoph Willibald Von (1714–1787)

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GLUCK, CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD VON (17141787), Austrian composer of Bohemian birth. Gluck is important for his "reform" of the Metastasian opera seria in works written for Vienna and Paris. The son and grandson of gamekeepers, Gluck studied music (singing and violin), and at the age of thirteen or fourteen, faced with his father's determination that he follow the paternal vocation, fled to Prague, where he supported himself by various musical activities (notably as organist at the Týn Church). In Prague he had the opportunity to hear contemporary Italian opera by Vivaldi, Albinoni, and others. After briefly serving Prince Lobkowitz in Vienna, in 1737 he accepted employment as a violinist in Prince Melzi's service in Milan. Four years later his first Italian opera, Artaserse, to a libretto by Pietro Metastasio (16981782), had its premiere. For the next dozen years he followed a career path typical of moderately successful composers of Italian opera. He traveled extensively, for a while as music director of the Mingotti company and later for Locatelli's company, and wrote operas on commission for cities in Italy, as well as Dresden, Copenhagen, Vienna, and London. In these he gained a mastery of current conventions in opera structure, forms, expression of emotions, florid melodic writing, text setting, and orchestral scoring (although sometimes with brusque and unexpected results). In 1745 he became resident composer at the King's Theatre in London. The first of his two works written for production there, La caduta de' giganti, contains clear allusions to the current political situation in forecasting allegorically the suppression of the Jacobite rebellion. Both London operas include much music revised from earlier works, as would remain Gluck's custom throughout his career (and, indeed, it was standard practice for Italian opera composers to borrow from works of their own heard only elsewhere and, often at the behest of singers, to include music of others in their scores). While in England the composer became acquainted with George Frideric Handel's music and David Garrick's "realistic" style of dramatic acting, whose aesthetics were to mark his subsequent approach.

By 1748 Gluck was back in Vienna, where the court commissioned him to compose the music for Metastasio's La semiramide riconnosciuta to celebrate the birthday of Empress Maria Theresa. Two years later he married Maria Anna Bergin, whose dowry and personal wealth gave him financial stability. The couple remained based in her native Vienna, although in the early years of their marriage Gluck continued to accept foreign commissions that required travel. He also became Konzertmeister and later Kapellmeister to Prince Joseph Friedrich von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. For the imperial couple's visit to his estate outside Vienna, the composer wrote Le cinesi, a clever parody of contrasting dramatic genres as well as an address to tastes for the "exotic." These operas and other musical activities doubtless brought the composer to the attention of Count Durazzo, who in 1756 hired him to supervise concerts and French opéras comiques at the court-controlled Burgtheater (four years later the production of ballet music was added to his duties). Several commissions of Italian operas, French opéras comiques and ballet scores for the theater and for the court soon followed. Of these the most significant musically is the ballet d'action, Don Juan (1761, choreography by Gasparo Angiolini). Because he was busy with Viennese projects and because travel was hindered by the War of the Austrian Succession (17401748) and its aftermath, Gluck seldom ventured elsewhere during this period. One important exception was the opera for Rome, Antigono (1756); during his visit there the pope named him cavaliere dello sperone d'oro (knight of the golden spur), a title that the composer took pride in using.

By 1760 Gluck was well established as the leading opera composer in Vienna. While during the decade he continued to compose opéras comiques, serenatas, and other works for the court (often to texts by the venerable Metastasio) and was awarded a court pension in 1763, he is remembered today for his "reform" of opera seria in his Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) and Alceste (1767). Significantly, the librettist for both was Raniero Calzabigi, an Italian familiar with French theatrical and operatic dramaturgy and probably the anonymous critic of the Metastasian model (Lettre sur le méchanisme de l'opéra italien, 1756). Operatic change was in the air: Gluck and other Italian opera composers and librettists had already anticipated some of the directions that the "reform" would take. Still, Orfeo and Alceste mark the most thoroughgoing development of a new aesthetic, a "noble simplicity" according to contemporaries: the drama comes first and unfolds in a logical, straightforward way; aria structures are more varied and flexible and avoid lengthy orchestral introductions (ritornelli); florid vocal display is avoided in favor of a more direct expression in often syllabic settings; the chorus has a heightened role; integration of chorus, soloists, aria, accompanied recitative, and dance in impressive tableaux match requirements of the plot and give the work greater musical continuity (though the divisions remain clear). In performance, acting by the soloists, including their gestures, became more "natural"; the first Orfeo, the castrato Gaetano Guadagni, had studied with Garrick, and the music historian Charles Burney later recounted that Gluck himself told him that he had insisted on numerous repetitions during rehearsals until all aspects of the performance met his standards. Alceste, in addition, broke with tradition in omitting castrati from the soloists' ranks (original version).

As several of the innovations were inspired by the model of the French tragédie and the tragédie lyrique, Gluck decided to try to conquer Paris, then the cultural capital of Europe. Preceded by a clever publicity campaign mounted by C. L. G. L. du Roullet, the librettist for several of his French operas, Gluck arrived there in late 1773. With the support of his former student, Marie Antoinette (dauphine, shortly to become queen), he soon gained a contract with the Académie Royale de Musique. After six months of intensive rehearsal his first opera for the Académie, Iphigénie en Aulide, was a success, followed shortly by Orphée et Euridice, a revision of Orfeo, performed to even greater acclaim. Alceste (1776) differs substantially from its Italian predecessor. In choosing to reset Jean-Baptiste Quinault's libretto written for Jean-Baptiste Lully, Gluck sought in Armide (1777) to align himself explicitly with the French tradition. His Iphigénie en Tauride (1779) is his masterpiece. These five operas show the composer's growing mastery of French declamation and his substantial advance in the "reform" agenda. In Alceste, for example, the two principal characters and the chorus are portrayed more convincingly as a loving couple and grieving people, compared to the Italian version. In Armide Gluck not only exploited spectacular stage effects, but also achieved a more fluid musical construction. Iphigénie en Tauride builds on this in an unusually high number of ensembles matching the drama.

After having divided his time between Paris and Vienna for six years, Gluck returned to the Austrian capital for good in 1779. His final major operatic effort was to revise a translation into German of Iphigénie en Tauride (1781). Orfeo/Orphée (often in various hybrid versions) and his French tragédies lyriques were an important legacy. Not only were these operas part of the repertory throughout the nineteenth century, although they were sometimes revised to meet current casts and audience tastes by musicians such as Berlioz (Orphée, 1859; Alceste, 1861, both Paris), Wagner (Iphigénie en Aulide, 1847, Dresden) and Richard Strauss (Iphigénie en Tauride, 1889, Weimar), they have continued to be revived in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

See also Lully, Jean-Baptiste ; Music ; Opera ; Vienna .


Brown, Bruce A. Gluck and the French Theatre in Vienna. Oxford, 1991.

Brown, Bruce Alan, and Julian Rushton. "Gluck, Christoph Willibald Ritter von." In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2nd ed. London, 2001.

Gluck, Christoph Willibald. Sämtliche Werke. Edited by Rudolf Gerber, et al. Kassel and Basel, 1951.

Howard, Patricia. Christoph Willibald Gluck: A Guide to Research. 2nd ed. New York, 2003.

. Gluck: An Eighteenth-Century Portrait in Letters and Documents. Oxford, 1995.

Lesure, François, ed. Querelle des Gluckistes et des Piccinnistes. Geneva, 1984. Facsimiles of eighteenth-century pamphlets and other materials.

Rice, John A. Antonio Salieri and Viennese Opera. Chicago, 1998.

M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet

Gluck, Christoph Willibald von

views updated May 29 2018

Gluck, Christoph Willibald von (b Erasbach, 1714; d Vienna, 1787). Ger. composer. Went to Prague Univ. in 1732 to study mus. and philosophy, also learning vc. In 1735 travelled to Vienna under protection of Prince Lobkowitz. Joined private orch. of Prince Melzi, who engaged him for his orch. in Milan 1737. There he probably studied with Sammartini. Wrote his first opera Artaserse, 1741, 7 more following up to 1744. Travelled with Prince Lobkowitz to London 1745, composing 2 operas prod. 1746, meeting Handel, and giving 2 concerts as performer on glass armonica. After 1746 travelled in Austria and Denmark and again visited Prague and Naples. In 1754 Empress Maria Theresa appointed him opera Kapellmeister to court th. in Vienna, a post which required him to compose in the more lively and flexible style of the fashionable Fr. opéras-comiques. During 1755–61 he was closely assoc. with Durazzo (court th. Intendant), Quaglio (scene-painter), Angiolini (dancer), and the poet Calzabigi, with whom he evolved his operatic ‘reforms’ in which the singers' claims were subjugated to those of the drama, with recitativo accompagnato ousting the more formal secco recit. His ballet Don Juan (1761) and opera Orfeo (1762) embodied these principles which reached full expression in Alceste (1767), an anticipation of Wagner's music-drama. Gluck set forth his operatic creed in the preface to Alceste.

He resigned his Vienna court post in 1770 and in 1773 went to Paris, having been contracted to compose Iphigénie en Aulide for the Opéra. Its prod. in 1774 was followed by a slightly rev. Fr. version of Orfeo and 2 years later of Alceste. Jealousy of Gluck's success in Paris led to an engineered quarrel with the It. composer Piccinni, who was asked to set the same lib. on which Gluck was known to be working. Gluck destroyed his sketches but composed Armide (1777), followed by Iphigénie en Tauride (1778). In 1779 he returned to Vienna and retired, living in a grand manner and dying after defying his doctor by drinking a post-prandial liqueur. The simplicity and sublimity of Gluck's melodies, supported by a vivid dramatic sense, have ensured the survival of a large proportion of his mus. Works incl.:OPERAS: Artaserse (Milan 1741); La caduta dei giganti and Artemene (London 1746); La Semiramide riconosciuta (Vienna 1748); La contesa dei Numi (Copenhagen 1749); La clemenza di Tito (Naples 1752); Le Cinesi (1754); La danza (Vienna 1755); Il rè pastore (Vienna 1756); Orfeo ed Euridice (Vienna 1762); Telemaco (Vienna 1765); Paride ed Elena (Vienna 1770); Iphigénie en Aulide (Paris 1774); Orphée (Paris 1774); Alceste (Vienna 1767, Paris 1776); Armide (Paris 1777); Iphigénie en Tauride (Paris 1778); Echo et Narcisse (Paris 1779).OPÉRAS-COMIQUES: L'Île de Merlin and La Fausse Esclave (Vienna 1758); La Cythère assiégée (Schwetzingen 1759); L'Arbre enchanté (Vienna 1759); La Rencontre imprévue (often known as The Pilgrimage to Mecca) (Vienna 1764).BALLETS: Don Juan (Vienna 1761); Semiramide (Vienna 1765).MISC.: De Profundis, ch.; 6 sonatas a tre (London 1746); 9 syms. (Vienna 1753).

Christoph Willibald Gluck

views updated Jun 08 2018

Christoph Willibald Gluck

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) was an Austrian composer and opera reformer. His operas represent an end to the older style of the opera seria and the beginning of the modern music drama.

Christoph Willibald Gluck was born of German-Bohemian stock on July 2, 1714, at Erasbach in the Upper Palatinate. His father was a forester. In 1726, according to some sources, Gluck was sent to a Jesuit college where he received formal music lessons as part of his education. At the age of 19 he enrolled in the university in Prague, where he was also actively engaged in musical activities.

After a short stay in Vienna in 1736, Gluck went to Milan, where he was in the employ of the Melzi family from 1737 to 1739. At this time he studied with the composer Giovanni Battista Sammartini. In 1741 Gluck's first opera, Artaserse, after a libretto by Pietro Metastasio, was produced.

During the next 20 years Gluck pursued the career of the typical 18th-century opera composer. He was active in Vienna, traveled extensively to serve his various patrons, and produced one or two new operas a year. In 1762, however, his dramatic ballet Don Juan was performed in Vienna; this event marked a significant change in Gluck's career. Don Juan is a ballet which narrates a story rather than presents a series of abstract geometric patterns. Most significantly, the music for Don Juan reflects the action onstage, thereby paving the way for Gluck's "reform" operas. In 1766, in Vienna, Gluck returned to the "reform" ballet, producing Semiramide, in which music and plot complement one another.

Collaboration with Calzabigi

Gluck came under the influence of the Italian dramatist and man of letters Ranieri Calzabigi, active in Vienna as court poet following Metastasio's long, brilliant career. Gluck and Calzabigi collaborated on three operas. Their first collaboration was Orfeo ed Euridice, produced in Vienna in 1762. They severely modified the legendary tale and abandoned the traditional "dry" recitative; the opera is one of great simplicity and directness in which nothing extraneous hinders the presentation of the drama. Calzabigi and Gluck thus opened the way for the possibilities for reform of the old-fashioned Italian opera seria. Their second collaborative effort, Alceste, modeled on the Euripides drama, premiered in 1767 in Vienna. Three years later Paride ed Elena, their last collaboration, was produced in Vienna.

Career in France

In 1770 Gluck was at the height of his fame. François du Roullet, attaché to the French embassy in Vienna, wrote a libretto for Gluck, but in the French style, based on Racine's famous drama Iphigénie en Aulide. Du Roullet's drama proved to be the means which brought Gluck to France. In 1773 he agreed to compose several French operas and moved to Paris at the instigation of his former pupil, Marie Antoinette, to supervise the productions. Iphigénie en Aulide was premiered the following year, which also saw the production of the French version of Orfeo ed Euridice. In 1775, as an act of homage to the memory of Jean Baptiste Lully and as a diplomatic gesture to French sensitivities, Gluck undertook to compose an opera based on Philippe Quinault's drama Armide, which had already been composed by Lully.

The French version of Gluck's Alceste was mounted at the Paris Opéra in 1776, and Armide was presented in 1777. His career came to a close with Iphigénie en Tauride in 1779. He retired from public life that year and returned to Vienna, where, following a stroke, he died on Nov. 15, 1787.

Opera Reform

Gluck was a very practical man of the theater, and during the 2 decades he was involved with opera reform he continued to compose other operas and entertainments in the old-fashioned, traditional style. It was largely due to Calzabigi's and Gluck's efforts that a general reexamination of the condition of the musical theater in the mid-18th century resulted in a series of masterpieces. Gluck's major accomplishment was to prove the efficacy of a lofty, serenely neoclassic style for the music drama. The reform operas were intended to demonstrate the possibilities the music theater held for the presentation of great, sublime ideas, and Gluck's efforts must be considered a success.

Gluck was very conscious of the precise role music was to play in the theater. "I sought to restrict music to its true function, namely to serve the poetry by means of the expression—and the situations which make up the plot—without interrupting the action or diminishing its interest by useless and superfluous ornament…. I have not cherished the invention of novel devices except when they were demanded by the situation and the expression. There was, finally, no rule which I did not gladly violate for the sake of the intended effect" (Dedicatory Letter, Alceste, 1769). In his five major reform operas there are no distracting subplots or senseless comedy scenes; the dramas move irrevocably toward the denouement, and Gluck always made the music entirely suitable for the intention of the drama.

Gluck's impact was tremendous. He received the ultimate accolade in France by precipitating several literary and critical "wars." During his lifetime there were many imitators and disciples, especially in France. The perfection of Gluck's operatic vision haunted the imaginations of composers as diverse as Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner a century later. In Gluck's creations the genesis of modern opera composition is to be found.

Further Reading

The best biography of Gluck in English is Alfred Einstein, Gluck (trans. 1936; rev. ed. 1964). The operas are discussed in depth by Donald J. Grout, A Short History of Opera (2 vols., 1947; rev. ed., 1 vol., 1965). See also Joseph Kerman, Opera as Drama (1956). □

Gluck, Christoph Willibald von

views updated Jun 27 2018

Gluck, Christoph Willibald von (1714–87) German operatic composer. His early operas were composed in the Italian tradition. In Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), Gluck attempted to reform opera by unifying musical and dramatic components. He turned to the French tradition in Iphigénie en Tauride (1779). His reforms influenced Mozart.

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