1902 Encyclopedia > Christoph Willibald (von) Gluck

Christoph Willibald (von) Gluck
German composer

CHRISTOPHER WILLIBALD GLUCK (not, as frequently spelt, GLÜCK) (1714-1787), a celebrated operatic composer, was born at Heidenwang, near Neumarkt, in the Upper Palatinate, on July 2, 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 Kommotow in the neighbourhood 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 Czernhorsky, and maintained himself by the exercise of his art, sometimes in the very humble capacity of fiddler at village fairs and dances. Through the introduction 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, who invited Gluck to accompany him to Milan, where the young musician continued his education under Giovanni Battista San Martini, an interesting composer who, although self-taught, was one of the most accomplished musicians of the 18th century, and has been called the model of Haydn. His works belong chiefly to the class of chamber music. In this respect, however, the master's example was not followed by the pupil. Gluck's dramatic instinct was irrepressible, and soon we find him producing operas at the rapid rate necessitated by the omnivorous taste of the Italian public in those days. Eight of these works were produced at various Italian theatres between 1741 and 1745. Although favourably received, they were not much above the ordinary operatic level of the day, and it would be needless even to give their names. Only the first may be mentioned here, Artaserse, libretto by Metastasio, first performed at Milan in 1741. To the reputation thus acquired Gluck owed an invitation to London, where in 1745 he became composer for the opera house in the Haymarket. The first opera produced there was called La Caduta dei Giganti (1746, words by Metastasio), followed by one of his earlier operas, rewritten for the purpose. It is stated that he also appeared as a performer on the musical glasses. The success of the two operas, as well as that of a so-called pasticcio, or dramatic medley entitled Piramo e Tisbe, was anything but brilliant, and Gluck accordingly left London. But his stay in England, although not accompanied by immediate success, was not without important consequences for his subsequent career. Gluck at this time was neither more nor less than an ordinary producer of Italian opera. Handel's well-known saying that Gluck knew no more counterpoint than his (Handel's) cook, whether true or not, was unfair, for the reason that, if Gluck had known as much counterpoint as the author of Israel in Egypt himself, it would have been difficult to make use of it in the style of music then exclusively cultivated by him. Had the young composer been successful in the ordinary opera seria, there is every reason to fear that the great dramatic reform, initiated by him, would never 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—the future scene, of his own triumphs. 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. His first opera written for Vienna, called La Semiramide reconosciuta (1748), is again an opera seria of the ordinary kind, and little more can be said of Telemacco (Rome, 1749), La Clemenza di Tito (Naples, 1751), and numerous occasional pieces of a more or less serious kind written for the court at Vienna, where Gluck settled permanently in 1756, having two years previously been appointed court chapel-master, with a salary of 2000 florins, by the empress Maria Theresa. On a previous occasion he had received the order of knight-hood from the pope, consequent upon the successful production of two of his works in Rome. During the long interval from 1756 (the date of his opera II Re Pastore) to 1762, Gluck seems to have matured his plans for the reform of the opera; and, barring a ballet named, like Mozart's opera, Don Giovanni, and some airs nouveaux to French words with pianoforte accompaniment, no compositions of any importance have to be recorded. His piece d' occasion, II Trionfo di Gleiia, produced at Bologna in 1762, is still written in the old manner. But his Orfeo ed Euridice, played in October of the same year at Vienna, shows that the composer had entered upon a new career. It is significant that in the original score the work is described as a " dramma per musica" or music-drama, the title opera seria being avoided. Gluck also for the first time had deserted Metastasio, and Raniero Calzabigi furnished the highly dramatic book of Orpheus. Quite apart from its significance in the history of dramatic music, Orpheus is a work which, by its intrinsic beauty, commands the highest admiration, and does not fail to impress an audience, even now, wherever an adequate representative of the title-part can be found. Orpheus's air, " Che faro." is known to everyone; but finer even 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 (Deli! 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 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 named Alceste, and first produced in December 1767 at Vienna. In his dedication of the score to the grand-duke of Tuscany, Gluck has fully expressed his aims, as well as the reasons for his total breach with the old traditions. " I shall try," he writes, " 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 centre of intellectual and more especially dramatic life, Paris. Such a chance was opened to him through M. Bailli du Rollet, 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 Racine's Iphigénie en Aidide. 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 April 19, 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 Gluck's opponents were not only the admirers of Italian vocalization and sweetness, but also the adherents of the earlier French school, who refused to see in Gluck the legitimate successor of Lulli and Rameau. Marmontel, Laharpe, and D'Alembert were opponents, the Abbé Arnaud and others the enthusiastic friends of the German master. 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, he willingly acknowledged the great composer's genius. In a letter to Dr Burney, written shortly before his death, Rousseau gives a close and appreciative analysis of the 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 favourably by the Parisian audience, the composer exclaimed, " Alceste est tombée," Rousseau is said to have comforted him with the flattering bon-mot, " Oui, mais elle est tombée du ciel." The contest received a still more personal character when Piccini, a celebrated and by no means incapable composer, came to Paris as the champion of the Italian party. Into the details of the historic battle between Gluckists and Piccinists this is not the place to enter. Volumes have been written on the subject, and the whole affair has been denounced as a sign of the frivolity of the eighteenth century. But to those interested in music and in the drama, the question whether the vocal virtuoso or the true dramatic artist should reign on the lyrical stage is by no means without importance; although, perhaps, the gentlemen of the queen's court, and their friends who applauded her countryman and protege Gluck from "le coin de la reine," hardly looked upon the matter in so serious a light. The victory at last remained, by common consent (including, it is said, Piccini's own), with Gluck. The succession of the operas written for Paris is the following :—Orphée et Eurydice (the Orfeo rewritten), 1774; Alceste (also an adaptation of the earlier work, 1776); Armide, 1777; Iphigénie en Tauride, 1779. Some minor compositions, written partly by desire of the queen for the court festivals, it would be needless to mention. Gluck was engaged upon an opera Les Danaides when an attack of apoplexy compelled him to relinquish all thoughts of work. He left Paris for Vienna, where he lived for several years in dignified leisure, disturbed only by his declining health. He died on November 18, 1787.

To the general character of Gluck's music some allusion has already been made. He was essentially a dramatic composer, and no notice need be taken of the few works belonging to a different sphere. In connexion with its dramatic purpose his music ought always to be judged. He never was a great contrapuntist in the sense that Bach and Handel were. But neither was there much room for polyphonous display in the music-drama as he understood it. The chorus of Scythians in the second Iphigenia (" II nous falloit du sang") would not gain in effect if it contained an elaborate fugue. This and other choruses in the same great work at the same time illustrate Gluck's power of rendering musically national as well as individual characteristics. As a masterly trait of psychological characterization may further be cited the accompaniment to Orestes's air, also in Iphigenie en Tauride (" Le calme rentre dans mon coeur"), where the unfortunate man in vain tries to find relief from the pangs of conscience, distinctly heard in the unceasing semiquavers of the orchestral accompaniment. The severe censure passed on Gluck for drowning the voices by the instruments posterity has converted into one of the composer's highest claims to fame. Not only has Gluck developed the orchestra as regards mere beauty and volume of sound, but he also has made it an important factor in the dramatic organism. Instances from the second Iphigenie alone might again be multiplied. The savage Scythians, for instance, are characterized by the noise of brass and percussion; while Iphigenie's simple prayer is accompanied by the strings and two oboes. The care bestowed by Gluck upon a correct and emphatic declamation of the words is another important point in his dramatic reform. Readers interested in the matter will have noticed the striking parallelism between the views and aims advocated by Gluck in the 18th century and by Wagner in the 19 th century—a parallelism which may be extended to the bitter animadversions evoked by these theories amongst contemporary critics. The means, however, by which the theories were to be realized are very different in the two cases. Gluck's reform is essentially directed against the encroachments of the singer; Wagner's against those of the composer as an independent artist. Gluck, it is true, felt the necessity of a perfect unity between music and poetry, but he never intended to bring about this desirable effect by surrendering any of the strict forms of his own art. The consequence was that the poet was more than ever bound to adapt his work to the demands of the composer, and that the latter remained practically the omnipotent ruler on the operatic stage. Wagner at last has made dramatic purpose the supreme consideration to which the forms of music, as a separate art, have to submit.

An altogether satisfactory biography of Gluck remains still to be written. With regard to the life, Anton Schmid's Chr. W. Hitter von Gluck may be consulted. Herr Marx, in his Gluck und die Opera, has attempted to define the composer's position in the history of dramatic music. M. Desnoiresterres's Gluck et Piccini refers to the most important portion of the composer's career. For it must always be remembered that Gluck, although a German by birth, belongs as an artist to France rather than to his native country. His works form as it were the musical complement to the tragedy of Corneille and Racine. In France he was first appreciated, and in France also his traditions were continued by a school of highly gifted composers. (F. H.)

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-21 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries