Christoph Willibald Gluck

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Gluck, Christoph Willibald


Born July 2, 1714, in Erasbach; died Nov. 15, 1787, in Vienna. Austrian composer. One of the leading exponents of classicism in music.

Gluck spent his childhood and youth in Bohemia. One of his teachers was the great Czech organist and composer B. Černohorský. Gluck studied voice and several instruments (organ, harpsichord, violin, and cello). In Vienna he completed his studies. During 1737-45, Gluck lived in Italy, where he studied under G. Sammartini. In 1741, he made his debut as an opera composer with Artaserse (libretto by P. Metastasio). This and subsequent Italian operas by Gluck enjoyed great success. In 1745-46 in London he became acquainted with Handel’s oratorios; and later in Paris with Rameau’s operas. At the end of the 1740’s Gluck visited several European cities (Hamburg, Copenhagen, and Prague) as chorus master of an Italian opera troupe. In 1750 he settled down for a long stay in Vienna, where in 1754 he became choirmaster at court. In addition to Italian operas, beginning in 1758, Gluck wrote operas to the text of French cómedies by C. Favart and others. Among them are L’Isle de Merlin, La Cythère assiégée, L’Ivrogne corrigé, Le Cadi dupe, and Les Pèlerins de la Mecque. In 1761, in collaboration with the ballet master G. Angiolini, he created the ballet Don Juan, which was distinguished from contemporary works by its great dramatic character.

Vienna is associated with the beginning of Gluck’s opera reform, which he carried out in collaboration with the librettist R. Calzabigi. The first reformed opera, Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), was followed by Alceste (1767) and Paride ed Elena (1770). Gluck introduced a fundamental change in opera writing. In the traditional mythological plots he focused above all on the deep ideological content and emphasized civic ideals, such as subordination of personal interests to those of the community and self-sacrifice for the good of the state. The reform was completed in Paris, where Gluck moved in 1773. In 1774 in Paris he staged the opera Iphigénie en Aulide (with a libretto by F. du Roullet, adapted from Racine’s tragedy) and new editions of Orfeo (1774) and Alceste (1776). He also presented the operas Armide (with libretto by P. Quinault; 1777), Iphigenie en Tauride (with a libretto by N. F. Guillard, based on Euripides’ work; 1779), and Echo et Narcisse (based on the mythological tale; 1779). Gluck returned to Vienna in the 1780’s, where he wrote seven odes and the opera Die Hermanns-Schlacht (unfinished) to texts by F. T. Klopstock.

Gluck’s opera reform was in line with the progressive aspirations of democratic circles on the eve of the Great French Revolution. The work of the French encyclopedists (J. J. Rousseau, J. d’Alembert, and especially D. Diderot) and German Enlightenment figures (J. Winckelman and G. E. Lessing) was very important in the ideological preparation of the reform. In his music Gluck sought to bring out the dramatic element as fully as possible, without making concessions to superficial aristocratic tastes. In a preface to Alceste, which was a model statement of the new operatic aesthetics, Gluck wrote: “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.” The composer’s main achievement was the subordination of all components of the opera performance (solo singing, chorus, orchestra, and ballet) to a single design. In his arias Gluck repudiated the desire of virtuoso singers to show off their skill in ornamental and pompous variation. He introduced more expressive declamation in the recitative and heightened the role of orchestral accompaniment. In attempting to overcome the mosaic and schematic character of the opera structure based on separate numbers, he united several episodes, incuding ballet numbers, in monumental scenes constructed on a single dramatic development. He imparted a majestic character to the sounds of the choruses in the operas and increased the importance of the orchestra, as evidenced in his handling of the overture, which he viewed as “an introductory survey of the content” of an opera. Gluck’s activity in Paris contributed to raising the level of opera performance.

Gluck’s opera reform was not without its limitations. His use of themes from antiquity deprived his works of national character. His heroes were lifeless representations of abstract ideals such as marital fidelity and performance of one’s duty. Dominated by a generalizing, severe, and elevated tone, his operas failed to capture the variety of situations and people that real life presents.

Gluck’s reform relied on the musical accomplishments of many national schools, which contributed to its significance throughout Europe. But the reform’s influence was greatest in France, where the composer received the support of progressive circles headed by the encyclopedists. Opposition to Gluck arose from the supporters of the old traditions, who contrasted his work with that of the representative of the Neapolitan school of opera writing, N. Piccinni. The stormy polemic that evolved in Paris at the end of the 1770’s around problems in opera writing became known as the “War Between the Gluckists and the Piccinnists.” In the end the triumph was Gluck’s—even Piccinni was influenced by him. Around Gluck a school of opera arose (A. Sacchini, A. Salieri, and J. C. Vogel). He exerted a significant influence on composers of the period of the Great French Revolution, including L. Cherubim and E. N. Méhul, and his creative work came close to that of the Viennese classical school and contributed to the molding of Mozart’s and Beethoven’s styles. In the 19th century Gluck’s ideas were further developed in Wagner’s reform of opera.


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