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Christoph Willibald Gluck

1714 - 1787

Christoph Willibald Gluck (2 July 1714 – 15 November 1787) was a composer of Italian and French opera in the early classical period. Born in the Upper Palatinate (now part of Germany) and raised in Bohemia, he gained prominence at the Habsburg court at Vienna, where he brought about the practical reform of opera's dramaturgical practices that many intellectuals had been campaigning for over the years. With a series of radical new works in the 1760s, among them Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste, he broke the stranglehold that Metastasian opera seria had enjoyed for much of the century.
The strong influence of French opera in these works encouraged Gluck to move to Paris, which he did in November 1773. Fusing the traditions of Italian opera and the French national genre into a new synthesis, Gluck wrote eight operas for the Parisian stages. One of the last of these, Iphigénie en Tauride, was a great success and is generally acknowledged to be his finest work. Though he was extremely popular and widely credited with bringing about a revolution in French opera, Gluck's mastery of the Parisian operatic scene was never absolute, and after the poor reception of his Echo et Narcisse he left Paris in disgust and returned to Vienna to live out the remainder of his life.

(b. Emsbach, July 2, 1714; d. Vienna, November 15, 1787)Bohemian composer. He achieved an important reform of serious opera in the mid-18th century, paring back the excesses of Baroque vocal style in favor of a purer, more direct melding of words and music. He was the son and grandson of gamekeepers in the employ of the Lobkowitz family, large landowners in what is today northeastern Bavaria, bordering the Czech Republic. As a child he studied music in school and learned to sing and to play the violin and cello; one early account of his life claims that rather than acquiesce to his father's wishes that he too become a gamekeeper, he ran away from home and supported himself by singing and playing the Jew's harp. He enrolled at the University of Prague in 1731, left without taking a degree, and probably spent a couple of years in Vienna as a chamber musician to the Lobkowitz family. By 1737 he was in Milan, where he came into contact with Sammartini, picking up much of his style and getting first-hand exposure to Italian opera seria. Four years later he composed his first opera, to a libretto by Pietro Metastasio, Vienna's imperial court poet.

Between 1741 and 1756, Gluck set more than a dozen Metastasian librettos. Residing in London during 1745 and 1746, he encountered the operas of Handel (and may even have met the great man) and showed his skill playing the glass harmonica. For the next six years he was a traveling musician, crisscrossing between Europe's musical capitals—Dresden, Vienna, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Prague, Munich, Naples—with an itinerant opera troupe. He settled in Vienna in 1752 and was active there for more than two decades, becoming musical director at a local theater, responsible both for Lenten concerts and for productions of French opera comique.

The course of Gluck's career changed in 1761, when the Tuscan poet Ranieri Calzabigi arrived in Vienna. Full of the new ideas of the day concerning dramatic aesthetics, Calzabigi was the most notable and effective opponent of Metastasian opera seria, and in him Gluck found the ideal collaborator. The classicizing spirit and sharp point of Calzabigi's librettos for Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) and Alceste (1767) proved tailor-made for Gluck's austere, yet genuinely passionate, music. Both are majestic operas that avoid the vocal display characteristic of opera seria; plots unfold in a straight line, and music and action are powerfully integrated. Just as Calzabigi's terse dramas were a welcome change from the effusions and platitudes that marked opera seria, Gluck's melodic simplicity and chaste scoring, along with his reliance on arioso and his fluid sense of form, were necessary correctives to the florid musical styles of many opera composers. Orfeo ed Euridice, which premiered in Vienna right under Metastasio's nose, was hugely successful.

Gluck took over the financial administration of Vienna's main theaters in 1769 and had little success, nearly losing his shirt (he quit the next year). Soon he found a new mission, the renewal of tragedie lyrique, the French equivalent of opera seria. In Paris between 1774 and 1779 he produced two new masterpieces, Iphigenie en Aulide and Iphigenie en Tauride, and new French versions of earlier hits—Orphee et Eurydice  and Alceste. He spent his final years in Vienna, in semiretirement and declining health, but greatly honored by the Hapsburg dynasty.

An avant-garde figure in his day, Gluck was outdated by the time of his death, overtaken by Mozart and the younger Italians, who were all writing comedies. Gluck's music was a dead end: It lacked the variety of scoring and texture, the play of style, and the long-range harmonic schemes that would allow opera to advance as a dramatic art. Gluck's works quickly disappeared from the repertoire, though the transformation of operatic conventions that he helped bring about—a greater naturalness of action and an increased emphasis on visual and other nonverbal elements to energize the plot—had a profound influence on the genre.

Also important was Gluck's use of musical pictorialism: for example, his gloomy portrayal of the underworld in Orfeo, or his deft rendering of Orestes' psychological situation in Iphigenie en Tauride—when Orestes sings "Le calme rentre dans mon coeur," the ostinato in the violas shows he's anything but calm. These are among the numerous cases in Gluck where the music is the drama and where the composer set an example much admired by Berlioz and Wagner. With the recent revival of interest in him, there is a new opportunity for Gluck's works to be better appreciated.


Key Works

Concerto in G for Flute

00:00 I. Allegro con moto
04:44 II. Adagio
09:52 III. Allegro commodo

"Orfeo ed Euridice" Herbert von Karajan, Salzburg 1959

In this, the first of Calzabigi and Gluck’s “reform operas”, their aim was to conjure a “beautiful serenity”. Choosing a simple Greek tragedy in preference to the labyrinthine plots employed in opera seria, and using only three rather than six soloists, they created a work of unprecedented directness. The role of Orpheus was originally written for a castrato, but recast as a high tenor when the opera was extended and rewritten in French as Orphee for Paris in 1774. Later rearranged by Berlioz, it is now usually performed by a mezzo soprano.
ACT ONE (36:00) Lamenting Euridice’s death, Orfeo sends away the mourning nymphs and shepherds and decides to bring her back from Hades. Cupid tells him he will succeed if he soothes the Furies with music and avoids looking at her until they are across the River Styx.
ACT TWO (44:00) At the gates of Hades Orpheus quells the Furies with his music and enters. In the Elysian Fields beyond, he finds Euridice and, with eyes averted, leads her back.
ACT THREE (40:00) Orpheus hurries on
as Euridice pleads for reassurance.
No longer able to refuse, he turns and she dies again. Overcome, he sings the aria “Che faro senza Euridice”, vowing to kill himself, but Cupid restores her to life amidst rejoicing.

"Orfeo ed Euridice" - Dance of the Blessed Spirits

"Che farò senza Euridice" from  "Orfeo ed Euridice"

"Iphigenie en Tauride"

"Iphigenia en Tauride"

Probably (duck’s finest work, this was written at the same time as Piccini’s opera on the same theme, splitting Paris into Gluckists and Piccinists. Its first performance in 1779 was Gluck’s greatest triumph, and much later, even inspired Berlioz to become a musician. The music is dramatic, expressive, and almost symphonic in its orchestration.

"Iphigénie en Aulide" -  Overture

"Alceste" - Overture

The second of the “reform operas”, Alceste was published with a preface that declared Gluck’s new principles of opera. The opera was altered considerably for Paris, but the original Italian plot is described below.

ACT ONE (50:00) King Admetus is dying while his Queen, Alceste, makes sacrifices at the temple. The oracle declares that he will live if someone will take his place. Alceste offers herself.
ACT TWO (60:00) In the Grove of Death the orchestra imitates the sounds of the night. Calling upon the Underworld, she insists on her sacrifice as long as she can bid her family farewell. Admetus discovers why he has returned to health and vows to die himself instead.
ACT THREE (25:00) About to take her farewell, Alceste is seized by the Furies and dies. Admetus issues threats and lamentations, but when he threatens suicide, Apollo restores Alceste to life.

"As I was passionate about the art, I made rapid progress. I played several instruments and the schoolmaster, singling me out from the other pupils, gave me lessons at his house when he was off duty. I no longer thought and dreamt of anything but music; the art of forestry was neglected."
                                                                               Christoph von Gluck

"Iphigénie en Aulide" -  Ballet Suite

Jean-Antoine Houdon.
Portrait Bust of Christoph Willibald Von Gluck.

Don Juan - Ballet suite

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