Gluck, Christoph Wilibald, Ritter von

1714-1787

This famous dramatic composer has been called the "Father of Modern Opera." "His career," says Streatfield, "is a picture ... of a constant striving towards a pure ideal of art, a perfect blending of the lyrical and dramatic elements of opera, whjch he attained by a balanced power of intellect such as few musicians have possessed." Christoph Wilibald Gluck was born at Weidenwang, son of the gamekeeper to Prince Lobkowitz of Eisenberg.

From 1726 to 1732 he attended a Jesuit school at Komotau, where he studied violin, organ and harpsichord, and was a chorister in St. Ignaz Church. At the end of this time he went to Prague to continue his musical work under Czernohorsky, and became an excellent cello player, supporting himself meanwhile by playing at dances in villages near Prague, giving concerts in the larger towns, and singing and playing in different churches.

In 1736 he went to Vienna, where his playing attracted the attention of Prince Melzi, with whose private band he went to Milan. Here his new-found patron entrusted his further education to Sammartini, under whom he studied harmony and counterpoint for four years. Gluck, however, never became proficient in counterpoint, and his church compositions were of little importance. His real work began to manifest itself in the production of his first opera, Artaxerxes, in 1741, at Milan; others followed, and by 1745 no less than seven successful operas had been given in Milan, Venice and other Italian cities.

In the last named year, he was invited to London to write operas for the Haymarket Theatre. It is stated by several biographers that Gluck thus consciously entered into competition with Handel; but as the latter had several years before turned his attention to oratorio, and had produced no opera since 1741, it would seem that there was no actual rivalry between them, and that Handel's feelings toward Gluck were rather those of kindly toleration mingled with a certain contempt for his lack of contrapuntal skill, and that Gluck, on the other hand, admired and respected the elder composer. Notwithstanding the humiliation Gluck received in London, a later time justified his self-confidence, for Handel's operas sank rapidly into oblivion, while Gluck's Orpheus still holds the boards, which cannot be said of the work of any earlier dramatic composer. La Caduta dei Giganti was given early in 1746; Artamene, formerly produced at Cremona, was repeated; but Pyramus and Thisbe, a sort of musical mosaic, composed of the best arias of his previous operas, proved to be an anti-climax. Gluck's London prospects withered under Handel's disapproval and the cold reception accorded by the English public, and later in the season we find him amusing the Haymarket audiences in the novel role of a performer on musical glasses with orchestral accompaniment. However, this seeming failure, together with the impressions made on him by the music of Handel, and of Rameau in Paris, where he visited long enough to hear the works of the latter in grand opera, was the ultimate means of his attaining a truer and larger success than was possible to him in the conventional Italian opera. He next went to Hamburg and Dresden, returning to Vienna within the year, where he began earnest study of musical aesthetics, languages and literature. The effects of this broadening experience and literary study were but slightly apparent in his next production, Semiramide riconosciuta, 1748, although it surpassed all former efforts; but the ideals and purposes identified with Gluck's later work were not yet sufficiently formulated to be embodied in his compositions at this time. About 1750 Gluck was happily married to Marianna Pergin, and to this time belong his Tetide, serenade for the Crown Prince Christian, Telemachus and Clemenzo di Tito.