Gluck, Christoph Wilibald, Ritter von


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.

Up to 1756 he produced a number of works in Rome, Naples, Vienna and other cities, traveling at intervals. In 1755 he returned to Vienna, where for the next six years the demands of his patrons led him to produce works well-nigh worthless except as "pot-boilers" and as practise in composition. At the end of this time, he secured the co-operation of Calzabigi, a librettist who was thoroughly in sympathy with his own ideas on the need of reform in Italian operas the accepted standard of that day. The result of this new combination was remarkably successful in Orpheus and Eurydice, in 1762. Alceste, in 1767, was another step in advance; indeed, its often quoted preface amounted to a declaration of war in the operatic field. The gist of this preface may be stated as follows:   That the place of music in opera is to supply adequate expression to the text, without interrupting the natural action of the drama by superfluous vocal display; and on the other hand, by judicious use of the orchestra, to add appropriate effects in tone that should vivify the whole as color does the outlines of a painting. In this " confession of faith " Gluck set forth what he was trying to do in this opera, and spoke of the conventional Italian operas as " wearisome," thus incurring the enmity of the foremost German critics. In the dedication to Paris and Helen, 1770, he referred to his critics as " smatterers " and " would-be judges," and stated the fact that "because of imperfectly studied, poorly conducted and still more poorly performed rehearsals," his opera had been unjustly condemned, the effect which it might produce upon the stage having been judged by its effect in a room. The attacks of the " would-be judges" were but increased by this defense, and Gluck's thoughts turned to Paris where the standard of aesthetics in general was much higher than in Vienna, as a more congenial field. In 1772 Iphigenie en Aulide was rehearsed in Vienna, and finally produced at the Grand Opera in Paris, in 1774; a triumph in spite of adverse circumstances. Orpheus and Eurydice; and Alceste, appeared within the next two years, and drew immense audiences; but their severely classical style, and dramatic intensity, aroused the  opposition of those prejudiced against the innovations of Gluck, who was now determined to remain in Paris.

Among his admirers was Rousseau, who declared that the music of Orpheus had reconciled him to existence, and acknowledged publicly that he had erred in stating that the French language was unsuitable to set to music. It may be stated here that as a conductor Gluck was brusque and exacting, the musicians requiring double pay when playing under his baton; nevertheless, his facial and gestural expression was so emotional an indication of his ideas that he finally won over the most lazy or obstinate performer to his views. The opposition to Gluck became so strong that a rival composer, Piccinni, was invited to appear in Paris, and a stage war began similar to, yet more fierce, than the one between Handel and Bononcini in England. The press was brought into service, and for several years the conflict was kept up. Gluck's Armide, produced in 1777, was written with a view to refuting the charge that his work lacked melody, the same accusation that was brought later against Wagner. It amply proved his ability to portray the softer and more pleasing aspects of life. This opera and Orpheus have attained a wider and more lasting popularity than any other of his works. The final contest was soon precipitated. The directors of Grand Opera had commissioned Gluck to write an opera, Roland. On learning that they had called on Piccinni to do the same, he destroyed the partly finished manuscript in a rage, and wrote to du Rollet about the matter. Du Rollet published Gluck's letter, thus throwing down a gauntlet to the latter's opponents. Nevertheless, he uttered no invective against Piccinni, and the two themselves were friendly rather than otherwise. The next fight was openly planned. With Guillard as his librettist, Gluck began Iphigenie en Tauride; the rival faction put Piccinni at work on the same subject. It is possible that strategy and influence at court had something to do  with the delay; at any rate, Piccinni's opera was not given until 1781, two years after the successful presentation of Gluck's, and then its obvious inferiority to the earlier production ended the struggle. One more opera, Echo and Narcissus, was given in 1779, but made little impression; Gluck's life- work was accomplished. He began work on a last opera, Les Danaides, but a stroke of apoplexy compelled him to abandon the project, and he turned over the libretto to Salieri. Soon after he retired to Vienna with honors and riches, his active career at an end; and the next apoplectic stroke ended his life. As a man, Gluck was self-possessed, confident, a conscientious worker, loyal to his friends, generous in recognizing the merits of others, yet quick-tempered and proud. In comparing him with Wagner, Ernst Newman says: "Less nervously constituted, less self-conscious, he yet did a work which, though it can not be compared to Wagner's in real depth of importance, yet marks him out far above any musical figure of his time." His music reflects his character; it is animated, yet never subtle nor overemotional, and is essentially classical, as was Gluck's choice of subjects. He differed from the other great musicians of his century in that their music was principally based on the piano, the instrument most capable of purely polyphonic treatment, while Gluck wrote almost exclusively for voices and stringed instruments, more limited in range, yet intrinsically more suited to dramatic expression. Iphigenie en Tauride, usually considered Gluck's masterpiece, is the most perfect in form of all his operas. He also made important changes in the orchestra, removing the harpsichord, introducing the harp and trombone, and emphasizing the value of the overture as an indication of the character of the drama which it prefaced. The general estimate of his place among composers is, that his work as a reformer of opera constituted a phase in musical history not without its effect, yet not wholly permanent a first strong effort towards the result later achieved by Wagner.