Personalities | Christoph Willibald von Gluck | Classical Era | Classical

(Khres’-tof Vil’-le-balt fun Glook) 1714–87
Bohemian composer

Gluck was born in Erasbach, by the Czech-German border; his native language may well have been Czech. His father, a forester, was opposed to a musical career, but the boy left home at 13 to study in Prague, where he took musical posts and went briefly to the university.

At about the age of around 20 he went to Vienna, obtaining work as a musician in an aristocratic household; after two years he took a similar post in Milan.

Opera was, and remained, his central interest, and in 1741 his first opera, Artaserse, opened the season at Milan’s main opera house. More followed, there and in other Italian centres. In 1745 he went to England, where he gave two new operas in London. More travel followed, with opera performances in several centres (Copenhagen, Dresden, Naples, Prague), but in 1752 Gluck settled in Vienna as director of a princely musical establishment. There he became involved with the court theatres, organizing performances including several of French opéras comiques and composing works in Italian for court entertainments. By 1759 he held a salaried post at the court theatre.

Change of Direction

Up to this time, most of Gluck’s works had been fairly traditional in manner, within the usual style of Italian serious opera. But now, in collaboration with two other artists strongly influenced by Enlightenment ideals, the poet Raniero de’ Calzabigi and the choreographer Gasparo Angiolini, he experimented with new styles. First, they produced together a ballet based on the Don Juan story, given in 1761 – a ballet d’action in which the dance is designed to be dramatic and expressive of the action rather than purely decorative (as it generally had been until then). This was found powerful and rather alarming by the audiences. Their next work, the following year, was the opera Orfeo ed Euridice (given in celebration of the emperor’s nameday, it had to have a happy ending, with Eurydice restored to life).

Orfeo is the first of what are known as Gluck’s ‘reform’ operas, in which he took radical steps to create a new kind of work in which all elements were allied to serve the drama and to appeal directly and powerfully to the audience’s emotions. It was followed up, in 1767, with Alceste, in which his and Calzabigi’s new dramatic principles were carried a stage further; both operas were immensely successful in Vienna, although a third, Paride ed Elena (1770), was not.

Gluck’s Reform of Opera

Gluck was not the only reformer of opera. A number of Italians, notably Jommelli and Traetta, had worked along similar lines, but Gluck, although his purely musical gifts were circumscribed, was the greatest and the most influential. He described the reforms in the famous preface to the published score of Alceste (1767): ‘When I undertook to write the music for Alceste, I resolved to divest it entirely of those abuses, introduced by the misguided vanity of singers...

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