Personalities | Christoph Willibald von Gluck | Classical Era | Opera

1714–87, German

Famous above all as the composer of Orfeo ed Euridice, Christoph Willibald von Gluck was, more than anyone, responsible for purging opera of what he dubbed the ‘abuses’ of opera seria in favour of ‘beautiful simplicity’, emotional directness and dramatic truth.

From Bohemia to Vienna

Born in the small town of Erasbach in the Upper Palatinate on 2 July 1714, Gluck was determined to become a musician despite opposition from his father, a forester. In his early twenties he went to Milan, where he played in the orchestra of Prince Melzi and composed his earliest opera, Artaserse (1741). Its success led to several more works in the then-fashionable genre of opera seria. After visiting London, where he met Handel, in 1745, and directing performances of his operas in other European centres, Gluck settled in Vienna in 1752. That year he composed his most boldly inventive opera seria to date, La clemenza di Tito (‘Titus’ Clemency’, 1752), to a libretto by Metastasio, which Mozart was to use nearly 40 years later.

New Directions

During the 1750s and early 1760s Gluck wrote, besides opera seria, celebratory works on mythological themes for the imperial court (such as L’innocenza giustificata, ‘Innocence Vindicated’, 1755) and several light, tuneful opéras comiques – a genre that became popular after the Viennese imperial chancellor Count Kaunitz brought a French troupe to the court. These culminated in La rencontre imprévue (‘The Unforeseen Meeting’, 1764), a delightful work whose plot and Turkish harem setting (then all the rage in Vienna) were reused by Haydn in L’incontro improvviso (‘The Unforeseen Meeting’, 1775) and influenced Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. However, the two decisive events of these years were the revolutionary dramatic ballet Don Juan (1761) and the first of Gluck’s so-called ‘reform’ operas, Orfeo ed Euridice, on which he collaborated with the poet and librettist Calzabigi.

The French Connection

Orfeo’s success prompted two further operas whose simple classical plots and close integration of solos, chorus and ballet consolidated Gluck’s and Calzabigi’s new dramatic principles: Alceste, and the less well-received Paride ed Elena (‘Paris and Helen’, 1770). Two years later Gluck was given an adaptation of Racine’s tragedy Iphigénie en Aulide (‘Iphigenia in Aulis’, 1774) by the attaché to the French embassy in Vienna. Between 1774, when this new opera was successfully premiered at the Académie Royale in Paris, and 1779 Gluck applied his revolutionary principles of music drama – themselves influenced by French opera, especially Rameau’s tragédies lyriques – to further works for the Parisian stage: an expanded version of Orfeo as Orphée et Euridice (1774), and an even more radical reworking of Alceste (1776). This was followed by the romantically coloured Armide (1777), which Gluck pronounced ‘perhaps the best of all my works’, and then by the opera many regard as his supreme masterpiece, Iphigénie en Tauride (‘Iphigenia in Tauris’, 1779).

Gluck’s final French opera, the...

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