On this day in 1714, Christoph Willibald Gluck was born. We know him simply as Gluck and he was a great composer. But we remember him because he was an enormously important opera composer. Although he had many patrons who required various things of him as a composer, his output is overwhelmingly opera. And he is really the reason that opera became such a big deal to Classical and then Romantic period composers. Because Gluck fixed opera. He abandoned opera buffa and opera seria, and was critical in creating the more serious art form that we think of today.
Gluck is also interesting in that he was something of an itinerant composer. He moved all over Europe, In 1745, he became the house composer at the King’s Theatre in London. That’s notable because artistically speaking, England was an artistic backwater at that time. But Gluck came into his all in 1770s in Paris. During his time in Vienna, he was the young Marie Antoinette’s music teacher, so he was well connected when he moved to France. And he had the good sense to not only leave Paris before the revolution, but also to die before it—just to be certain. It was in Paris that Gluck created his greatest work.
There was great controversy during his time in Paris. Many people loved his new work, but many others preferred the old style. In fact, there was a public rivalry between those who loved Gluck and those who loved the Italian composer Niccolo Piccinni. Piccinni was actually quite a bit younger than Gluck, but he still composed mostly opera buffa. There was no rivalry between the two composers themselves. However, when Gluck learned that Piccinni was working on an opera of the same libretto, Gluck abandoned the project and destroyed what work he had done. I have no idea why, but in general, I think revolutionaries are often insecure and that he didn’t want to go head to head with Piccinni, even though I have little doubt that history would have favored Gluck.
It was in Paris that Gluck suffered his first stroke. After that, he pretty much retired from music, handing off to his student Antonio Salieri. In fact, there is a very sweet story about this. Gluck gave Salieri the libretto Les Danaides and when it was performed in 1784, it was announced as a collaboration between Gluck and Salieri. But when it became a huge hit, Gluck announced publicly that the music was, in fact, entirely Salieri’s. That’s what I call a mentor: protective and gracious! (For the record, despite the movie Amadeus and even letters from Mozart himself, Salieri was Italian by birth, but he was absolutely a German composer.)
The one thing I really don’t like in opera is the recitative. These are kind of talk-singing between the real musical numbers. And the more powerful the main numbers are, the more the recitatives stand out as simply bizarre. Gluck really tried to cut back on their use and I think wanted to get rid of them altogether. In addition to not being very interesting musically, they distract the listener. I hate them in Don Giovanni, for example—an opera I love. But interestingly, Gluck’s primary goal was make the music work with the libretto. Like all the great opera composers to follow him, he wanted the music to serve the drama. At that time, most opera was just an excuse for singers to go off. In Amadeus, Salieri says (unfairly) of Mozart’s opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, “Ten minutes of ghastly scales; arpeggios! Whizzing up and down like fireworks at a fairground.” Gluck is kind of the father of modern opera. There is a direct line from him to Wagner.
Here is a commercial for the Washington National Opera’s production of what is generally considered Gluck’s masterpiece, Iphigenie en Tauride:
Happy birthday Gluck!