Christoph Willibald Gluck Gluck’s Great Good Luck

A composer and careful revolutionary of the opera: Christoph Willibald Gluck
A composer and careful revolutionary of the opera: Christoph Willibald Gluck | Painted (detail) by Joseph Duplessis

Christoph Willibald Gluck was a revolutionary, but also a precursor of a zeitgeist that showed the courtly genre of opera the way beyond the narrow limits of an aristocratic amusement. In summer 2014 is the 300th anniversary of his birth – a good occasion for an assessment.

Opera was invented in 1600 in Italy. North of the Alps, the new genre and its associated business soon excited admiration, longing, envy and competitive ambition. Even before this, opera had migrated from Florence to France with french king Henri IV last wife Marie de’ Medici and there entered an independent development. But before the idea of a German “Singspiel” and the first models of a “teutscher” opera gained ground in the eighteenth century (there was later to be national opera in virtually every country of Europe), music theatre at the international level was altogether an Italian affair. Italian composers, capellmeisters, impresarios and singers enjoyed success everywhere in the courts and theatres of the Old World. Even if there was at one time or another an Italian-trained German guild member who could hold his own as a master of the opera – for example, Johann Adolph Hasse in Dresden or Georg Friedrich Händel in London – Gluck was the first composer who, as a German and in the imperial capital of Vienna, knew how to make his operas into an export good to a significant extent. He stands at the beginning of a long era during which German-Austrian music attained a fairly universally acknowledged hegemony in the northern hemisphere.

From forest ranger’s house to Prague, London and Milan

A composer and careful revolutionary of the opera: Christoph Willibald Gluck. A composer and careful revolutionary of the opera: Christoph Willibald Gluck. | Painted by Joseph Duplessis Long, tortuous and at first quite adventurous was the way Christoph Willibald Gluck was to take before his idea and practice of a total work of art for music theatre would at last achieve recognition as the leading form of opera. Born probably on 2 July 1714 in Erasbach, in the forests nears Neumarkt in the Upper Palatinate, Gluck grew up in the household of the enterprising forest ranger Alexander Gluck and his wife Maria Walburga. In 1717 the family moved to northern Bohemia, where Gluck may have received a certain amount of basic musical training (sources for his early life do not exist). The oldest of the family’s surviving sons, he was expected to follow in the professional footsteps of his father. But Gluck wanted to try his luck as a musician and escape the rural narrowness: at sixteen, he ran away. By this time he had mastered the violin, cello and organ respectably, sang well and so was able to scratch along as a backup musician for church services and Jew’s harp performer at markets.

In Prague he enrolled at the university, but above all began to study the opera italiana cultivated in the city, especially the new works based on the libretti of Pietro Metastasio. He soon became a professional musician and moved to Vienna, where, however, he received only occasional work in the orchestra of Prince Lobkowitz. There ensued eight years as an orchestra musician, during which he also received further musical training in northern Italy. The premiere of Artaserse (libretto: Matastasio) at the Teatro Regio Ducal in Milan marked the beginning of the brilliant career of the adaptive migrant worker. In 1745/46, Gluck took an excursion to London and met, among others, Händel. He struggled to make his name in Hamburg, Copenhagen, Dresden, Prague and Naples.

New ideas and reforms

The ascent to international fame then took place at the beginning of the second half of the century in Vienna: Gluck profiled himself as a taskmaster of the orchestra and experimented with new expressive possibilities of the body in ballet in particular and in the opera in general. He concentrated painstakingly on a scenic realisation of his ideas and music – an absolute novelty in a time that still knew no such thing as a director. The azione teatrale per musica Orfeo ed Euridic (1762) and Alceste, written five years later, are still part of the international opera repertoire today. These two successes were then joined by Iphigénie en Aulide in 1777, Armide in 1777 and Iphigénie en Tauride in 1779, all performed in Paris, where Gluck was dispatched after the marriage of one of his singing pupils, the Hapsburg princess Maria Antonia, with the Dauphin, the later King LouisXVI of France. It was not by chance that business interests were bound up with reformatory zeal. Gluck was one of those people who wanted to do it better than the competitors, and did do so after several assiduous attempts.

Gluck went down in the minds of his contemporaries as a great reformer of opera, but their descendants still fail to agree whether he was a revolutionary in opera or a distinguished music administer for royal houses and of the aristocratic taste, intent on a clever renewal of the genre. It was not by accident that, shortly after his arrival in Paris, he became the figurehead in the so-called “querelle des Bouffons”, in which he took the role of the opposition to the fresh and pert opera buffa of Niccolò Piccinni, imported from Italy. The future was to belong to Gluck: the ideas that he and his librettist Ranieri de Calzabigi pursued contained an astonishing trendsetting potential by comparison with the standards of their day and were to have a lasting effect, most visibly and audibly in the music dramas of Richard Wagner.

Stimulus for the present

Gluck made leaps forward in the development of the genre of opera (the philosopher Ernst Bloch called them “border crossings”), which reveal a creative search for a new understanding of drama. They provoked. Against this background it appears significant that, after many years of helplessness as to how directors could show Alceste’s readiness to sacrifice herself or the underworld of Eurydice with a contemporary force, Romeo Castellucci has in this anniversary year installed at Brussels and Vienna an experimental arrangement in which the music in the theatre is coupled in real time with images of a coma patient in a clinic. The young woman hears the music on headphones, and it remains uncertain whether divine grace will return her once again to the upper world. To start off the 2014 anniversary year, Krzysztof Warlikowski has also taken the occasion of a production of Alceste in Madrid to interlace the sacrificial death of the ancient Thessalian queen with the life and death of the long unloved-loved British Lady Di from the recent past. He embeds sprinklings of modern dance in the corps de ballet to signal the final inevitability of death and the quite irrepressible will to life; the highly acclaimed production will sooner or later appear in Central Europe.

At the end of July the Stuttgart Staatsoper activates two older productions – Orfeo, reworked by the choreographer Christian Spuck, and Iphigenie in Aulis, in the staging of the opera director Andrea Moses. The new Gluck reactivations in the busy German theatre provinces also focus on Orfeo and Iphigenie: the former is being shown in a new production by Birgit Scherzer in Trier and in an interpretation by Magdolna Parditka in Coburg, the latter under the direction of Elmar Gehlen in Altenburg. Finally, in July 2014, Nuremberg, which long ago incorporated Gluck, who came from its distant environs, presented Paride ed Elena. Sebastian Hirn staged the work, which was written in 1770, as part of the International Gluck Opera Festival, which was accompanied by a long-overdue and large scale scholarly conference. So Gluck is more alive than his detractors suspect – and continues to be an export long-runner.