Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 1.djvu/614

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602
GLUCK.
 

might be employed for enhancing the expression of the words and the pathos of the situations; and their choice fell upon Racine's 'Iphigénie.' This opera, 'Iphigénie en Aulide,' was written in French in 1772, partially rehearsed at the theatre in Vienna towards the end of the same year, and produced at the Opera in Paris, April 19, 1774. Gluck left no means untried to ensure success—statements of his views, public announcements ('Mercure de France,' Oct. 1772 and Feb. 73), public tributes of respect to J. J. Rousseau, letters to authors whose good will it was desirable to propitiate—in short everything that ability and experience in such matters could [1]suggest. And yet if it had not been for the all-powerful protection of his former pupil, Marie Antoinette, he would in all probability have failed in getting his work performed, so strong was the opposition which his arrival in France had roused, especially amongst those interested in keeping him out of the 'Académie de Musique.' The Dauphiness seems to have been really attached to her old singing master. In a letter to her sister Marie Christina (May 3, 1777) she calls him 'notre cher Gluck,' and after the success of 'Orphée' she granted him a pension of 6000 francs, and the same sum for every fresh work he should produce on the French stage.

The appearance of 'Iphigénie en Aulide' marks a new era in the history of French opera. This severe and deeply conceived work transports us bodily into Greece; it is pervaded throughout by an antique atmosphere, of the days of Sophocles rather than of Euripides. What a bold innovation is the overture, with the inexorable voice of the oracle making itself heard, and with the striking unison passage, which at once forces the ruling thought of the drama into notice, while it closely connects the symphony with the action on the stage! Then again, how grand, how just, how pathetic is the declamation of all the airs! These airs, it must be confessed, succeed each other too rapidly, and one cannot but regret that the librettist did not perceive how much the action is retarded by making three airs follow each other in one act, a mistake which might easily have been avoided. But how ingenious are the artifices to which Gluck resorts in order to give variety to the recitative and the declamatory passages! How skilfully he brings in his short incisive symphonies, and how much effect he produces by syncopation! How appropriately he introduces the orchestra to emphasise a word, or to point a dramatic antithesis! How graceful is the chorus 'Que d'attraits'! and how startling and attractive are the brilliancy, force, and boldness of the harmony in the hymn of triumph 'Chantons, célébrons notre reine'! While listening to the air of Agamemnon, 'Au falte des grandeurs,' the enthusiastic Abbé Arnaud exclaimed, 'With that air one might found a religion.' What a depth of expression is contained in the air 'Par un père cruel à la mort condamnée'! and what heart-rending emotion in the recitative

'J'entends retentir dans mon sein
 Le cri plaintif de la nature'!

not to speak of the scene in which Clytemnestra faints, the duet between Achille and Iphigénie which gave rise to so many discussions, the quartet, or the dance music!

Owing to the support of the court and the pains taken by Gluck to obtain a thoroughly satisfactory [2]performance, 'Iphigénie' was most favourably received. Its success gave the finishing stroke to the antiquated works of Lully and Rameau, and introduced into grand opera the revolution already effected in opéra comique by Philidor, Monsigny, and Grétry.

'Iphigénie' was speedily followed by 'Orphée et Eurydice,' adapted from the 'Orfeo' already mentioned, and produced at the Académie, Aug. 2, 1774. This opera made a profound impression, although Gluck was compelled to transpose the music of Orpheus to suit Legros, as there was no contralto capable of taking the part. The second act is still accounted a masterpiece.

In accordance with a desire expressed by Marie Antoinette, and which Gluck was too good a courtier to refuse, 'Le Poirier,' a comedy by Vadé, which he had composed in 1762, and 'Cythère Assiégée,' a piece of Favart's which he had converted into an opera in 1759, were performed at the court theatre at Versailles in 1775. The latter work was also produced in Paris (Aug. 1, of the same year) with a divertissement by P. M. Berton, and with a want of success which compelled Arnaud to admit that 'Hercules was more at home with the club than the distaff.'

For this failure, however, Gluck was consoled by the brilliant success of his 'Alceste,' which he rearranged for the French stage (April 23, 1776), and which created quite as much enthusiasm as 'Orphée' had done, notwithstanding a want of variety in the libretto. It is in this fine work that the oracle of Apollo pronounces its stern decree on a reiterated note which strikingly pictures the immutability of the infernal deities. This touch of deliberate inspiration was not lost on Mozart in 'Don Giovanni,' nor on Ambroise Thomas in 'Hamlet.'

In order to prove that it was not in tragedy alone he excelled, but that he also possessed the descriptive faculty, and could depict scenes of luxury, and express tender and graceful sentiments, Gluck composed 'Armide' (Sept. 23,1777). He had been reproached with having no melody, and with making his singers [3]shriek; this work, which contains many charming passages, and a duet magnificent for passion and tenderness, was his answer. The excitement it aroused is almost incredible. Piccinni had recently arrived in Paris, and, under Marmontel's superintendence, was composing his 'Roland,' to be produced

  1. In this, as in other more important points, how like is Gluck to Wagner!
  2. Here again is a close parallel with Wagner's judicious methods of proceeding.
  3. The same accusation, rightly or wrongly, is made against Wagner.