A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Gluck, Christoph

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GLUCK, Christoph Willibald, Ritter[1] von, born July 2, 1714, baptised July 4, at Weidenwang, near Neumarkt, in the Upper Palatinate. His father, Alexander, and his mother, Walburga, belonged to the household of Prince Lobkowitz, and it was at his castle of Eisenberg that the future reformer of the lyric drama passed his early days. At 12 he was sent for six years to the Jesuit school at Komotow or Chamutow in Bohemia, where he studied classics, and had his first lessons in singing, the violin, clavecin, and organ. In 1732 he went to Prague, where he continued his musical education under Czernhorsky, and also learned the cello; maintaining himself in the meanwhile by singing in church, playing the violin at the peasants' dances in the neighbouring villages, and giving concerts in the larger towns near Prague. In 1736 he went to Vienna, and at the house of Prince Lobkowitz was fortunate enough to meet Prince Melzi, a distinguished amateur, who engaged him for his private band, took him to Milan, and placed him with G. B. Sammartini to complete his studies in harmony. Gluck soon began to write operas—'Artaserse' (Milan) 1741; 'Demofoonte' (Milan), 'Cleonice' or 'Demetrio,' and 'Ipermnestra' (Venice) in 1742; 'Artamene' (Cremona) and 'Siface' (Milan) in 1743; 'Fedra' (Milan) in 1744; and in the spring of 1745 'Poro' or 'Alessandro nell' Indie' (Turin). All these were well received, and in consequence of their success he was invited in 1745 to London as composer for the opera at the Haymarket. Here he produced 'La Caduta de' Giganti' (Jan. 7, 1746), 'Artamene' (re-written), and a pasticcio, 'Pirarno e Tisbe,' all without success, Handel declaring that the music was detestable, and that the composer knew 'no more counterpoint than his cook'—Waltz, who, however, was a fair bass singer. Counterpoint was never Gluck's strong point, but the works just named had not even originality to recommend them. He also appeared on April 23, 1746, at the Haymarket Theatre in the unexpected character of a performer on the musical glasses, accompanied by the orchestra (see the 'General Advertiser,' March 31, and H. Walpole's letter to Mann, March 28). [Harmonica.] But his journey to England, mortifying as it was to his vanity, exercised an important influence on Gluck's career, for it forced him to reflect on the nature of his gifts, and eventually led him to change his style. The pasticcio taught him that an air, though effective in the opera for which it was written, may fail to make any impression when transferred to a different situation and set to different words. A visit to Paris shortly after gave him the opportunity of hearing Rameau's operas; and in listening to the French composer's admirably appropriate recitatives, he came to the conclusion that the Italian opera of that time was but a concert, for which, as the Abbé Arnaud happily expressed it, the drama furnished the pretext. Returning to Vienna by way of Hamburg and Dresden towards the end of 1746, he applied himself to the study of aesthetics as connected with music, and of the language and literature of various countries, taking care at the same time to frequent the most intellectual society within his reach. 'Semiramide riconosciuta' (Vienna 1748) is a decided step in advance, and in it may be detected the germ of Gluck's distinctive qualities. His next work was 'Filide' (1749), a serenade, or more properly cantata, in 2 acts, written at Copenhagen for the birthday of Christian VII. It is now in the library at Berlin, but being a mere pièce de circonstance scarcely deserves a place in the list of his works. Far otherwise is it with 'Telemacco' (Rome 1750) and 'La Clemenza di Tito' (Naples 1751), which deserve special attention, as from them Gluck borrowed many a page for his French operas 'Armide' and 'Iphigénie en Tauride'; from which fact it is evident that when they were written his style had already changed. These operas were followed in 1754 by 'L'Eroe Cinese,' first performed at Schönbrunn, 'Il Trionfo di Camillo' (Rome), and 'Antigono' (ibid.). From 1755–61 Gluck was stationary in Vienna, and to all appearance failing; he wrote divertissements for the palaces of Laxenburg and Schönbrunn; composed airs for the comedies or comic operettas performed at the court theatre; and produced only one opera in 3 acts, 'Tetide' (1760), of which nothing has survived. These six years however, far from being wasted, were probably most useful to him, for by these apparently insignificant works he was acquiring flexibility of style, and securing powerful patrons, without losing sight of his ultimate aim. His opera 'Orfeo ed Euridice'[2] (Vienna Oct. 5, 1762)—the libretto not as heretofore by Metastasio, but by Calzabigi—showed to all capable of forming a judgment what the aims of the reformer of the lyric stage were. After the production of this fine work, however, he returned to Metastasio and to pièces de circonstance for the court theatre—'Ezio' (1763); 'La Rencontre imprévue,' afterwards produced in German as 'Die Pilgrime von Mekka' (1764); 'Il Parnasso confuse,' 'La Corona,' and 'Telemacco,' partly re-written (1765); in fact he was obliged to bend to circumstances, and before all things to please the princes who protected him and sang his music. 'Il Parnasso' was played by four archduchesses, the archduke Leopold accompanying them on the clavecin. It was probably between this date and the departure of Marie Antoinette for France (May, 1770) that Gluck acted as singing master to that princess.

At length, thinking the time had come for bringing his ideas before the public, and finding in Calzabigi a poet who shared his taste for strong dramatic situations, he produced in Vienna 'Alceste' (Dec. 16, 1767) and 'Paride ed Elena' (1769). The scores of these operas were published in Vienna (1769–70),[3] and dedicated respectively to the Archduchess Leopold and the Duke of Braganza. Each contains a dedicatory epistle, briefly explaining Gluck's views on dramatic music. As far as theory went, his system was not new, as it rested on the outlines already sketched by Benedetto Marcello in his 'Teatro alia Moda' (1720); but theory and practice are two different things, and Gluck has the rare merit of showing in his 'Alceste' and 'Paride' that he was both composer and critic, and could not only imagine but produce an opera in which all is consecutive, where the music faithfully interprets each situation, and the interest arises from the perfect adaptation of the ensemble of the music to the whole of the drama. The composition of these two great works did not prevent his writing the intermezzi of 'Le Feste d' Apollo,' 'Bauci e Filemone,' and 'Aristeo,' produced at the court theatre of Parma in 1769, but not published.

In spite of the favour he enjoyed at the court of Vienna, and of the incontestable beauties contained in 'Orfeo,' 'Alceste,' and 'Paride ed Elena,' Gluck's countrymen criticised his new style in a manner so galling, that, conscious of his own power, and by no means devoid of vanity, he resolved to carry out elsewhere the revolution he had determined to effect in dramatic music. In the Bailli du Rollet, an attaché of the French embassy in Vienna, he found an enthusiastic partisan and a valuable auxiliary; they consulted as to a drama in which music 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 [4]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 [5]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 [6]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 four months after 'Armide.' His admirers, and the partisans of the old Italian music, were furious at Gluck's success, and every one knows the lengths to which the war of the Gluckists and Piccinnists was carried. It was even more violent than the old quarrel of the Bouffons, since the combatants were encouraged by the bodily presence of the rival masters. Marmontel, La Harpe, Ginguené, d'Alembert, the Chevalier de Chastellux, Framery, and Coquéau, were among the attacking party, while the chief defenders were Suard and the Abbé Arnaud. Not content with disparaging Gluck's genius in his 'Essai sur les revolutions de la Musique,' Marmontel went the length of writing an entire poem, 'Polymnie,' in praise of the Italian school and his favourite Piccinni. Space will not permit us to enumerate the pamphlets, epigrams, and satires, which emanated from both sides in this contest; nearly all that are of any importance may be found in the collection of the Abbé Leblond—'Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de la révolution opérée dans la musique par M. le Chevalier Gluck' (Naples and Paris 1781, with a portrait of Gluck engraved by Saint Aubin). The champions of the Italian school accused him of composing operas in which there was 'little melody, little nature, and little elegance or refinement.' They declared that the noise of his orchestra[7] was necessary to drown his clumsy modulations; that his accompanied recitative was nothing but an overloaded imitation of the Italian 'recitativo obbligato'; that his choruses were less dramatic than those of Rameau; and that his duets were borrowed, and badly borrowed, from the 'duetti à dialogo' which he had heard in Italy. They could not forgive what Marmontel calls his 'harsh and rugged harmony, the incoherent modulations, mutilations, and incongruities contained in his airs,' but they were most offended by his 'want of care in choosing his subjects, in carrying out his designs, and giving completeness and finish to his melodies.' In short they denied him the possession of any creative genius whatever. They might as well have denied the existence of the sun—but passion invariably blinds its votaries.

The Abbé Arnaud, on the other hand, met the systematic disparagement of Marmontel and La Harpe with his 'Profession de foi en musique'; an excellent treatise on musical aesthetics, though little more than a paraphrase of the celebrated dedication which Gluck himself had prefixed to the score of 'Alceste.' This statement of the great reformer's principles is well worth transcribing.

'When I undertook to set the open of Alceste to music,' he begins, 'I resolved to avoid all those abuses which had crept into Italian opera through the mistaken vanity of singers and the unwise compliance of composers, and which had rendered it wearisome and ridiculous, instead of being, as it once was, the grandest and most imposing stage of modern times. I endeavoured to reduce music to its proper function, that of seconding poetry by enforcing the expression of the sentiment, and the interest of the situations, without interrupting the action, or weakening it by superfluous ornament. My idea was that the relation of music to poetry was much the same as that of harmonious colouring and well-disposed light and shade to an accurate drawing, which animates the figures without altering their outlines. I have therefore been very careful never to interrupt a singer in the heat of a dialogue in order to introduce a tedious ritornelle, nor to stop him in the middle of a piece either for the purpose of displaying the flexibility of his voice on some favourable vowel, or that the orchestra might give him time to take breath before a long-sustained note.

'Furthermore, I have not thought it right to hurry through the second part of a song if the words happened to be the most important of the whole, in order to repeat the first part regularly four times over; or to finish the air where the sense does not end in order to allow the singer to exhibit his power of varying the passage at pleasure. In fact, my object was to put an end to abuses against which good taste and good sense have long protested in vain.

'My idea was that the overture ought to indicate the subject and prepare the spectators for the character of the piece they are about to see; that the instruments ought to be introduced in proportion to the degree of interest and passion in the words: and that it was necessary above all to avoid making too great a disparity between the recitative and the air of a dialogue, so as not to break the sense of a period or awkwardly interrupt the movement and animation of a scene. I also thought that my chief endeavour should be to attain a grand simplicity, and consequently I have avoided making a parade of difficulties at the cost of clearness; I have set no value on novelty as such, unless it was naturally suggested by the situation and suited to the expression; in short there was no rule which I did not consider myself bound to sacrifice for the sake of effect.'

It can never be out of place to recall such precepts as these—precepts which will be worth following to the end of time. Gluck himself bore them carefully in mind in composing his 'Iphigénie en Tauride,' produced in Paris (in 4 acts) with immense success May 18, 1779. It is the highest and most complete expression of his genius. Amongst its many beauties must be specified the air of Thoas; the airs 'Je t'implore et je tremble' (borrowed from 'Telemacco') 'O malheureuse Iphigénie' (originally written for 'La Clemenza di Tito'), 'Unis dès la plus tendre enfance,' sung by Pylades; and, beyond all, the sleep of Orestes—the heart-breaking remorse of the deceitful parricide, the spirited choruses, and the barbarous Scythian dances. These passages all glow with colour, though the means by which the effect is produced are of the simplest kind. By this chef-d'œuvre Gluck amply vindicated his superiority over Piccinni, whose 'Iphigénie en Tauride' (Jan. 23, 1781) could not make way against that of his rival.

The last work which Gluck composed for the Opéra in Paris was 'Echo et Narcisse' (Sept. 21, 1779). Though not very successful it was revived in August 1780, and one of the airs, and the 'hymne a l'Amour,' have since been introduced into 'Orphée.' It was however with 'Les Danaïdes' that Gluck intended to close his laborious career; but an apoplectic seizure compelled him to relinquish the task, and he transferred the libretto to his pupil Salieri. He then retired to Vienna, where he passed his last yean in the enjoyment of the position secured by his fame and his large fortune, until a second stroke of apoplexy carried him off, Nov. 15, 1787 (not the 25th, as Fétis states).

The authorities for this sketch of Gluck's career, and for the notices of the most remarkable passages in his operas, are various historical documents, and the biographies and critiques of Leblond, F. J. Riedel ('Ueber die Musik des Ritters Christoph von Gluck, verschiedene Schriften,' Vienna 1775), Siegmeyer ('Ueber den Ritter Gluck und seine Werke,' Berlin 1825), Miel, Solié, Anton Schmid ('Chr. W. Ritter von Gluck,' Leipzig 1854), Fétis, Hector Berlioz ('A travers chants'), Ad. Adam ('Derniers Souvenirs'), Desmoiresterres ('Gluck et Piccinni,' Paris, 1872), etc. For more minute details the reader is referred to Schmid's work, which is most complete as regards the catalogue of Gluck's compositions. To his list must be added the magnificent edition of Mlle. Pelletan, evidently the work of an ardent admirer; of which the full scores of the two 'Iphigénies,' with a portrait, and preface in three languages, are all that have appeared at present. For those who wish to study the physiognomy of this diplomatic composer, impetuous artist, and amusingly vain man, there are the engravings of Miger[8] and Sichling from the portrait painted by Duplessis in 1775, Saint Aubin's engraving from Houdon's celebrated bust, and Philippeaux's from the picture painted by Houdeville. There is a full-length statue of Gluck by Cavelier at the new Opera House in Paris. Under Miger's portrait are the words of Pythagoras, 'He preferred the Muses to the Sirens,' words applied to him by Wieland, and, as such, in striking contrast to the many bitter remarks of earlier German critics.

Before summing up our opinion of Gluck's works as a whole, we have only to remark that, according to Fétis, he failed in symphony proper, and was by no means distinguished as a composer of sacred music. He wrote indeed but little for the church; the psalm 'Domine, Dominus noster' for choir and orchestra, a 'De profundis' for the same (engraved), and a part of the cantata 'Le Jugement dernier,' completed by Salieri, being all his known works in this style.

Gluck's fame therefore rests entirely on his dramatic compositions. Padre Martini said that he combined in the musical drama 'all the finest qualities of Italian, and many of those of French music, with the great beauties of the German orchestra'—in other words, he created cosmopolitan music. He was not satisfied with introducing a correct style of declamation, and banishing false and useless ornaments from the stage; and yet if he had merely carried to perfection the work begun by Lully and Rameau; if his efforts had been limited to removing the harpsichord from the orchestra, introducing the harp and trombones, employing the clarinets, scoring with skill and effect, giving more importance and interest to the overture, and employing with such magic effect the artifice of momentary pauses to vary or emphasise speech in music,—if he had done no more than this he would have earned our gratitude, but he would not in that case have been one of the monarchs of art. What then did he accomplish that was so extraordinary? He grasped the idea that the mission of music was not merely to afford gratification to the senses, and he proved that the expression of moral qualities is within her reach. He disdained all such tricks of the trade as do not appeal to the heart,—in fact he 'preferred the Muses to the Sirens.' He aimed at depicting historic or legendary characters and antique social life, and in this work of genius he put into the mouth of each of his heroes accents suited to their sentiments, and to the spirit of the times in which they lived. He made use of the orchestra to add to the force of a dramatic situation, or (in one noble instance) to contrast external repose with the internal agitation of a remorseful conscience. In a word, all his French operas show him to have been a noble musician, a true poet, and a deep thinker.

Like Corneille he has endowed France with a series of sublime tragedies; and if the author of 'Le Cid,' 'Les Horaces,' 'Cinna,' 'Polyeucte,' and 'Pompée' may be justly reproached with too great a preference for Lucan and Seneca, there is perhaps also cause for regret that Gluck was too much influenced by the declamatory school then prevalent in France. But, like the father of French tragedy, how nobly has he redeemed an occasional inflation or monotony, a few awkward phrases, or trifling inaccuracies of style! There is another point of resemblance between these two men, whose manly genius was reflective rather than spontaneous; all their works have in common the element of grandeur, but they differ from one another in physiognomy, form, and character. The influence of such Art as theirs is anything but enervating; on the contrary it elevates and strengthens the mind, and is thus placed beyond the reach of the caprices of fashion or the attacks of time.

[ G. C. ]

  1. The date of his knighthood is unknown, but it was before he went to Paris.
  2. Printed in 1764 in Paris at the expense of Count Durazzo.
  3. Printed in folio by G. T. Tratttneru with moveable types.
  4. In this, as in other more important points, how like is Gluck to Wagner!
  5. Here again is a close parallel with Wagner's judicious methods of proceeding.
  6. The same accusation, rightly or wrongly, is made against Wagner.
  7. Gluck was the first to introduce cymbals and the 'Grosse caisse' or big drum into the orchestra, Wagner too is accused of multiplying notes and instruments.
  8. An etching of this by Le Bat forms the frontispiece to Part IV of Lajarte's admirable 'Bibliotheque musicale du Théatre de l'Opéra,' 1876.