Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 1.djvu/615

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

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[1] 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

  1. 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.