University Musical Encyclopedia/Great Composers: A Series of Biographical Studies/Christoph Willibald Gluck
In contrast with the work of many great composers, the best of Gluck's was done late in life. In fact, before fifty he produced little that was of lasting value. Of the operas written when he was between thirty and forty, and produced at the Haymarket Theater in London, Handel said, and with a good deal of justice, "Sir! they are detestable! The fellow knows no more counterpoint than my cook!" But it is not too much to say that no works have had more effect in reforming the lyric stage than the magnificent productions which followed them, all written when he was in advanced middle age.
Christoph Willibald (afterward Ritter von) Gluck was born at Weidenwang, near Newmarkt, Germany, July 2, 1714. His parents were in a humble position in the household of Prince Lobkowitz at Eisenberg, and he seems at first to have been left to pick up what he could in the kitchen and the fields, no very satisfactory training school for him. When he was twelve years of age, however, he was fortunate enough to be sent to the Jesuit school at Komotau, in Bohemia, and here the good fathers gave him his first instruction, not only in ordinary school lore, but also in playing the violin and organ.
After he had been there a few years his father died, and the poor youth was left entirely to his own resources. He went to Prague, and having acquired some knowledge of the violin and violoncello, he used to earn a scanty living as an itinerant musician, singing, when he could get an engagement, in the churches and, like Haydn, playing the violin at fairs and the village dances of the peasants.
In those days the great thing was to have a patron; and Gluck, who, thanks to his own energy, self-reliance, and study of human nature, was always successful in securing wealthy friends, soon gained an influential patron in the person of Prince Melzi, who gave him a place in his own private band. Soon afterward the Prince took him to Milan and placed him under the instructions of Sammartini, a learned theorist.
Before long he began to compose operas, which were produced at the theaters of Milan, Venice, and Turin. These, like Handel's early operas, quickly caught the melody-loving ear of the populace, and were immensely successful. So great, indeed, was their success, that Lord Middlesex thought he was doing a good stroke of business in securing him as composer-in-chief for the King's Theater in London.
When Gluck arrived in England, in 1745, the times were unpropitious. The Scotch Rebellion then absorbed the public interest, and people were too busy discussing the political situation in their coffee-houses and drawing-rooms to have inclination or time to go to the theater. What was this new piece, "The Fall of the Giants" (La Caduta de' Giganti) by Mr. Gluck, to them, at a time when the fall of the English ministry, and even of the reigning sovereign, was possible? And, truth to tell, the new opera was poor stuff; and neither did "Artamene," an old opera touched up again, or ""Piramo e Tisbe," a pasticcio, or compilation of pretty airs from his other works, succeed any better. Indeed, if Gluck had finished his artistic career at this time, Handel's criticism would have been a sufficiently fair judgment on it.
Though discomfited and sorely mortified by his failure in London, Gluck was able calmly to ponder over his defeat and learn its lesson. Shortly before he left London, he appeared at the theater in a very unexpected character. Consoling himself with the idea that if people would not listen to him as a composer they might as a performer, he played, as the "General Advertiser" of the day says, "at the little theater in the Haymarket, a concerto on twenty-six drinking-glasses tuned with spring-water, accompanied by the whole band, being a new instrument of his own invention, upon which he performs whatever may be done on a violin or harpsichord."
From London he went to Paris, and thence to Vienna, where for some time he lived in retirement, quietly studying that vexed question of music and the drama, which, in later days, Wagner again made prominent. The Abbé Arnaud had said, "Italian opera is only a concert for which the play is the pretext." Gluck began to find out that this was true, and that art had been forgotten in the too eager desire to please, no matter how. He resolved to make a change, and to begin his work again on an entirely new basis.
But in the meantime he must live; so, being invited to Rome and Naples, he composed "Telemacco," "La Clemenza di Tito," and other operas, which, in form at least, differed little from the ordinary florid Italian operas of the day. At Florence he met Ranieri di Calzabigi, and in collaboration with him as librettist Gluck wrote his first opera in the reformed style, “Orfeo ed Euridice.” This was produced in Vienna in 1762, and created a great sensation, having a run of twenty-eight nights—then almost unprecedented.
But Gluck was not able at once to release himself from the fetters of the still fashionable florid style, for he always took great pains to pose as the courtier, and having princes and archduchesses among his pupils, he had to supply them with the musical fare that they could appreciate. One of the unsubstantial Italian operas written by him about this time, "Il Parnasso confuso," received the extraordinary honor of being acted with four archduchesses in the cast, and the Archduke Leopold playing the accompaniment on the clavecin.
In the same style as "Orfeo" were "Alceste" and "Paride ed Elena," which followed it. Poet and musician were here of one accord. Both discarded the foolish, tasteless superfluity of ornament in diction and music, and aimed at truthful expression of the emotions rather than the brilliant display of tropes, trills, cadences, and pretty conceits. The reception given to "Alceste" did not please the composer, although it was frequently performed, and obtained a considerable share of popular favor. The critics fell foul of it, and Gluck took an opportunity of very savagely castigating them in a dedicatory letter written by him on the publication of "Paride ed Elena." Like Wagner, Gluck was no mean hand with his pen.
Of the new style of operatic composition introduced by him, he wrote the following memorable words, the lesson of which is as valuable now as it was when they were first written: "My purpose has been to restrict the art of music to its true object—that of aiding the effect of poetry by giving greater expression to the words and scenes, but without interrupting the action of the plot, and without weakening the impression by needless instrumentation."
Whatever the cause, Gluck began to meditate a change of scene, and an invitation sent to him from the French Académie Royale to visit Paris made him decide to remove to that capital. In this purpose he was warmly encouraged by the Bailli du Rollet, an attaché of the French embassy, an enthusiastic supporter of Gluck's new musical theory. Du Rollet was also something of a poet, and in conjunction with the composer he put together the libretto of a new opera which was to be bestowed on the Parisians, "Iphigénie en Aulide," founded on Racine's play. In 1773 Gluck, then being fifty-nine years of age, set out for Paris, where the most important part of his life was to be lived.
Gluck found a potent patroness in his former pupil, Marie Antoinette, now the dauphiness of France; in fact, she soon was at the head of an organized party in his favor. When Iphigénie was first performed, she led the applause, which, as the opera proceeded, became spontaneous enough—soldiers and courtiers waving their swords, and the multitude, carried away by the beauty and dramatic truth of the music, vehemently applauding. Sophie Arnould, the witty and charming actress, was an admirable Iphigénie, and M. Larrivée, who was accustomed to sing so much through his nose that the people in the pit, when applauding him after a song, used to say, "That nose has really a magnificent voice, forgot for that evening his nasal twang and was a magnificent Agamemnon. Marie Antoinette was in ecstasies over this success.
Then came "Orphée et Eurydice," adapted from the Vienna setting of the same piece. Sutherland Edwards, in his "History of the Opera," relates some amusing incidents in connection with its production. Gluck's artistic soul was greatly vexed by the obstinate pretensions of the male dancer, Vestris (who maintained that there were only three great men in Europe—Voltaire, Frederick the Great, and himself). When the rehearsals were going on, this great man indulgently said to the composer, "Write me the music of a chaconne, Monsieur Gluck!" "A chaconne! was the indignant answer; do you think the Greeks, whose manners we are endeavoring to depict, knew what a chaconne was?" "Did they not?" Vestris imperturbably replied. "Then they are indeed much to be pitied." This was the man who once said, "If the god of the dance [a title he had given himself] touches the ground from time to time, he does so in order not to humiliate his comrades.
It was not easy to drill the actors into the proper expression and style of acting. Here is a story of an attempt which an actress, Marthe le Rochois, made to improve the acting of another one, Desmatins, who took the part of Medea deserted by Jason: "Inspire yourself with the situation," she said; "fancy yourself in the poor woman's place. If you were deserted by a lover whom you adored, what would you do?" "I should look out for another," was the reply of the practically-minded girl.
Gluck at rehearsal must have been an interesting sight, and it is not to be wondered at that the rehearsals of "Orphée" were crowded; it became quite the fashionable thing for the courtiers to attend them. On sitting down in the orchestra his invariable plan was to take his coat off; he then removed his wig, and substituted it for a cotton nightcap of the most primitive fashion, and thus at ease, in his shirt-sleeves and nightcap, he comfortably conducted. At the end, it is said, he had never any trouble in resuming these articles of dress, as dukes and marquises used to contend for the honor of handing them to him.
The dauphiness was again so delighted with Gluck's work, that after the success of Orphée she granted him a pension of 6,000 francs, and the same sum in addition to be received by him for every new work that he bestowed on the French stage.
After "Alceste," rearranged for the French stage, and produced with the utmost success, Gluck set to work on the composition of a new opera, "Armida," which he intended should be his answer to all his detractors—his chef d'œvre. To the dauphiness he said, in a burst of self-satisfaction, "The opera will soon be finished, and indeed it will be superb." And to his old friend Du Rollet he writes, "I have put forth all the little strength still left in me in order to finish 'Armida.' I must confess I should like to finish my career with it." But he did not then anticipate the stirring times and the hard fighting still before him. Marie Antoinette was not the only female potentate in France; there was another, less respectable, but equally powerful, the notorious Madame du Barry. As the dauphiness had her pet musician, Madame du Barry must have hers too, and so she sent to Rome and ordered a musician! In due time Piccinni, who was really a talented composer, appeared in Paris, and the famous war of the Gluckists and Piccinnists soon began. "Sir, are you a Gluckist or a Piccinnist?" became a shibboleth, on the answer to which almost life or death depended. It was known that Piccinni's "Rolando" was to be produced a few months after Gluck's "Armida," and expectation ran high. Marie Antoinette, now Queen of France, still staunchly stood by her protégé, and Gluck cannot be said to have neglected any means of retaining her friendship.
Greatly as Gluck prized his own "Armida," and immense as was the popularity it afterward attained, the first production in 1777 does not seem to have been attended with great éclat. Perhaps the public were too much excited just then with the prospect of the approaching performance of Piccinni's "Rolando." This had taken some time to compose, for Piccinni labored under the disadvantage of not knowing a word of French, and Marmontel, the author of the libretto, had to write down under each French word its Italian equivalent, a labor which made Marmontel say that he was not only Piccinni's poet, but also his dictionary. When it was produced, its graceful melodies and smooth, sparkling music produced an extraordinary success, and it could not be denied that in the first encounter the Italian had the best of it. Even Marie Antoinette appears to have swerved from her fidelity to Gluck; for soon after "Rolando" was given, she appointed Piccinni her singing-master.
This rivalry was taken advantage of, though certainly not in the most honorable way, by Devismes, the astute manager of the opera. What an exciting contest it would be—what an amusing affair for everybody—if Gluck and Piccinni could both be set to work on the same piece, and so fight out the "battle of the styles" under the same conditions! Only the worst of it would be, that the first piece performed, if successful, would destroy any chance of the other having a fair hearing. This Piccinni, who had a far higher opinion of Gluck's merits than his supporters had, represented plaintively to Devismes, and the latter earnestly assured him that his own opera should be given first, and Gluck's second. Probably an assurance exactly similar was given to Gluck, and the two composers, taking the libretto given them, :Iphigénie en Tauride," set to work upon their rival labors.
When Piccinni had completed two acts of his piece, he was horror-struck to hear that Gluck was already finished and had been put in rehearsal at the Opera. He of course rushed off to Devismes, demanding to know the meaning of this; but the manager very coldly informed him that it could not be helped; he had received a royal command to produce the opera at once; he profoundly regretted, etc., etc. The poor Italian was completely outmaneuvered and had to submit to this situation as well as he might.
Unluckily for the Italian, Gluck's "Iphigénie" proved to be a masterpiece, and then and ever since it has been acknowledged to be his greatest work. Piccinni was filled with such consternation on hearing this magnificent music, and comparing it with his own, that he begged to be allowed to withdraw from the bargain to produce his own "Iphigénie." But the cruel Devismes was inexorable, and soon after Gluck's, Piccinni's piece was played. The first night the public seemed to reserve their opinion on it, and the second night another incident in the chapter of accidents befell the unlucky Italian. Mademoiselle Laguerre, who took the principal character, was most indubitably drunk. She staggered and stammered, made eyes at the pit, and altogether disgraced herself.
"This is not Iphigenia in Tauris," said Sophie Arnould, her witty and malicious rival; "it is Iphigenia in Champagne!"
King Louis happened to be present that night, and in exercise of the despotic power which he wielded for his subjects' good, he consigned the young lady to prison for a couple of days. On her reappearance she sang so well, and so cleverly gave a special meaning to some lines expressive of remorse that the public forgave her, and she was restored to favor, but Piccinni's "Iphigénie en Tauris" was not so fortunate. The composer had lost, and this time the victory rested with the German.
After writing "Echo et Narcisse," which was something of a failure, Gluck set to work upon another opera, "Les Danaïdes," but an apoplectic stroke compelled him to give up the work, which he handed over to his pupil Salieri (Mozart's crafty rival) to finish. Gluck had made an ample fortune—about 700,000 francs by his four operas—and in 1780 he wisely determined, being then sixty-six years of age, to retire to spend his last days in quiet at Vienna. He left the field where still Gluckists and Piccinnists wrangled over the merits of their champions, and tranquilly spent his few remaining years in retirement, where, nevertheless, he was frequently visited by the great and illustrious of the world, among others the Emperor and Empress of Russia, and found some consolation in the knowledge that he was not yet forgotten. And indeed in his works there was that imperishable stuff that even yet preserves Gluck's music fresh in the remembrance and love of all who care for art. He was struck down by a second attack of apoplexy in 1787, and died in the 15th of November.
If Gluck's achievements as a reformer have been overestimated by some musical historians, his value as a composer can hardly be exaggerated. He is the principal spokesman of a period of reaction, and it is to his eternal credit that his profound realization of the hollowness and artificiality of the older school of opera drove him into no excesses by way of counteracting the abuses which he strove to combat. His career is a picture, perhaps unequaled in the history of music, of a constant striving toward a pure ideal of art, a perfect blending of the lyrical and dramatic elements of opera, which he obtained by a balanced power of intellect such as few musicians have possessed.
For years after his visit to England Gluck continued to write in the accepted style of his day. It is likely that a visit to Paris, which followed his unlucky expedition to London, opened his eyes to the possibility of reform in operatic treatment. In Paris he heard the music of Rameau, a composer whose influence in the formation of his later style was very important. French opera had never followed Italian taste in its worship of purely lyrical to the exclusion of dramatic expression, and Rameau carried the departure still further. In Gluck's case, the direction that new paths were to take was revealed to him by his introduction to Rameau's music. Gluck's genius, however, was infinitely greater than Rameau's; where Rameau is cold and formal, Gluck vibrates with human passion.
The history of opera is a continual struggle between the two opposing forces of dramatic and lyrical expression, and Gluck's career is to a certain extent a miniature reproduction of the same struggle. We may look on it perhaps as a contest between instinct and theory. His instinct led him to lyrical expression, but his theories on opera compelled him to pay due respect to dramatic truth. The struggle is interesting to trace; first one force gains the upper hand, then the other. In "Orfeo," largely, no doubt, because of its subject, the lyrical element is all-important. "Alceste" is more dramatic in subject, and the result is that, as Gluck had not yet fully succeeded in getting his theory into working order, or rather did not handle it with the command that he subsequently gained, there is a good deal in it that is merely arid declamation with very little musical value at all. In "Paride ed Elena" the lyrical element is again supreme, but in "Iphigénie en Aulide" the dramatic once more asserts itself. "Armide" and "Iphigénie en Tauride" represent the culmination of Gluck's career, and in these two works we find what may justly be called a perfect balance between the two contending influences.
"Iphigénie en Aulide" differed widely in some respects from Gluck's previous works. The canvas is more crowded with figures, the emotions treated are more varied in their range. The work lacks the large simplicity of motive of "Orfeo" and "Alceste"; it is more minute in its psychological analysis, and subtler in its play of passion. In "Iphigénie en Aulide" Gluck has moments of supreme grandeur and beauty, such as the noble monologue of Agamemnon and the wonderful scene in which Clytemnestra pours forth her soul in tempest; but in much of it the treatment is too consciously dramatic rather than operatic.
Gluck's theory as to the raison d'être of opera led him into strange passes, but his natural instinct was sound. He told his contemporaries that the musician's duty was to follow the words of the libretto, heightening their force by a discreet accompaniment; but his greatest triumphs were won when he forgot about the poor, cold words that he had to set, and went behind them to the feeling and emotions that underlay them.
In "Armide" Gluck's instinct took its revenge upon his reason. He told a friend that he had written it more in the spirit of a poet and a painter than of a musician. However that may be, it is of all his works the richest in musical beauty. It has a voluptuous charm such as no music of Gluck's had previously possessed; in fact, such as was practically new to music altogether. The curious thing about "Armide" is that the libretto was one originally written by Quinault for Lulli some hundred years before Gluck took it in hand. Gluck, no doubt, was attracted by the romantic nature of the subject; but it is strange that he, who was so particular about his libretti, should have been content with so dreary and frigid a piece of work as this. However, his triumph was the greater, for he certainly owed nothing to the bald diction and conventional sentiments of his libretto.
"Armide" stands alone among Gluck's works, a strangely romantic figure in its sternly classical surroundings. In "Armide" Gluck shook himself free for once of his theories about opera and art and expression, and wrote as his natural instinct prompted him. There is little dramatic interest in "Armide"; it is concerned almost entirely with emotion, which is as much as to say that it is an ideal subject for opera. Had the libretto been worthy of the subject, there is no saying what Gluck might not have made of it. As it is, he produced a work which curiously anticipates the romantic triumphs of a later day, and has a peculiar value of its own to the student of Gluck's musical character.
"Iphigénie en Tauride" is usually spoken of as Gluck's masterpiece, and so in a sense it is, though the almost total absence of love-interest robs it of a natural source of enchantment. In form it certainly is more perfect than any other work of Gluck's, the balance between lyrical and dramatic expression being preserved with singular justness. Though it can hardly be said to represent that ideal at which Gluck had been aiming all his life, it is a work of the utmost nobility and beauty.
Whether that union of music and drama at which Gluck aimed can be counted among the possibilities of art is a question that still awaits a satisfactory answer. It is certain that Gluck did not attain it, but, like so many other pioneers, while missing the goal at which he aimed, he did perhaps more for the world than if he had achieved his wished-for end. His operas are certainly not music-dramas in the modern sense of the word, but as a practical protest against the slipshod fashions of the time they accomplished a most valuable work.
Gluck is an interesting figure in other ways. He gives musical expression to the great idea that was animating the world at his time—the return to Nature, so fervidly preached by Rousseau. In an art so essentially conventional as opera, it is obvious that the "return to Nature" could only be effected in a very modified form; and in this respect, as in many others, Gluck often did his best work rather in spite of his theories than because of them. It is significant, indeed, that the one opera of his which still retains a wide popularity, "Orfeo," holds its place on the stage almost entirely by its lyrical qualities, while those in which the dramatic element is especially prominent have passed into something very like oblivion.
On the whole, the most important legacy that Gluck bequeathed to posterity was his conception of an opera as an artistic unity, not as a mere string of songs and dances often connected by the slightest of threads. He had the gift of suffusing each of his works in an atmosphere peculiar to itself, and this, with the noble dignity of his style, and his unfaltering worship of the loftiest artistic ideals, makes him a figure of singular importance in the history of opera.