Christoph Willibald Gluck: CDs & DVDs: Best CDs & DVDs of Christoph Willibald Gluck

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Christoph Willibald Gluck: Overview

Christoph Willibald Gluck: Christoph Willibald Gluck (b. Erasbach, 2 July 1714; d. Vienna, 15 Nov 1787).

Christoph Willibald Gluck was born at Erasbach in the Upper Palatinate (Oberpfalz), the sun of a huntsman and forester of German-Bohemian birth. Three years later his father was appointed ranger to Count Kaunitz and the family moved to Neuschloss, near the then Bohmisch Leipa, in the modern Czechoslovakia. In 1722 they moved again, to Bohmisch Kamnitz, where Christoph Willibald Gluck's father became a forester to Count Kinsky and in 1724 to Reichstadt, as forester to the Duchess of Tuscany. The year following, when the boy was still only eleven, his father re-entered the Kinsky service and returned to Bohmisch Kamnitz. Whether, as seems probable, the young Christoph Willibald Gluck spent the years 1726-8 at the Jesuit school in Komotau is uncertain, as is the tradition that he entered as a student at Prague University in 1732. We know that he was in Prague between 1732 and 1736, earning money by teaching and performing music (violin, violoncello and keyboard instruments); that he acted as assistant organist at the Teinkirche and St James' church in Prague and that he had some lessons from Cernohorsky. Probably in 1729 his father once again moved, to become head forester to Prince Lobkowitz, and it was no doubt this connection that eventually brought the young Christoph Willibald Gluck to Vienna as a chamber musician in the Lobkowitz household. This was in 1736. A year later he was heard by a Prince Melzi, a civil servant in the Austrian administration of Lombardy, who took him to Milan, where for the next three years he studied with Sammartini. Between 1741—5 Christoph Willibald Gluck produced his first operas in Milan, Venice, Bologna, Crema and Turin and with such success that he received an invitation to visit London, where he went with his original patron, Prince Lobkowitz, during the late summer of 1745. The party stayed in Paris en route and here Christoph Willibald Gluck heard a number of French operas, including Rameau's.

The political situation in London immediately after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 was not favourable to the arts, but Christoph Willibald Gluck made a hasty pasticcio for a topical text and La caduta deigiganti was produced in London on the 7th January 1746. Another pasticcio followed in March and before leaving London in the autumn Christoph Willibald Gluck met Arne and also Handel, who liked him but thought him a poor contrapuntist. Six trio sonatas of his were published in London that November. For the next three years Christoph Willibald Gluck worked as conductor to Pietro Mingotti's travelling Italian opera company, visiting Leipzig, Dresden, Hamburg, Copenhagen and eventually Holland. During this time he returned to Vienna for the production of his Semiramide riconosciuta (May 1748) and in Copenhagen he appeared, as he had in London, as a soloist on 'the glasses' or glass harmonica. Back in Vienna in 1749 he met a well-to-do banker, Joseph Pergin, whose daughter he asked in marriage. The request was refused, but Pergin died the following year and Christoph Willibald Gluck married Marianne Pergin and settled comfortably in Vienna on his wife's considerable fortune.

Marriage did not interrupt for long the nomadic existence characteristic of a successful opera-composer in the mid- 18th century. In 1751 he was in Prague for his Ezio and again a few months later for Issipile, and his visit to Naples for the production of La Clemenza di Tito took up most of the second half of 1752. He returned to Vienna in December and very soon afterwards obtained the post of conductor for the private orchestra of Prince Hildburghausen, one of the spectacularly unsuccessful Austrian commanders in the war with Turkey which ended in the disastrous Peace of Belgrade. It was through this position that Christoph Willibald Gluck became known at the court of the Empress Maria Theresa, whom Hild-burghausen entertained at his summer palace in 1754. Le Cinesi, presented on that occasion, so pleased the Emperor Francis I that he arranged for its performance in Vienna; and Christoph Willibald Gluck himself was engaged the same year as musical director to the court by Count Durazzo, director of the imperial theatres.

Christoph Willibald Gluck was now forty. He had written at least twenty operas, pasticci or similar feste teatrali without arousing much more than general satisfaction. In Durazzo, however, he met an intelligent man who had long been interested in the 'reform' of Italian opera on what could be called French lines - the redressing of the balance, that is to say, between music and drama; the elimination of the castrati; and the unification of music, drama, scenery and production into a single coherent complex. In Vienna the master-librettist of the old unreformed opera seria, Pietro Metastasio, was still poet laureate, but there was a growing opposition to the ideals which he represented, and Durazzo was a leading member of this opposition. Another Italian, the dancer Gasparo Angiolini, was keenly interested in a similar reform of the ballet and in 1761 there arrived in Vienna Ranieri Calzabigi who, beside running a lottery organised in Paris by Madame de Pompadour and indulging in financial speculation on a large scale, was a man of learning and wit and (on Casanova's own evidence) 'a great lover of women'. It was such a character as this that the anti-Metastasio faction needed, a bold intriguer and strategist as well as a poet. Calzabigi himself says that he 'chose' Christoph Willibald Gluck as the composer best suited to give musical expression to the new operatic ideals and it happened that between 1755 and 1760 Christoph Willibald Gluck had indeed had experiences that had enlarged his purely professional attitude and made him think about the nature of opera. In the first place he had met the antiquarian and aesthete Winckelmann on a visit to Rome for the production of his Antigono (1756) and in the second he had been commissioned by the court to adapt, or to imitate, the French operas comiques which the Austrian ambassador in Paris relayed among the examples of the latest fashions.

The first work of the 'reform' group to which Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote the music was not an opera but a ballet, Don Juan (October 1761); but this caused nothing like the excitement, and eventual enthusiasm, aroused by Orfeo ed Euridice on the 5th October 1762. The libretto, by Calzabigi, contains beside the two lovers only the god of Love and the various choruses (mourners, demons and blessed spirits) to which the new theorists attached especial importance. The title-role, it is true, was still sung by a castrato and the overture, instead of initiating the drama, is hardly more than a prolonged fanfare to obtain silence before the work opens. If Orfeo, therefore, was something of a transitional work, it was Alceste (1767) that not only showed the principles of the reform complete and unambiguous, but also stated them in the preface written by the composer. In the intervening years Christoph Willibald Gluck had paid a visit to Italy with the composer Dittersdorf and had produced his Tionfo di Clelia - a traditional setting of a Metastasio text - at Bologna. It would be wrong to imagine Christoph Willibald Gluck like Wagner, a conscious revolutionary dedicated to his new ideals. He was, and always remained, a professional composer of the 18th-century type, ready to compose to commission in any style suited to the occasion. In 1764 he even produced a comedy La Rencontre imprevue; and in the same year he visited Paris, where Orfeo was published though not yet performed, and Frankfurt, where it was given with the original cast and the fifteen-year-old Goethe in the audience. That he was still on good terms with Metastasio is shown by the fact that the old poet wrote a special libretto (Tl Parnaso confuso') for Christoph Willibald Gluck to set to celebrate the second marriage of the future emperor Joseph II. This same year he also wrote a Telemacco which contains music that he was to use again in the future. It is probable that the Vienna performance of Traetta's Ifigenia in Tauride, which Christoph Willibald Gluck conducted, was not without its influence on him, since Traetta had already written Italian operas very much in the 'reform' spirit for the Bourbon court at Parma.

Christoph Willibald Gluck was now a rich man and able in 1768 to buy a handsome house, but his marriage was childless and in 1769 he and his wife adopted his ten-year-old niece, Marianna Hedler, who had already shown musical talent and was to become a fine singer. Another opera in the spirit of the reform and with a libretto by Calzabigi, Paride ed Elena, was given in Vienna in 1770, but Christoph Willibald Gluck had retired from his court appointment at the same time as Durazzo, in 1764, and his future lay not in Vienna but in Paris, which he visited in 1773 with his wife and adopted daughter. A member of the French Embassy in Vienna, Francois du Roullet, had already approached him with a libretto, Iphigenie en Aulide, and in 1773 Christoph Willibald Gluck undertook to write five operas for Paris. The first of these was Iphigenie en Aulide, given in Paris on the 19th April, 1774 after long rehearsals with the composer, who found much to correct in the traditional style of production. This had hardly changed since the days of Lully, since Rameau had concentrated all the interest of his operas on the music and introduced few innovations in their dramatic presentation. Christoph Willibald Gluck's former singing-pupil, the Austrian princess Marie-Antoinette, was married to the Dauphin (the future Louis XVI) and did much to forward the cause of her old teacher's music, which caused an uproar in the French musical world. The brilliant journalists who played a large part in French intellectual life at this time organised cabals for and against Christoph Willibald Gluck's music, and his opponents not only organised a hostile claque at the performance of a French version of Alceste (1776), but also engaged an Italian composer hitherto known for comic opera, Niccola Piccinni, to write works in opposition to Christoph Willibald Gluck. Although Christoph Willibald Gluck's Paris successes were acknowledged officially when he was appointed Imperial Court Composer in Vienna, his life was greatly saddened by the death of his adopted daughter in 1776.

The production of Piccinni's Roland (January 1778) only inflamed the quarrel between Gluckists and Piccinists, in which the Gluckists had already scored another major success in the preceding September, when Christoph Willibald Gluck's Armide was given. The two composers felt no animosity towards each other, and Piccinni was to show a touching and sensible willingness to learn from his much greater rival without sacrificing the natural Italian character of his own music. Vienna and Paris were now the two poles of Christoph Willibald Gluck's existence and he was perpetually travelling from one to the other. On one of these he visited Voltaire, living in exile at Ferney, a few weeks before the old man died (1778). Between March and November that year Christoph Willibald Gluck was in Vienna composing his Iphigenie en Tauride, to a libretto by Nicolas-Francois Guillard, a work that was to crown his career; and also the much slighter Echo et Narcisse, with a libretto by the Baron Tschudi. Iphigenie en Tauride had its first performance at the Opera on the 18th May 1779, and succeeded as it deserved to do; but the second work failed when it was produced in September and Christoph Willibald Gluck, who was now sixty-five, decided to abandon the French scene and retire to Vienna. He must have been influenced in this decision by considerations of health, as he had already had several 'apoplectic seizures' (perhaps minor thromboses) when he left Paris at the end of October. A more serious stroke partly paralysed him in 1781 and forced him to give up work on the operatic setting of Klopstock's Hermannschlacht which he had had in mind ever since 1771, when he set a number of Klopstock's odes to music and paid the poet two visits in 1774 and 1775. In Vienna he gave his paternal support to Salieri, who had spent much time there since 1766 and was to become Court Kapellmeister in 1780; and he was delighted by a performance of Mozart's Entfuhrung specially given for him in 1782 and by a concert the following year at which Mozart improvised variations on a theme from the old man's La Rencontre imprevue. It was to Salieri that Christoph Willibald Gluck gave the manuscript of a De Profundis which he wrote in 1782 and Salieri whom he recommended to the Paris Opera. When Salieri's Les Dana'ides was produced in Paris (1784), Christoph Willibald Gluck's name stood with his on the programme and this caused Calzabigi to make a public protest over Christoph Willibald Gluck's treatment of him, since the libretto of Les Danaides was identical with Calzabigi's Ipermestra, which Christoph Willibald Gluck had undertaken to compose in 1778. Christoph Willibald Gluck died of a final stroke in November 1787 after entertaining two friends from Paris to lunch.

Christoph Willibald Gluck's importance in the history of opera far outweighs that which attaches to his name in the history of music generally. Italian composers before him (including, as we have seen, Traetta; and also Jommelli) had begun to work towards the ideal which was eventually embodied in the six 'reform' operas written by Christoph Willibald Gluck between 1 762 and 1 779. No other composer, however, showed himself able to understand and assimilate the aesthetic ideals of Winckelmann, one of the main sources of the Neo-Classical movement; the plastic ideas embodied in the new ballet initiated by Noverre; and the concentrated drama of the texts supplied by Calzabigi. Christoph Willibald Gluck was before all else a great man of the theatre, and his music makes little effect outside its dramatic setting. He himself liked to compare the work of the opera-composer to that of the ceiling-painter, who must be able to calculate exactly the effect of his work when seen from below and at a distance. Christoph Willibald Gluck's music owes much of its greatness to its austerity of design, the refusal of all the dramatically inessential musical ornament that characterises the operas of Rameau, far more interesting from a purely musical point of view, but too often enfeebled dramatically by decorative passages. Christoph Willibald Gluck sought a unity which develops, without interruption, from the overture onwards; a pathos and a magnificence to which the orchestra and the chorus contribute almost as much as the solo singers; and that truth to Nature which was the ideal of J.J. Rousseau and the philosophers of Diderot's great Encyclopaedia. Yet paradoxically his operas look backwards rather than forwards. They are still conceived if not for the court, at least for a minority of connoisseurs. It is interesting to observe that Mozart's operas in the old Italian manner - Idomeneo in his youth and La Clemenza di Tito at the end of his life - are nowhere indebted in any way to Christoph Willibald Gluck, whose only influence on future composers is to be found in those of the French school, and most notably in Berlioz, whose admiration for Christoph Willibald Gluck's music was hardly this side of idolatry.

Three lines sum up his position and his affinities among his contemporaries and successors:

Lessing der Oper, die durch Gottergunst

Bald auch in Mozart ihren Goethe fand;

Der grosste nicht, doch ehrenwert vor alien

(The Lessing of the opera, which by heaven's grace

Soon found in Mozart its Goethe:

Not the greatest among musicians, but worthy of honour before all)

Christoph Willibald Gluck: CDs

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