In Milan, Vienna and Paris, Christoph Willibald Gluck became a celebrated star of the opera world. The premiere of his "Orfeo ed Euridice" in 1762 ushered in widespread changes in operatic composition and performance.
If there had been music charts in Europe during the 18th century, Christoph Willibald Gluck would have been the Madonna of opera during his lifetime. His compositions were the talk of the town - particularly in Vienna, Paris, Milan and London. Although it's all but incomprehensible today, they unleashed a kind of musical battle in Paris. Supporters of the traditional Italian operatic style got into fistfights with admirers of Gluck's reformist opera over their differing opinions.
Gluck changed the world of musical theater by freeing Italian Baroque operas from their hardened conventions. Instead of putting flashy arias at the center of works filled with hollow pathos, he presented believable characters and feelings on stage. Rather than being a predictable sequence of recitatives and arias, his works involved a unified whole of music, words and motion.
"There's not a single rule that I wouldn't sacrifice for the sake of creation," he once said provocatively. "I don't just consider music the art of appealing to the ear, but as one of the greatest ways to move people's hearts and stir their emotions."
Christoph Willibald Gluck was born on July 2, 1714, in Erasbach, near Nuremberg. His parents rejected his dream of becoming a musician, preferring instead for him to continue the family tradition of being a forester. At 14, Gluck ran away from home, initially earning a living in Prague as a dance violinist. Eventually, he found work as a church musician in Vienna and Milan. Although it's often written that he studied with Italian composer Giovanni Battista Sammartini during that time, historical proof on that point is lacking.
It can be proven, however, that the premiere of his first opera "Artaserse" in 1741 took place in Milan. It was apparently a massive success, because the young composer received commissions for seven additional operas by 1745. Word of the newcomer's sensational rise spread to London, where he was employed by the city's King's Theatre beginning in 1745. It's there that he became acquainted with George Frideric Handel, as well as his oratorios. Gluck was thrilled by Handel's portrayal of people and the possibilities of choral music.
After years full of travel in Europe, Gluck gave his debut in 1748 in Vienna.
Meaningless vocal acrobatics
Gluck cherished theater and staged his operas himself. However, the formal monotony of Italian opera seria - especially the star singers and the virtuosic arias they demanded - increasingly became a thorn in the composer's side. For him, these meaningless vocal acrobatics came at the cost of believable dramatic action.
He resolved to keep his future operas "completely free of all the abuses - introduced due to the singers' vanity - that have for so long defaced Italian opera," according to a forward he later wrote to "Alceste." He continued: "My intent was directed at taking music back to its true calling: to be in service of expressing drama without interrupting the plot or watering it down with useless and superfluous ornamentation."
Remarkable creative achievements
Text, music and motion were all to be subordinate to the plot in Gluck's work. In Raniero di Calzabigi, an adherent of Enlightenment attitudes, Gluck found the perfect librettist. With him, the composer was able to realize his groundbreaking ideas.
On October 5, 1762, the two celebrated the premiere of their first joint operatic endeavor, "Orfeo ed Euridice" in Vienna's Hofburg. The work proved far ahead of its time.
The opera's plot is reduced to the essentials - the power of love and of music. A human drama is at its core. The use of chorus and ballet - scarcely present in opera seria - became the new drivers of the work's story. Right after the overture, audiences hear the mournful chorus "Ah, se intorno a quest'urna funesta" and Orpheus' despairing cry for Eurydice, who has vanished into the underworld.
Suddenly, longstanding conventions in opera seemed passé. Vocal parts resembling arias, Lieder and recitatives flowed into one another. It's no wonder that Richard Wagner later took cues from Gluck in developing his vision of a Gesamtkunstwerk - a "total" work of art embracing many different forms.
'A state of enchantment'
Gluck's opera hits in Vienna drew attention from around the continent. The French queen Marie Antoinette was also in search of fresh ideas in the realm of musical theater. In 1773, Gluck traveled to the Seine and presented two operas the following year: "Iphigenie in Aulis" and "Orphee," a new adaptation into French of his original "Orfeo." Further works would follow in the years thereafter.
Although adherents of the old opera seria style shook their raised fists over the "Gluckists," the composer's operas in Paris also won over audiences well into the 19th century. When Friedrich Schiller staged a German version of Gluck's "Iphigenie in Aulis," he was overcome, saying: "A piece of music has never moved me in such a pure and beautiful way as this one. It's a world of harmony that penetrates the soul."
Fellow composer Hector Berlioz said of Gluck's operas 20 years later: "I copy them down, and I learn them by heart. They've robbed me of sleep, and caused me to forget to eat and drink. I fell into a state of enchantment over them."
The fact that Gluck's operas vanished almost completely from opera stages in the 20th century is owing to how music history was written. Musicologists long downplayed the achievements of Gluck, who was born in the period between Bach and Beethoven. His operas were dismissed as boring, and the reforms he introduced were curtly held to be of limited interest.
With the rise of historically informed performance practice, these prejudices have since been overcome. Although his operas are still performed only seldom in opera houses, the 300th anniversary of his birth presents a good opportunity to reverse that trend.