Christoph Willibald Gluck has been called
the "regenerator of the
opera" for he appeared just at the right moment to rescue opera from
deplorable state into which it had fallen. At that time the composers
yielded to the caprices of the singers and wrote to suit them, while
singers themselves, through vanity and ignorance, made such
that opera itself often became ridiculous. Gluck desired "to restrict
art of music to its true object, that of aiding the effect of poetry by
giving greater expression to words and scenes, without interrupting the
action or the plot." He wrote only operas, and some of his best works
the stage to-day. They are simple in design yet powerful in appeal:
original and stamped with refinement and true feeling.
The boy Christoph, like many another lad
who became a great musician, had
a sorrowful childhood, full of poverty and neglect. His home was in the
little town of Weissenwangen, on the borders of Bohemia, where he was
July 2, 1714. As a little lad he early manifested a love for music, but
parents were in very straitened circumstances and could not afford to
pay for musical instruction. He was sent to one of the public schools.
Fortunately the art of reading music from notes, formation of scales
fundamentals, was taught along with general school subjects.
While his father lived the boy was sure
of sympathy and affection,
circumstances were of the poorest. But the good man passed away when
boy was quite young, and then matters were much worse. He was gradually
neglected until he was at last left to shift for himself.
He possessed not only talent but
perseverance and the will to succeed.
violoncello attracted him, and he began to teach himself to play it,
no other help than an old instruction book. Determination conquered
difficulties however, and before long he had made sufficient progress
enable him to join a troop of traveling minstrels. From Prague they
their way to Vienna.
Arrived in Vienna, that rich, gay,
laughter-loving city, where the
loved music and often did much for it, the youth's musical talent
with his forlorn appearance and condition won sympathy from a few
souls, who not only provided a home and took care of his material
but gave him also the means to continue his musical studies. Christoph
was overcome with gratitude and made the best possible use of his
opportunities. For nearly two years he gave himself up to his musical
Italy was the goal of his ambition, and
at last the opportunity to
that land of song was within his grasp. At the age of twenty-four, in
year 1738, Gluck bade adieu to his many kind friends in Vienna, and set
to complete his studies in Italy. Milan was his objective point. Soon
after arriving there he had the good fortune to meet Padre Martini, the
celebrated master of musical theory. Young Gluck at once placed himself
under the great man's guidance and labored diligently with him for
four years. How much he owed to the careful training Martini was able
give, was seen in even his first attempts at operatic composition.
At the conclusion of this long period of
devoted study, Gluck began to
write an opera, entitled "Artaxerxes." When completed it was accepted
the Milan Theater, brought out in 1741 and met with much success. This
success induced one of the managers in Venice to offer him an
for that city if he would compose a new opera. Gluck then produced
"Clytemnestra." This second work had a remarkable success, and the
arranged for the composition of another opera, which was "Demetrio,"
like the others was most favorably received. Gluck now had offers from
Turin, so that the next two years were spent between that city and
for which cities he wrote five or six operas. By this time the name of
Gluck had become famous all over Italy; indeed his fame had spread to
countries, with the result that tempting offers for new operas flowed
to him from all directions. Especially was a London manager, a certain
Middlesex, anxious to entice the young composer from Italy to come over
to London, and produce some of his works at the King's Theater in the
The noble manager made a good offer too,
and Gluck felt he ought to
He reached London in 1745, but owing to the rebellion which had broken
out in Scotland all the theaters were closed, and the city in more or
confusion. However a chance to hear the famous German composer, who had
traveled such a distance, was not to be lost, and Lord Middlesex
the Powers to re-open the theater. After much pleading his request was
finally granted. The opening opera, written on purpose to introduce
to English audiences, was entitled "La Caduta del Giganti,"—"Fall of
Giants"—and did not seem to please the public. But the young composer
undaunted. His next opera, "Artamene," pleased them no better. The mind
the people was taken up at that period with politics and political
and they cared less than usual for music and the arts. Then, too,
at the height of his fame, was living in London, honored and courted by
aristocracy and the world of fashion.
Though disappointed at his lack of
success, Gluck remained in England
several years, constantly composing operas, none of which seemed to win
success. At last he took his way quietly back to Vienna. In 1754, he
invited to Rome, where he produced several operas, among them
they were all successful, showing the Italians appreciated his work. He
proceeded to Florence, and while there became acquainted with an
poet, Ranieri di Calzabigi. They were mutually attracted to each other,
on parting had sworn to use their influence and talents to reform
Gluck returned to Vienna, and continued
to compose operas. In 1764,
was produced,—an example of the new reform in opera! "Orfeo" was
most favorably and sung twenty-eight times, a long run for those days.
singing and acting of Guadagni made the opera quite the rage, and the
began to be known in England. Even in Paris and Parma it became a great
favorite. The composer was now fifty, and his greatest works had
the exception or "Orfeo"—to be written. He began to develop that purity
of style which we find in "Alceste," "Iphigénie en Tauride" and
"Alceste" was the second opera on the reformed plan which simplified
music to give more prominence to the poetry. It was produced in Vienna
1769, with the text written by Calzabigi. The opera was ahead of
in simplicity and nobility, but it did not seem to please the critics.
composer himself wrote: "Pedants and critics, an infinite multitude,
form the greatest obstacle to the progress of art. They think
entitled to pass a verdict on 'Alceste' from some informal rehearsals,
badly conducted and executed. Some fastidious ear found a vocal passage
harsh, or another too impassioned, forgetting that forcible expression
striking contrasts are absolutely necessary. It was likewise decided in
full conclave, that this style of music was barbarous and extravagant."
In spite of the judgment of the critics,
"Alceste" increased the fame
Gluck to a great degree. Paris wanted to see the man who had
Italian opera. The French Royale Académie had made him an offer
the capital, for which he was to write a new opera for a début.
poet, Du Rollet, living in Vienna, offered to write a libretto for the
opera, and assured him there was every chance for success in a visit
to France. The libretto was thereupon written, or rather arranged from
Racine's "Iphigénie en Aulide," and with this, Chevalier Gluck,
Knight of the papal order of the Golden Spur, set out for Paris.
And now began a long season of hard
work. The opera "Iphigénie"
a year to compose, besides a careful study of the French language. He
even more trouble with the slovenly, ignorant orchestra, than he had
the French language. The orchestra declared itself against foreign
but this opposition was softened down by his former pupil and
the charming Marie Antoinette, Queen of France.
After many trials and delays,
"Iphigénie" was produced August
The opera proved an enormous success. The beautiful Queen herself gave
signal for applause in which the whole house joined. The charming
Arnould sang the part of Iphigénie and seemed to quite satisfy
composer. Larrivée was the Agamemnon, and other parts were well
French were thoroughly delighted. They fêted and praised Gluck,
he had discovered the music of the ancient Greeks, that he was the only
in Europe who could express real feelings in music. Marie Antoinette
to her sister: "We had, on the nineteenth, the first performance of
'Iphigénie,' and it was a glorious triumph. I was quite
nothing else is talked of. All the world wishes to see the piece, and
seems well satisfied."
The next year, 1775, Gluck brought out
an adaptation suitable for
the French stage, of his "Alceste," which again aroused the greatest
enthusiasm. The theater was crammed at every performance. Marie
Antoinette's favorite composer was again praised to the skies, and was
declared to be the greatest composer living.
But Gluck had one powerful opponent at
the French Court, who was none
than the famous Madame du Barry, the favorite of Louis XV. Since the
had her pet musical composer, Mme. du Barry wished to have hers. An
by birth, she could gather about her a powerful Italian faction, who
bent upon opposition to the Austrian Gluck. She had listened to his
long enough, and the tremendous success of "Alceste" had been the last
straw and brought things to a climax. Du Barry would have some one to
represent Italian music, and applied to the Italian ambassador to
Piccini to come to Paris.
On the arrival of Piccini, Madame du
Barry began activities, aided by
XV himself. She gathered a powerful Italian party about her, and their
first act was to induce the Grand Opera management to make Piccini an
for a new opera, although they had already made the same offer to
This breach of good faith led to a furious war, in which all Paris
it was fierce and bitter while it lasted. Even politics were forgotten
the time being. Part of the press took up one side and part the other.
Many pamphlets, poems and satires appeared, in which both composers
unmercifully attacked. Gluck was at the time in Germany, and Piccini
come to Paris principally to secure the tempting fee offered him. The
leaders of the feud kept things well stirred up, so that a stranger
not enter a café, hotel or theater without first answering the
whether he stood for Gluck or Piccini. Many foolish lies were told of
in his absence. It was declared by the Piccinists that he went away on
purpose, to escape the war; that he could no longer write melodies
he was a dried up old man and had nothing new to give France. These
and false stories were put to flight one evening when the Abbé
of Gluck's most ardent adherents, declared in an aristocratic company,
the Chevalier was returning to France with an "Orlando" and an "Armide"
"Piccini is also working on an
'Orlando,'" spoke up a follower of that
"That will be all the better," returned
the abbé, "for we shall
an 'Orlando' and also an 'Orlandino.'"
When Gluck arrived in Paris, he brought
with him the finished opera of
"Armide," which was produced at the Paris Grand Opera on September 23,
1777. At first it was merely a succès d'estime, but soon
immensely popular. On the first night many of the critics were against
opera, which was called too noisy. The composer, however, felt he had
some of his best work in "Armide"; that the music was written in such
that it would not grow old, at least not for a long time. He had taken
greatest pains in composing it, and declared that if it were not
rehearsed at the Opera he would not let them have it at all, but would
retain the work himself for his own pleasure. He wrote to a friend: "I
put forth what little strength is left in me, into 'Armide'; I confess
should like to finish my career with it."
It is said the Gluck composed "Armide"
in order to praise the beauty of
Marie Antoinette, and she for her part showed the deepest interest in
success of the piece, and really "became quite a slave to it." Gluck
told her he "rearranged his music according to the impression it made
"Great as was the success of 'Armide,'"
wrote the Princess de Lamballe,
one prized this beautiful work more highly than the composer of it. He
was passionately enamored of it; he told the Queen the air of France
rejuvenated his creative powers, and the sight of her majesty had given
such a wonderful impetus to the flow of ideas, that his composition had
become like herself, angelic, sublime."
The growing success of "Armide" only
added fuel to the flame of
which had been stirred up. To cap the climax, Piccini had finished his
opera, which was duly brought out and met with a brilliant reception.
Indeed its success was greater than that won by "Armide," much to the
delight of the Piccinists. Of course the natural outcome was that the
other party should do something to surpass the work of their rivals.
Antoinette was besought to prevail on Gluck to write another opera.
A new director was now in charge of the
Opera House. He conceived the
bright idea of setting the two composers at work on the same subject,
was to be "Iphigénie en Tauride." This plan made great commotion
ranks of the rival factions, as each wished to have their composer's
performed first. The director promised that Piccini's opera should be
placed in rehearsal. Gluck soon finished his and handed it in, but the
Italian, trusting to the director's word of honor, was not troubled
heard the news, though he determined to complete his as soon as
A few days later, when he went to the Opera House with his completed
he was horrified to find the work of his rival already in rehearsal.
was a lively scene, but the manager said he had received orders to
the work of Gluck at once, and he must obey. On the 18th of May, 1779,
Gluck opera was first performed. It produced the greatest excitement
had a marvelous success. Even Piccini succumbed to the spell, for the
made such an impression on him that he did not wish his own work to be
The director, however, insisted, and
soon after the second
appeared. The first night the opera did not greatly please; the next
proved a comic tragedy, as the prima donna was intoxicated. After a
of days' imprisonment she returned and sang well. But the war between
the two factions continued till the death of Gluck, and the retirement
The following year, in September, Gluck
finished a new opera, "Echo et
Narcisse," and with this work decided to close his career, feeling he
too old to write longer for the lyric stage. He was then nearly seventy
years old, and retired to Vienna, to rest and enjoy the fruits of all
years of incessant toil. He was now rich, as he had earned nearly
thousand pounds. Kings and princes came to do him honor, and to tell
what pleasure his music had always given them.
Gluck passed away on November 15, 1787,
honored and beloved by all. The
simple beauty and purity of his music are as moving and expressive
as when it was written, and the "Michael of Music" speaks to us still
his operas, whenever they are adequately performed.