Christoph Willibald Gluck

(d. 15 November 1787)

Gluck was an 18th century German composer who helped reform opera through the inclusion of drama in music. Gluck wrote more than 40 operas, the most famous being Orfeo ed Euridice, successful in both Italian and French. Gluck’s music rejected the styles of the late Baroque period and achieved success primarily in Milan, Vienna, and Paris. He composed in many different genres in addition to opera, including ballet, chamber music, orchestral, and vocal music. Though he composed in numerous styles, he is most remembered as a composer of dramatic operas.

Christoph Willibald Gluck was born in the upper Palatinate, Germany. He was born into a middle-class family and his father worked as a gamekeeper for Prince Lobkowitz. Gluck was introduced to music as a young boy through the church choir. His father valued education and sent Gluck to the Jesuit School of Kommotau, where he also received music lessons.

The language of nature is the universal language.

At the age of 18, Gluck went to Prague to continue his musical studies with Czernohorsky. While in Prague, he made his living by playing music, often playing fiddle at village fairs and dances. Gluck was introduced to many noble Austrian families through his father’s employer, Prince Lobkowitz, which eased his transition to Vienna in 1736. Prince Mezi was particularly fond of music and Gluck, and they travelled together to Milan, where Gluck continued his studies with Giovanni Battista San Martini, a well-known music historian and contrapuntist. Gluck also learned practical knowledge of all the instruments while studying with San Martini. Gluck was able to rapidly produce operas while in Italy and, between 1741 and 1745, nine of his works were successfully produced at the Italian theaters. His first opera, Artaserse (1741), was successfully performed at the Teatro Regio Ducal. The opera was again performed at the Milanese Carnival in 1742, where it was also successful. He was then asked to compose operas for the next four Carnivals and was invited to compose for the Haymarket in London in 1745. His first opera there was the original work, La Caduta dei gigantic (1746), while his second opera was simply a revised version of Arteme (2nd ver. 1946). Gluck also had the opportunity to perform on the musical glasses in London. His operas in London were not successful; his style in this period is reminiscent of Handel, but very amateurish and not yet evolved. His music was also very dependent on dramatic situations and a good libretto, which he did not have.

Alceste can only displease when it is new. It has not yet had time. I say that it will please in two hundred years.

During a short trip to Paris, Gluck was introduced to French opera, a genre wherein he would later greatly succeed. After returning to England, he composed his opera seria, La Seiramide riconosciuta (1748). Gluck later settled in Vienna in 1758, where he was appointed chapel-master by the empress Maria Theresa. Two successful works in Rome also earned him a position in the order of the knighthood from the pope. Gluck desperately wanted to reform opera and, between 1757 and 1762, his plans for the reform were expanded upon, though he still composed several works in his old style, such as the ballet Don Juan (1761). Pieces that show his new style include his Orfeo ed Euridice (1762).

Gluck’s new ideas about opera were probably influenced by his new librettist, Calzabigi. Gluck stated during this time, “I shall try to reduce music to its real function, that of seconding poetry by intensifying the expression of sentiments and the interest of situations without interrupting the action by needless ornament.” These new ideas did not go over well with the Viennese public and, as a result, his second classical music-drama, Aleste (1767) was not very successful. Despite its lack of popularity by the Viennese, Orfeo ed Euridice is considered one of Gluck’s best and most inspired works, though some critics have found that the work is thoroughly ruined by the happy ending; Gluck also made a French version in 1774 (Orphée et Eurydice). Aleste contains some of Gluck’s grandest music, but there is not a proper climax in the Italian version, limiting its impact. There is also a French version of this work, which differs greatly from the original as Gluck tried to fix all the problems. The third opera in which Gluck collaborated on with Calzabigi is Panide e Elena (1770). These works marked the beginning of the greatest period of Gluck’s career.

Through the baille, Le Blanc du Roullet attaché, of the French embassy in Vienna, Gluck was given the opportunity to work in Paris and his classical opera, Iphigénie en Aulide (1774) was staged at the Académie de Musique in 1774. This important opera caused great controversy as it didn’t adhere to the style of the traditional French school. Rousseau, however, acknowledged Gluck’s genius. Though controversial, the opera was successful despite the fact that the controversies regarding his style had begun to interfere with his spontaneity. The opera Armide (1777) is colorful and full of drama and melody while Écho et Narcisse (1779) was considered a failure both in his time and now. During the rehearsals for Écho et Narcisse, Gluck suffered his first stroke and an attack of apoplexy forced him to stop working during the composition of Les Danaïdes.

During his final years, Gluck returned to Vienna and his health continued to decline. He also lost interest in composing for opera houses, though he received numerous offers. He suffered several more strokes before dying on 15 November 1787.

I'll try to reduce music to its real function, that of seconding poetry by intensifying the expression of sentiments.

Gluck’s music sets him apart due to his absolute dependence on the literature for inspiration; he was only inspired by a high-quality libretto. However, when inspired, he was easily the greatest composer of dramatic music in the period before Mozart. He also rejected the traditional formalities of opera and created his own unique forms inspired by the drama of the libretto. His compositions marked the end of the opera seria genre and were greatly influenced by Italian sacred music. Gluck’s music and teachings influenced many future composers; his student, Antonio Salieri, passed down much of Gluck’s knowledge to composers such as Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt.

Header image: public domain
Other Images: courtesy of The Hector Berlioz Website and classictong.com

I have put forth what little strength is left in me, into 'Armide.'

Carl Maria von Weber

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