Gluck, Christoph Willibald

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Gluck, Christoph Willibald (1714-87): Austrian, Composer

Christoph Willibald Gluck was born in Erasbach in the Upper Palatinate on 2 July 1714. He received some music training at an early age while attending various Catholic schools. He continued his musical training at the university in Prague, where he enrolled at the age of nineteen. He is best known for rebuking the popular style of the Italian opera seria for a form of musical drama that expressed a simple dramatic truth. His reform operas are reputed to constitute the beginning of modern music drama. He is also attributed with being one of the earliest opera composers to maintain a place in the functioning repertory.

Gluck’s early musical career was launched by the composition of his first opera Artaserse (1741), which was produced in Milan. In many of his early works, he did not part significantly from the predominant style of the time. However, his first dramatic ballet, Don Juan (1762) represented a departure from tradition and led the way to his later “reform” operas. In this ballet, the music reflects the action of the drama, rather than being subjugated to the particular talents of the principal singers or being simply ornamental in nature.

Gluck reached the epitome of his musical innovation during his collaboration with the Italian dramatist and librettist Ranieri Calzabigi, with whom he composed three operas. Their first collaboration, Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), saw the abandonment of extraneous arias and actions that were not pertinent to the presentation of the drama. Instead, Gluck strove for and achieved a simplicity and directness of expression that complemented the sentiment of the drama. Furthermore, he rendered the overture into an integral part of the score, instead of a mere introduction. . While Gluck himself did not originate all of the concepts of reform that he pursued, he is responsible for achieving the ideals of Enlightenment in his reform operas. The other two collaborations with Calzabigi were Alceste (1767) and Paride ed Elena (1770). All three of these collaborations were produced in Vienna.

In 1773 he moved to Paris, at the invitation of Marie Antoinette, who had once been a pupil of his. An attaché to the French embassy in Vienna, Françoise du Roullet, had composed a libretto for Gluck, based on Racine’s Iphigenie en Aulide. The Gluck opera premiered in France in 1774. Gluck also composed Orfeo ed Euridice (1774), Armide (1775), Alceste (1776), and his final opera Iphigenie en Tauride (1779) during his years in France. Though his uncluttered, neoclassic style often met with disapproval among fans of the Italian opera, he obtained critical acclaim with the French production of Orfeo ed Euridice. His success with this opera instigated a cultural war in the literary parlors of France between the supporters of Gluck (known as Gluckists) and those of his Italian contemporary Niccolo Piccini.

He spent his final years in Vienna and died of a stroke on 15 November 1787.

Further Reading:

Julian Rushton, “Gluck, Christoph Willibald,” New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. 10, 2001.

Sarah Tusa

Lamar University