Overture to “Iphigenia in Adis”
Gluck’s overture to his opera “Iphigenia in Aulis” (“Iphigenie en Aulide”) is a little more than a century and a half old. Unpretentious in its proportions, it is nevertheless one of the greatest of the musical utterances of its time. By means of a noble simplicity and purity of phrase it combines drama and form, passion and repose, in a way that approaches the spirit of Greek tragedy. Wagner described the dramatic motives of the opera, present in the overture, as those of appeal, power, grace and pity. Pathetic dialogue of the strings precedes the stern rhythmic motive which introduces the main movementthe voice of the in-exorable gods. The grand flourish of brass and strings, several times repeated, pompous in the manner of the French classic drama (Gluck’s subject: came to him from the theatre of Racine via the opera libretto of Du Roullet) , is like unto the commentary of a Greek chorus.
Wagner considered this overture Gluck’s greatest instrumental composition, and there is no good reason to disagree with him. The last measures of the overture led originally into the first act of the opera. Concert endings have been composed by Mozart and Wagner. Wagner’s conclusion, most often used, substitutes thirty-three measures of his own for Gluck’s
transitional passage. These measures are constructed reverently upon phrases already heard, returning to the music of the opening, concluding with the motive of the gods decree ominously muttering in the basses.
This overture and the work which it preludes were first performed at the Opéra, Paris, April 19, 1774. “Iphigenia in Aulis” was the second of five operas, based on classic themes, in which Gluck wrought immense and much-needed reforms in the fields of mu-sic drama. The French operatic stage had become extremely conventionalized, and the attention of the public centred less upon dramatic expression and consistency of style than upon the ballet and the solo dancers, who even superseded the leading singers in popular favor. The famous Vestris, who called him-self the god of the ballet, asked Gluck kindly to insert a chaconne for him in the last act. When Gluck exploded, asking Vestris when he ever heard of the Greeks dancing chaconnes, the “god” exclaimed, “Did they not, indeed? Well, then, so much the worse for them!” Gluck, aided by the best minds of the day, and by Marie Antoinette, his former pupil, triumphed over Vestris and his kind. Nor was Paris lacking in appreciation of his genius. The minds that bred the French Revolution were there. Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were among Gluck’s defenders. When it was made known to the authorities of the Académie Royale de Musique that Gluck had “writ-ten a French opera, which he earnestly desires to bring to Paris,” the answer was, “If the Chevalier Gluck is willing to pledge himself to write six operas of this kind for the Academy, well and good; otherwise it cannot be played, for such a work as this is calculated to kill all the old French operas.” The full text of the reply may be found in Ernest Newman’s study of Gluck (“Gluck and the Opera”), from which work the following paragraph, for the better understanding of the music, is well worth quoting
“Year after year the language of art art grows richer and more complex, and work after -work sinks into ever-deepening oblivion; until music that once thrilled men with delirious ecstasy becomes a dead thing which here and there the student looks upon in a mood of scarcely tolerant antiquarianism. In the temple of art a hundred statues of the gods are over-thrown; and a hundred others stand with arrested lips and inarticulate tongues, pale symbols of a vanished dominion which men no longer own. Yet here and there through the ghostly twilight comes the sound of some clear voice that has defied 1 he courses of the years and the mutations of taste; and we hear the rich canorous tones of Gluck, not perhaps with all the vigor and the passion that once was theirs, but with the mellowed splendor given by the touch of time. Alone among his fellows he speak our modern tongue, and chants the eternal passions of the race. He was indeed, as Sophie Arnould called him, `the musician of the soul; and if we have added new strings to our lyre, and wrung from them a more poignant eloquence than ever stirred within the heart of Gluck, none the less do we perceive that music such as his comes to us from the days when there were giants in the land.”