CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD GLUCK has been called the “regenerator of the opera” for he appeared just at the right moment to rescue opera from the deplorable state into which it had fallen. At that time the composers often yielded to the caprices of the singers and wrote to suit them, while the singers themselves, through vanity and ignorance, made such requirements that opera itself often became ridiculous. Gluck desired “to restrict the 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 keep the stage today. They are simple in design yet powerful in appeal: very 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 born July 2, 1714. As a little lad he early manifested a love for music, but his 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 and fundamentals, was taught along with general school subjects.
While his father lived the boy was sure of sympathy and affection, though circumstances were of the poorest. But the good man passed away when the 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. The violoncello attracted him, and he began to teach himself to play it, with no other help than an old instruction book. Determination conquered many difficulties how-ever, and before long he had made sufficient progress to enable him to join a troop of traveling minstrels. From Prague they made their way to Vienna.
Arrived in Vienna, that rich, gay, laughter-loving city, where the people loved music and often did much for it, the youth’s musical talent together with his forlorn appearance and condition won sympathy from a few generous souls, who not only provided a home and took care of his material needs, 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 studies.
Italy was the goal of his ambition, and at last the opportunity to visit that land of song was within his grasp. At the age of twenty-four, in the year 1738, Gluck bade adieu to his many kind friends in Vienna, and set out 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 about four years. How much he owed to the careful training Martini was able to 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 at 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 engagement for that city if he would compose a new opera. Gluck then produced “Clytemnestra.” This second work had a remarkable success, and the managers arranged for the composition of another opera, which was “Demetrio,” which, 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 Milan, 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 other countries, with the result that tempting offers for new operas flowed in to him from all directions. Especially was a London manager, a certain Lord 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 Haymarket.
The noble manager made a good offer too, and Gluck felt he ought to accept. 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 less confusion. However a chance to hear the famous German composer, who had traveled such a distance, was not to be lost, and Lord Middlesex besought the Powers to reopen the theater. After much pleading his request was finally granted. The opening opera, written on purpose to introduce Gluck to English audiences, was entitled “La Caduta del Giganti,””Fall of the Giants”and did not seem to please the public. But the young composer was undaunted His next opera, “Artamene,” pleased them no better. The mind of the people was taken up at that period with politics and political events, and they cared less than usual for music and the arts. Then, too, Handel, at the height of his fame, was living in London, honored and courted by the 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 was invited to Rome, where he produced several operas, among them “Antigone”; they were all successful, showing the Italians appreciated his work. He now proceeded to Florence, and while there became acquainted with an Italian poet, Ranieri di Calzabigi. ‘ They were mutually attracted to each other, and on parting had sworn to use their influence and talents to reform Italian opera.
Gluck returned to Vienna, and continued to compose operas. In 1764, “Orfeo” was produced,an example of the new reform in opera! “Orfeo” was received most favorably and sung twenty-eight times, a long run for those days. The singing and acting of Guadagni made the opera quite the rage, and the work 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 yetwith the exception or “Orfeo”to be written. He began to develop that purity of style which we find in “Alceste,” “Iphigénie en Tauride” and others. “Alceste” was the second opera on the reformed plan which simplified the music to give more prominence to the poetry. It was produced in Vienna in 1769, with the text written by Calzabigi. The opera was ahead of “Orfeo” in simplicity and nobility, but it did not seem to please the critics. The composer himself wrote: “Pedants and critics, an infinite multitude, form the greatest obstacle to the progress of art. They think themselves entitled to pass a verdict on `Alceste’ from some informal rehearsals, badly conducted and executed. Some fastidious ear found a vocal passage too harsh, or another too impassioned, forgetting that forcible expression and 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 of Gluck to a great degree. Paris wanted to see the man who had revolutionized Italian opera. The French Royale Académie had made him an offer to visit the capital, for which he was to write a new opera for a début. A French poet, Du Rollet, living in Vienna, offered to write a libretto for the new 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, lately made 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” took about a year to compose, besides a careful study of the French language. He had even more trouble with the slovenly, ignorant orchestra, than he had with the French language. The orchestra declared itself against foreign music; but this opposition was softened down by his former pupil and patroness, the charming Marie Antoinette, Queen of France.
After many trials and delays, “Iphigénie” was produced August 19, 1774. The opera proved an enormous success. The beautiful Queen her-self gave the signal for applause in which the whole house joined. The charming Sophie Arnould sang the part of Iphigénie and seemed to quite satisfy the composer. Larrivée was the Agamemnon, and other parts were well sung. The French were thoroughly delighted. They feted and praised Gluck, declaring he had discovered the music of the ancient Greeks, that he was the only man in Europe who could express real feelings in music. Marie Antoinette wrote to her sister : “We had, on the nineteenth, the first performance of Gluck’s `Iphigénie,’ and it was a glorious triumph. I was quite enchanted, and nothing else is talked of. All the world wishes to see the piece, and Gluck 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 other than the famous Madame du Barry, the favorite of Louis XV. Since the Queen had her pet musical composer, Mme. du Barry wished to have hers. An Italian by birth, she could gather about her a powerful Italian faction, who were bent upon opposition to the Austrian Gluck. She had listened to his praises 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 desire Piccini to come to Paris.
On the arrival of Piccini, Madame du Barry began activities, aided by Louis 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 offer for a new opera, although they had already made the same offer to Gluck. This breach of good faith led to a furious war, in which all Paris joined; it was fierce and bitter while it lasted. Even politics were forgotten for 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 were unmercifully attacked. Gluck was at the time in Germany, and Piccini had 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 could not enter a café, hotel or theater without first answering the question whether he stood for Gluck or Piccini. Many foolish lies were told of Gluck 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 because he was a dried up old man and had nothing new to give France. These lies and false stories were put to flight one evening when the Abbé Arnaud, one of Gluck’s most ardent adherents, declared in an aristocratic company, that the Chevalier was re-turning to France with an “Orlando” and an “Armide” in his portfolio.
“Piccini is also working on an `Orlando,’ ” spoke up a follower of that redoubtable Italian.
“That will be all the better,” returned the abbe, “for we shall then have an `Orlando’ and also an ‘Orlandino.’
When Gluck arrived in Paris, he brought with m the finished opera of “Armide,” which was produced at the Paris Grand Opera on September 23, 1777. At first it was merely a succes d’estime, but soon became immensely popular. On the first night many of the critics were against the opera, which was called too noisy. The composer, however, felt he had done some of his best work in “Armide”; that the music was written in such style that it would not grow old, at least not for a long time. He had taken the greatest pains in composing it, and declared that if it were not properly 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 have put forth what little strength is left in me, into `Armide'; I confess I 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 the success of the piece, and really “became quite a slave to it.” Gluck often told her he “re-arranged his music according to the impression it made upon the Queen.”
“Great as was the success of `Armide,’ ” wrote the Princess de Lamballe, “no 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 had 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 controversy 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. Marie 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, which was to be “Iphigénie en Tauride.” This plan made great commotion in the ranks of the rival factions, as each wished to have their composer’s work performed first. The director promised that Piccini’s opera should be first 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 when he heard the news, though he determined to complete his as soon as possible. A few days later, when he went to the Opera House with his completed score, he was horrified to find the work of his rival already in rehearsal. There was a lively scene, but the manager said he had received orders to produce the work of Gluck at once, and he must obey. On the 18th of May, 1779, the Gluck opera was first performed. It produced the greatest excitement and had a marvelous success. Even Piccini succumbed to the spell, for the music made such an impression on him that he did not wish his own work to be brought out.
The director, however, insisted, and soon after the second Iphigénie appeared. The first night the opera did not greatly please; the next night proved a comic tragedy, as the prima donna was intoxicated. After a couple of days’ imprisonment she returned and sang well. But the war between the two factions continued till the death of Gluck, and the retirement of Piccini.
The following, year, in September, Gluck finished a new opera, “Echo et Narcisse,” and with this work decided to close his career, feeling he was 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 his years of incessant toil. He was now rich, as he had earned nearly thirty thousand pounds. Sings and princes came to do him honor, and to tell him 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 today as when it was written, and the “Michael of Music” speaks to us still in his operas, whenever they are adequately performed.