Alceste was not a success when first produced in Paris on April 23, 1776. One of Gluck’s friends, the printer Corancez, went to look for Gluck in the wings of the theater in order to condole with him and gives us the following curious account of the meeting:
“I joined Gluck in the corridor and found him more concerned with trying to find reasons for what seemed to him an extraordinary happening than worried about the failure of his piece. `The failure of such a piece is very odd,’ he said, `and will be an epoch in the history of your country’s taste. I can imagine a piece composed in some particular musical style succeeding or not succeedingit would be a matter of the audience’s variable taste. I can also imagine a piece of that kind having an enormous success at first and then quickly falling out of favor in the presence, so to speak, and with the consent of its first admirers. But I admit I am bothered to know why a piece should fail when it is stamped with the truth of nature and when all the passions have their true expression. Alceste,’ he added proudly, `is not the kind of work to give momentary pleasure or to please because it is new. Time does not exist for it; and I claim that it will give equal pleasure two hundred years hence if the French language does not change. My reason is that the piece is founded upon nature and has nothing what-ever to do with fashion.’
I thought of these splendid words and of their justification as I listened one evening to the enthusiastic applause at the Opera Comique after the temple scenea scene built on noble lines, filled with fierce burning passions, molded Iike an imperishable bronze, aere perenniusthe masterpiece, to my mind, not only of musical tragedy but of tragedy itself.
And the effect of such a scene, built about a famous antique, is quite as impressive as that in the second act even though it is less unexpected. The scene represents Alcestis restraining her tears and her terror at the thought of approaching death amid the feasting which celebrates Admetus’ recovery; and in it we have great variety and freedom of melodic form, and a harmonious blending of stirring recitative with short phrases of song, delicate ariettas, tragic airs, and dances and choruses which are beyond praise in the matter of life, grace, and balance. After one hundred years they seem as fresh as the first day they were produced.
The third act is less perfect. In spite of moments of inspiration, it rather weakly repeats the situations of the second act without breaking much fresh ground; moreover, the part of Hercules is commonplace in conception and is probably not Gluck’s composition at all.
The work as a whole has, nevertheless, unity of style and a purity of art and emotion worthy of the finest Greek tragedies; and it often evokes a remembrance of the incomparable Oedipus Rex. Even today, among the many dull and pedantic operas encumbered with loquacious rhetoric, with pretentious and everyday situations, with oratorical expatiations and sentimental foolishnessall of which is as tiresome as the dreadful witticisms of the eighteenth-century opera anterior to Gluckeven today, Alceste remains the model of musical drama as it ought to be, of a standard that has hardly been reached by the finest of musicians, even by Wagner himself; and, let us be frank, Gluck himself rarely attains this high level.
Alceste is Gluck’s chief work, and the one in which he is most conscious of his dramatic reform; it is the work in which he has most rigorously followed the principles that were antagonistic to his temperament and his early educationprinciples which, with the exception of one or two scenes, are not apparent in Iphigénie en Tauride. Alceste shows Gluck’s most careful work, for in it, contrary to his usual custom, we find no borrowings from his other compositions. It was the work on which he spent most time, for he wrote it twice over; and the second editionthe French editionis less pure in some respects though more dramatic in others, and is at all events quite different from the first.
We will therefore take this “tragedy put into music” as the best example of Gluck’s powers of conception and of his dramatic reform; and I wish to take this opportunity of examining the causes of the movement which revived the whole of the musical drama of that time. I should like especially to show how this revolution corresponded with the trend of thought of the whole epoch and how inevitable it was and whence came the force that broke down the obstacles that had been heaped up by routine.
Cluck’s revolutionand it is that which makes him such a forcewas not due to Gluck’s genius alone but to a whole century of thought as well. It had been prepared, foretold, and awaited by the Encyclopedists for twenty years.
This fact is not sufficiently well known in France. Musicians and critics have for the greater part set too much store on Berlioz’ fantastic sayings:
“0 philosophers and prodigious fools! 0 old fogies and worthy men, who as people of intellect in a philosophical century wrote on musical art without the least feeling for it, with-out any elementary knowledge of it, without knowing what it meant!”
It fell to the part of a German, Eugen Hirschberg, to remind us of the importance of these philosophers in the history of music.
The Encyclopedists loved music and some of them knew a good deal about it. Those who took the most active part in discussions about music were Grimm, Rousseau, Diderot, and D’Alembert, who were all musicians. The least well-informed was Grimm, who was not, however, lacking in taste; for he wrote little melodies, thoroughly appreciated Grétry, discovered Cherubini’s and Maul’s talents, and was even one of the first people to recognize Mozart’s genius when he was only seven years old. So we must not underestimate Grimm.
Rousseau is well enough known as a musician. He composed an opera, Les muses galantes; an opéra-comique, the too famous Devin du village; a collection of romances, Les consolations des miseres de ma vie; and a “monodrama,” Pygmalion, which .was the first example of a “melodrama” (or opera with-out singers )—-a form admired by Mozart and tried by Beethoven, Weber, Schumann, and Bizet. Rousseau was, therefore, an innovator in music although there is no need to attach much importance to his pleasant and rather commonplace compositions, which show, as Gretry says, not only “the hand of an unpracticed artist, whose feeling reveals the rules of his art,” but a man not accustomed to think in music and a poor maker of melody. We must be grateful, however, for his Dictionary of Music, which, in spite of its many errors, abounds in original and sound ideas. And, lastly, we must remember Grétry’s and Gluck’s opinion of him. Gretry had great confidence in his musical judgment, and in 1773 Gluck wrote:
“I have studied this great man’s works on music, including the letter in which he criticizes Lully’s Amide, and I am filled with admiration at the depth of his knowledge and the sureness of his taste. I am strongly of the impression that if he had applied himself to the exercise of the art he writes about, he might have achieved the marvelous results of which, according to antiquity, music is capable.”
Diderot did not compose music but had a very exact knowledge of it. The celebrated English historian of music, Burney, who came to see him in Paris, esteemed his learning highly. Gretry used to ask his advice and rewrote a melody in Zémire et Azar three times in order to satisfy him. His literary works, his prefaces, his admirable Neveu de Rameau, all show his passionate love of music and his luminous intelligence. He interested himself in researches in musical acoustics, and the delightful dialogues, Leçons de clavecin et principes d’harmonie, although they bear the name of Professor Bemetzrieder, clearly show his mark, or at any rate are witnesses of his teaching.
Of all the Encyclopedists, D’Alembert was the most musicianly. He wrote a great many books on music, the principal being Elements de musique théorique et pratique suivant les principes de M. Rameau (1752), which was translated into German in 1757 by Marpurg and even won the admiration of Rameau himself and, in our own time, of Helmholtz. Not only did he throw more light on Rameau’s ideas (which were often confused), but he gave them a profundity which they did not really possess. No one was better fitted to understand Rameau although later D’Alembert came to disagree with him. It would be wrong to think of him as an amateur, for he was the enemy of amateurs and the first to rail at those who talked about music without understanding it, as most Frenchmen did:
“Such people when they talk about melodious music simply mean commonplace music which has been dinned in their ears a hundred times; for these people a poor air is one which they cannot hum, and a bad opera is one in which they cannot learn the airs by heart.”
One may be sure that D’Alembert paid particular attention to any harmonic novelties in Rameau; for in his Réflexions sur la théorie de la musique, which was read before the Académie des Sciences, D’Alembert set music on the way to new harmonic discoveries and complained of the limited methods employed in the music of his time, and demanded that they should be enriched.
These doings must be recalled in order to show that the Encyclopedists were not mixed up with the musical warfare of that time in a casual way as, people are fond of saying. More-over, even if they had not any special ability in music, the sincere judgment of men so clever and skilled in art would always carry great weight; for if we put them on one side, what other opinions would be worth listening to? It would be foolish for students of musical history to reject the opinion of every-one who did not follow music as a profession; it would mean confining music to a small circle and being dead to all that went on outside it. An art is only worthy of love and honor when it is a human art an art that will speak to all men and not only to a few pedants.
The breadth of Gluck’s art was essentially human, and even popular (in the best sense of the word), in contrast to Rameau’s ultra-aristocratic but clever art.
Rameau was fifty years old before he succeeded in getting his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, produced (1733) ; and his success was doubtful during the first ten years of his dramatic career. However, he conquered at last, and about 1749, at the time of Platée, he seemed to have united his supporters and disarmed his enemies and was regarded by all as the greatest dramatic musician in Europe. But his triumph was short-lived, for three years later his power was shaken, and until his death in 1764 his unpopularity with critics steadily increased. That was an extraordinary occurrence, for though it is unhappily quite natural that an innovatory genius should attain success only after long years or after a whole life of struggle, it is more astonishing for a victorious genius not to maintain his conquest andwhere it is not a case of some fresh evolution in style or thought to lose admiration almost as soon as he had gained it. How can we account for this change of opinion in the most enlightened and gifted men of his time?
The hostility of the Encyclopedists seems the more astonishing when we remember their early liking for French operasome among them having had great enthusiasm for it. And it is still more curious that Rousseau, who had liked it so well, should afterward, with his usual violence, oppose it most bitterly. In 1752 the performances by Italian low comedians of the little masterpieces of Pergolesi and the Neapolitan school came as a sudden shock to himself and his friends. Diderot him-self said that our music had been delivered from bondage by miserable buffoons. We may feel surprise at so small a cause producing such large results; and a true musician would have difficulty in understanding how a little score like’ the Serva Padrona, which consisted of forty pages of music with five or six airs, a simple dialogue between two people, and a miniature orchestra, could hold Rameau’s powerful work in check. It was certainly rather sad that his thoughtful work should be suddenly supplanted by a few pleasant Italian intermezzi. But the secret of the fascination of these little compositions was in their naturalness and easy grace where no trace of effort was apparent. They were like a comforting intoxication; and the greater the triumph of the Bouffons became, the more Rameau’s art was seen to be out of harmony with the spirit of the age, of which the Encyclopedists were the interpreters, bringing their customary exaggeration into every controversy.
Without following up the incidents of the struggle (which have been recounted so often) or dwelling on its enthusiastic injustices, I shall try to make clear the esthetic principles (which were also Gluck’s) in whose name the campaign was conducted. Let me, first of all, begin by recalling its chief incidents.
Rousseau, stirred by the Italian productions, started the fight and with his usual lack of balance developed an exasperated aversion for everything French. His Lettre sur la musique française in 1753, which in violence surpassed anything else that could ever have been written against French music, was the signal for the “guerre des bouffons. ” It must not be thought that this letter represented the Encyclopedists frame of mind as a whole, for it was exceedingly contradictory, and in its desire to prove too much, it proved nothing. D’Alembert says that Rousseau made more enemies for himself and the Encyclopedia by this pamphlet than by everything he had written before; it was an explosion of hate.
Diderot and D’Alembert, however, in spite of their admiration for the Italians did justice for a time to the French musicians. Grimm’s attitude was skeptical; and in his pamphlet, Le petit prophète de Boehrnischbroda, he declared that none of Rameau’s operas could hold out against the victorious Bouffons though he did not seem as cheered by the fact as one might expect. “What have we gained?” he asked; “the result will be that we shall have neither French opera nor Italian opera; or if we have the latter, we shall be the losers by the change, although Italian music is better than ours. For do not be deceived; the Italian opera is as imperfect as the singers who adorn iteverything is sacrificed to please the ear.”
Up till then admiration for French music had been an article of faith, and if the Encyclopedists came quickly to side with Rousseau and the Italian opera, it was because they were incensed by the uncivil stupidity of the partisans of French opera, “Certain people,” said D’Alembert, “think bouffoniste and republican, critic and atheist, are the same.” This was enough to revolt people of independent spirit; and it was absurd that no one in France should be allowed to attack opera without being covered with abuse and treated like a bad citizen. And what came as a last straw to the philosophers’ anger was the cavalier way the Italians were got rid of by their enemies, by a warrant from the king in 1754 expelling them from France. This despotic method of applying protectionism to art aroused the feeling of all people of independent mind against French opera. Hence the violence of the controversy,
The first of the Encyclopedists’ esthetic principles was contained in Rousseau’s cry: “Let us return to nature!”
“We must bring opera back to nature,” said D’Alembert. Grimm wrote, “The aim of all the fine arts is the imitation of nature.” And Diderot wrote: “Lyric art can never be good if there is no intention to imitate nature.”
But was not this principle also Rousseau’s? For in 1727 he wrote to Houdart de la Motte: “It is to be hoped that a musician may be found who will study nature before trying to depict it” In his Traité de l’harmonie réduite a ses principes naturels (1722) he said: “A good musician should enter into the characters that he wishes to depict and, like a good actor, put himself in the place of the person who is speaking,”
It is true the Encyclopedists agreed with Rameau about the imitation of “nature,” but they gave a different meaning to the word. By nature they meant “the natural.” They were the representatives of good sense and simplicity as opposed to the exaggerations of French opera by its singers, its instrumentalists, its librettists, and its composers.
When one reads the Encyclopedists’ criticisms, one is struck by the fact that it was especially to the execution of opera that they addressed themselves. Rousseau in a letter to Grimm in 1752 says: “Rameau has rather brightened up the orchestra and the opera, which is suffering from paralysis.” But we are led to believe that Rameau went to excess in this direction, for about 1760 the critics were unanimous in their opinion that opera had become a continuous clamor and deafening tumult. Rousseau wrote an amusing satire about it in his Nouvelle Héloise:
“The actresses are almost in convulsions, forcing loud cries from their lungs, with their hands clenched against their breasts, their heads thrown back, their countenances inflamed, their veins swollen, and their bodies heaving. It is difficult to know if the eye or the ear is the more disagreeably affected, Their efforts cause as much suffering to those who look at them as their singing does to those who listen to them; and what is really inconceivable is that this shrieking is almost the only thing applauded by the audience. By the clapping of hands one would take them for deaf people, who were so delighted now and again to catch a few piercing sounds that they wished the actors to redouble their efforts.”
As for the orchestra, it was “an unending clatter of instruments, which no one could put up with for half an hour without getting a violent headache.” This tumult was led by a conductor whom Rousseau calls “the woodcutter” because he expended as much energy on marking time from his desk by strokes of his baton as he would use for cutting down a tree.
I cannot help remembering these impressions when I read certain appreciations. by Claude Debussy where he makes a contrast between Gluck’s pompous, heavy style and Rameau’s simplicity”that work of tender, charming delicacy with its fitting accents, without exaggeration or fuss . . . that clearness, that precision, that compactness of form.” I do not know if Debussy is right; but if he is, Rameau’s work as he feels it, and as it is felt today, bears no relationship to that which was heard in the eighteenth century. Whatever sort of caricature Rousseau made, it only enlarged the salient points’ of Rameau’s opera; and in his time neither his friends nor his enemies characterized his work by delicacy or restraint of feeling, or any mezzotint effects; it was known rather for its grandeur, whether true or false, sincere or exaggerated. It was understood, Diderot says, that for his finest airs, such as “Pales flambeaux,” or “Dieu du Tartare,” healthy lungs, a full voice, and a wide compass were necessary. Also I am convinced that those people who admire him most today would have been the first to demand, with the Encyclopedists, a reform in the orchestra, the choruses, the singing, the acting, and the musical and dramatic execution.
But all this was as nothing to another reform that was badly neededthe reform of the libretto. Would those who praise Rameau’s operas now have the courage to read the poems he strove to set to music? Are they well acquainted with Zoroaster, “the schoolmaster of the magi,” warbling in vocalizations and triplets:
“Aimez-vous, aimez-vous sans cesse. L’amour va lancer tous ses traits, l’amour va lancer, va lancer, l’amour va lancer, va lancer, t amour va lancer, va lancer toes ses traits”?
What would be said of the romantic adventures of Dardanus and the mythological tragedies that were opportunely brightened by rigaudons, passepieds, tambourines, and bagpipes, all of which were in many respects quite charming but justified Grimm’s words:
“French opera is a spectacle where the whole happiness and misery of people consists in seeing dancing about them.” Or this passage from Rousseau:
“The manner of conducting the ballets is quite simple. If a prince is happy, all share his joy, and dance. If he is unhappy, those round him try to cheer him, and they dance. There are also many other occasions for dancing, and the most serious actions of life are accompanied by it. Priests dance, soldiers dance, gods dance, devils dance; there is dancing even at burials in fact, dancing is seasonable with everything.”
How can such absurdities be taken seriously? And all this is to be added to the style of that galaxy of insipid poets such as the Abbé Pellegrin, Autreau, Ballot de Sauvot, Le Clerc de la Bruère, Cahusac, De Mondorge, and, greatest of all, Gentil-Bernard!
“The characters in the opera never say what they ought to. The actors generally speak in maxims and proverbs, and sing madrigal after madrigal. When each has sung two or three couplet§, the scene is ended, and the dancing begins anew; if it did not, we should die of boredom.”
How could great writers and people of taste like the Encyclopedists help revolting against the pompous stupidity of such poets? Indeed, the poems were so bad that quite recently, at the revival of Hippolyte et Aricie, they depressed the Opéra publicand heaven knows it is not a difficult public to please in the matter of poetry! What sighs of relief must have been heard at the performances of the little Italian works, whose librettos were as natural as their music.
In Le Neveu de Rameau Diderot says:
“What! They thought to accustom us to the imitation of the accents of passion and that we should preserve our taste for flights, lances, glories, triumphs, and victories! See what they are driving at, Jean! Do they imagine that after mingling our tears with those of a mother who mourns the death of her son, we shall be pleased with their fairylands, with their insipid mythology, and their mawkish madrigals which evidence the poet’s bad taste as much as the poverty of the art to which they lend themselves? My reply is, fiddlesticks!”
People may say that these critics have nothing to do with music. But a musician is responsible for the libretto he accepts, and a reform in opera was not possible until a poetic and dramatic reform had been made as well. To achieve that, a musician was needed who understood poetry as well as music. Rameau did not understand poetry, so his efforts to “imitate nature” were in vain. How was it possible to set good music to bad poetry? People may quote Mozart’s wonderful opera, The Magic Flute, which was written around a stupid libretto, But in such a case the only thing to do is to follow Mozart’s exampleto forget the libretto and abandon oneself to musical fancy. Musicians like Rameau set about their work in another way and pretended to pay great attention to the text. And what did they arrive at? The more they tried to follow the text, the more like it did their music become; and because the text was artificial, the music became also artificial. And so we find Rameau writing sometimes splendid music when the situation lent itself to tragic emotion, and sometimes dragged-out scenes, wearisome to a degree ( even when the recitatives were clever) because the dialogues they expressed were deadly in ‘their foolishness.
But if the Encyclopedists agreed with Rameau in thinking that the foundation of musical dramatic expression was nature, they disagreed with him as to the manner of applying this principle. In Rameau’s genius there was an excess of knowledge and reason which shocked them. Rameau had French qualities and defects to an unusual extent; for he was a profoundly intellectual artist and had so marked a taste for theories and generalizations that it appeared in his closest studies of emotion; it was not human beings he studied but their passions in abstracto. He went to work after the classic methods of the seventeenth century. His love of method led him to make catalogues of chords and expressive modes which resembled the catalogues of facial expression drawn up by Lebrun in the reign of Louis XIV. He would say, for example:
“The major mode, taken in the octave of the notes C, D, or A, is suited to lively and joyful airs; in the octave of the notes F or B-flat, it is suited to tempests and anger and subjects of that kind. In the octave of the notes G or E, it is suited to songs of a gentle or gay nature; also in the octave of I), A, or E, what is great and magnificent may find expression. The minor mode, taken in the octave of D, G, B, or E, is suited to tenderness and love; in the octave of C or F to tenderness and sadness; in the octave of F or B-flat to mournful songs. The other tones are not of great use.”
These remarks show a clear analysis of sounds and emotions, but they also show how abstract and generalizing was the mind in which these observations originated. Nature, which he wished to subjugate and simplify, frequently refutes his argil ments. It is only too evident that the first part of the Pastoral Symphony, which is. in F major, shows us neither tempests nor anger of any description; and that Beethoven’s first part of the Symphony in C minor is scarcely characterized by tenderness and sadness. But it is not these small errors that matter. What is serious is the tendency of Rameau’s mind to substitute abstract and fixed formulas (intelligent though they are) for the direct observation of living nature and the ceaseless changes by which she is renewedas though nature could be classified according to fixed canons. He is so obsessed by his principles that they color all his ideas and are forced upon his style. He thinks too much of the soul and art, of music in itself and the instrument he is handling, and of exterior form. He is often wanting in naturalness even though he attains his ends. His justifiable pride in his clever discoveries in the theory of music leads him to set too much store upon science and to underrate the value of “natural sensibility,” as it was then called. The Encyclopedists were not likely to let pass assertions such as: “Melody arises from harmony and plays only a subordinate part in music, giving but an empty and fleeting pleasure to the ear; and while a fine harmonic progression is directly related to the soul, melody does not get beyond the ear passages.”
One understands well enough what the word “soul” meant to Rameau; it was equivalent to “understanding.” One is bound to admire the lofty and very French intellectualism of this great century; but one must also remember that the Encyclopedists, without being musicians by profession, had deep musical feeling and a strong belief in the value of popular songs, in spontaneous melodies, in those “natural accents of the voice that reach the soul,” and that they would be prejudiced against such doctrines as Rameau’s and would severely judge anyone who attached excessive importance to what they considered were merely complicated harmonies, and “labored, obscure, and exaggerated accompaniments,” as Rousseau called them. Rameau’s richness of harmony is exactly what attracts musicians today. But apart from the fact that musicians are not the only judges of music (for music should appeal to all kinds of people ), we must not forget the condition of the opera of that time, with its clumsy orchestra which was incapable of reproducing any shades of feeling and which forced the singers to shout out the most sober passages and so spoil their whole character. When, therefore, Diderot and D’Alembert were so insistent about the necessity of soft accompaniments (“for music,” they said, “is a discourse one would like to hear”), they were in revolt against the uniformly noisy executions of that timea time when the meaning of crescendo and decrescendo were practically unknown.
The Encyclopedists thus demanded a triple reform:
1. The reform of the acting, the singing, and the instrumental execution.
2. The reform of the opera librettos.
3. The reform of the musical drama itself.
Rameau did little toward this last reform although he greatly increased the expressiveness of music. He was able to translate certain tragic feelings with truth and nobility, but he paid no heed to what is re-ally the essence of dramathe concord of its dramatic progression. As a composition for the theater not one of his operas is as good as Lully’s Armide. His adversaries always attacked these weak points, and they were right. The musician who was to reform the drama was yet to come.
The Encyclopedists awaited this musician and prophesied his advent; for they believed the reform of French opera was near at hand. They found a prelude to it in the creation of opéra-comique, to which they themselves contributed. Rousseau had set an example in 1753 with his Devin du village. Some years afterward Duni produced Le peintre amoureux de son modèle (1757), Philidor Blaise le savetier (1759), Monsigny Les aveux indiscrèts (1759), and lastly, Grétry Le huron (1768). Grétry was a man after the Encyclopedists’ own heart and was the friend and disciple of them all”the French Pergolesi” Grimm called him. He was a type of musician very different from Rameau, and his art was rather a poor and dried-up affair though it possessed clarity and mental insight combined with irony and delicate feeling and a declamation molded on natural speech. The foundation of French opéra-comique was the first result of the Encyclopedists’ musical polemics. But they achieved more than that, for they also helped to bring about the revolution which stirred up opera a little later on.
The Encyclopedists certainly never wished to destroy French opera by their arguments though that may have been the idea of the German Grimm and the Swiss Rousseau. Diderot and D’Alembert, so French in ideas, thought only of preparing for the final victory of opera by taking the initiative in “melodramatic” reform. D’Alembert declared that the French, “with their virile, bold, and productive natures,”, could always write good music; and that if French opera would only make the necessary reforms, it might be the best in Europe. He was convinced of the imminence of a musical revolution and the growth of a new art. In 1777 in his Réflexions sur la théorie de la musique he wrote:
“No nation is better fitted at this moment than ours to discover and appreciate new effect in harmony. We are about to cast aside our old music and take up something new. Our ears are only waiting to receive new impressions; they are greedy for them, and ideas are already fermenting in men’s heads. Then why should we not hope from all these things for new pleasures and new truths?”
These lines were contemporary with Gluck’s arrival in Paris, but long before that (i.e. in 1757 ), and five years before Gluck began his reform by the production of Orfeo in Vienna in 1762, Diderot wrote some prophetic pages in his Troisième entretien sur le fils naturd and called upon the reformer of opera to show himself:
“Let him come forward, the man of genius who is going to put true tragedy and true comedy upon the lyric stage!”
This reform was not needed in music alone, but on the stage as well:
“Neither the poets ‘nor the musicians nor the decorators nor the dancers have any sound ideas about their theater.”
The help of poetry, music, and dancing was required in the reform of dramatic action. A great artist was needed, a great. poet who should also be a musician, to realize the unity of a work of art which was the product of so many different arts.
Diderot showed by examples how a fine dramatic text might be translated by a musician: “I mean a man who has genius in his art; not a man who knows only how to thread modulations together and make combinations of notes.” And his examples were taken from Iphigenie en Aulide, which was the very subject of Gluck’s first French opera some years later:
“Clytemnestra’s daughter has just been snatched from her for sacrifice. She sees the sacrificial knife lifted above her daughter’s bosom, the blood streaming, and the priest consulting the gods in her beating heart, Distracted by these visions, she cries:
“. . 0 unhappy mother!
My daughter crowned with hateful wreaths
Offers her throat to a knife prepared by her father! Calchas is spattered with her blood . . . Barbarians! stop!
It is the clean blood of the god who hurls the thunderbolts .. I hear the muttering of his anger and feel the earth tremble. The voice of an avenging god is in the thunder.”
“I do not know more lyrical verses than these in either Quinault or any other poet, nor of a situation that would lend itself better to musical expression. Clytemnestra’s emotion would tear a cry from nature’s very soul; and a musician could convey it to my ears in all the accents of its horror. If he wrote this piece in a simple style, he would fill himself with Clytemnestra’s anguish and despair; and he would begin to write only when he felt himself urged to do so by the terrible visions which possessed Clytemnestra. What a fine subject for a recitative the first verses make! How the different phrases might be broken by some plaintive ritornello! What character one could put into such a symphony! I seem to hear it all–the lament, the anguish, the dismay, the horror, the frenzy. The air would begin at `Barbares, arretez!’ And ‘barbares’ and `arrêtez’ might be de-claimed in any manner he pleased; he would be but a poor musician if the words did not prove an endless inspiration of melody. Let us leave these verses to Mlle. Dumesnil; for it is her declamation that the musician should have in mind when he is composing..
“Here is another piece in which the musician might show his talents if he had any–a piece where there is no mention of lances, or victory, or thunder, or robbery, or glory, or any other expressions that are the torment of the poet though they may be the poor musician’s sole inspiration.
Un prêtre, environné d’une foule cruelle .. Portera sur ma fille . . . (sur ma fine!) une main criminelle .
Non, f e ne l’aurai point amen& an supplice, Ou vous ferez aux Grecs un double sacrifice! . . . etc.”
Can one not already hear what Gluck would make of it? But Diderot was not the only one to draw the future reformer’s attention to the subject of Iphigénie en Aulide. The same year, in May 1757, the Mercure de France published Count Algarotti’s Essai sur l’opéra, in which this great artist, who was acquainted with Voltaire and the Encyclopedists, had included the poem of Iphigénie en Aulide to illustrate the principles in his treatise, which, as Charles Malherbe has remarked, are identical with those expounded by Gluck in his preface to Alceste.
It is more than likely that Gluck knew Algarotti’s book. It is also possible that he knew the passage that I have just quoted from Diderot. The Encyclopedists’ writings were spread over all Europe, and Gluck was interested in them. At any rate, he used to read the writings of the esthete, J. von Sonnenfels, who reproduced their ideas. Gluck was nourished on the Encyclopedist spirit and was the poet-musician of their anticipations. All the principles that they set forth he applied; all the reforms that they demanded he carried out. He realized the unity of musical drama founded on the observation of nature, the recitative modeled on the inflections of tragic utterance, the melody that speaks straight to the heart, the dramatic ballet, the reform of the orchestra and the acting. He was the instrument of the dramatic revolution which these philosophers had been preparing for twenty years.
Gluck’s appearance is known to us through the fine portraits of the period: through Houdon’s bust, Duplessis’ painting, and several written descriptionsnotes made by Burney in 1772 in Vienna, by Christian von Mannlich in 1773 in Paris, by Reichardt in 1782 and 1783 in Vienna.
He was tall, broad-shouldered, strong, moderately stout, and of compact and muscular frame. His head was round, and he had a large red face strongly pitted with the marks of smallpox. His hair was brown, and powdered. His eyes were gray, small and deep-set but very bright; and his expression was intelligent but hard. He had raised eyebrows, a large nose, full cheeks and chin, and a thick neck. Some of his features rather recall those of Beethoven and Handel. He had little singing voice, and what there was sounded hoarse though expressive. He played the harpsichord in a rough and boisterous way, thumping it but getting orchestral effects out of it.
In society he often wore a stiff and solemn air, but he was quickly roused to anger. Burney, who saw Handel and Gluck, compared their characters. “Gluck’s temper,” he said, “was as fierce as Handel’s, and Handel’s was a terror to everybody.” Gluck lacked self-control, was irritable, and could not get used to the customs of society. He was plain-spoken to the verge of coarseness, and, according to Christian von Mannlich, on the occasion of his first visit to Paris, he scandalized twenty times a day those who spoke to him. He was insensible to flattery but was enthusiastic about his own works. That did not prevent him, however, from judging them fairly. He liked few peoplehis wife, his niece, and some friends; but he was undemonstrative and without any of the sentimentality of the period; he also held all exaggeration in horror and never made much of his own people. He was a jolly fellow, nevertheless, especially after drinking for he drank and ate heartily until apoplexy killed him. There was no idealism about him, and he had no illusions about either men or things. He loved money and did not conceal the fact. He was also very selfish, “especially at the table,” von Mannlich says, “where he seemed to think he had a natural right to the best morsels.”
On the whole he was a rough sort and in no way a man of the world, for he was without sentiment, seeing life as it was and born to fight and break down obstacles like a wild boar with blows of its snout. He had unusual intelligence in matters outside his art and would have made a writer of no small ability if he had wished, for his pen was full of sharp and acrid humor and crushed the Parisian critics and pulverized La Harpe. Truly he had so much revolutionary and republican spirit in him that there was no one to equal him in that direction. No sooner had he arrived in Paris than he treated the court and society in a way no other artist had ever had the courage to do. On the first night of Iphigenie en Aulide, and at the last moment, after the king, the queen, and all the court had been invited, he declared that the performance could not be given because the singers were not ready; and in spite of accepted custom and people’s remarks, the piece was put off until another time. He had a quarrel with Prince Hénin because he did not greet the prince properly when they met at a party, and all Gluck said was, “The custom in Germany is to rise only for people one respects.” Andsign of the timesnothing would induce him to apologize; more than that, Prince Hénin had to go to Gluck when he wished to see him.
Gluck allowed the courtiers to pay him attentions. At rehearsals he appeared in a nightcap and without his wig and would get the noble lords present to help him with his toilet, so that it became an honor to be able to hand him his coat or his wig. He held the duchess of Kingston in esteem because she once said that “genius generally signified a sturdy spirit and a love of liberty.”
In all these traits one sees the Encyclopedists’ manthe mistrustful artist jealous for his freedom, the plebeian genius, and Rousseau’s revolutionary.
Where had this man got his vigorous moral independence? What was his origin?
He came from the peoplefrom misery, from a long and desperate struggle against poverty. He was the son of a game-keeper of Franconia. Born among trees, he spent his youth wandering about Prince Kinsky’s great forests with naked feet, even in winter. Nature filled his being, and all his work shows it. His early life was full of hardships, and he gained a livelihood with difficulty. When he was twenty years old he went to study at Prague and sang in the villages through which he traveled, in order to pay his way, or he would play his violin for the peasants to dance. In spite of assistance from several wealthy people, his manner of life was precarious and troubled until he married a rich woman in 1750 when he was thirty-five years old. Before that time he had wandered about Europe without any settled post or occupation. Then at thirty-five, after he had written fourteen operas, he went to Denmark to give concerts as a virtuoso on the harmonica.
Gluck owes two qualities to his privations and vagabond life: first, the great force of his rudely tempered will; and second, thanks to his journeys from London to Naples and from Dresden to Paris, that knowledge of the thought and art of all Europe which gave him his broad encyclopedic spirit.
That is our man. That is the formidable battering-ram which was brought to bear on the routine of French opera in the eighteenth century. How far he fulfilled the hopes of the Encyclopedists may be judged by a threefold circumstance. The leanings of the Encyclopedists in music were toward Italian opera, whose charm had seduced France from Rameau; to melody and romance, which were so dear to Rousseau; and to French opéra-comique, which they had helped to found. Now when Gluck started his revolution in Paris, it was in this triple school of Italian opera, of the romance (or lied), and of French opéra-comique he had been educated; out of this school he camea school opposed in every way to Rameau’s art.
It is not enough to say that Gluck was acclimatized to Italian musical art, or that he was himself Italianized. During the first half of his life he was an Italian musician, and the musical side of his nature was quite Italian. At the age of twenty-two he was Kammermusicus to Prince Melzi of Lombardy, and he followed him to Milan where for four years he studied under the direction of G. B. Sammartini, one of the creators of the orchestral symphony. His first opera, Artaserse, on a poem by Metastasio, was played in Milan in 1741. That was rapidly followed by a series of thirty-five dramatic cantatas, ballets, and Italian operasItalian in every sense of the word, with their airs da capo, their vocalizations, and all the concessions that the Italian composers of that time had to make to their virtuosos. In Le Nozze d’Ercole e d’Ebe, which was composed for a special occasion and played in Dresden in 1747, the part of Hercules was written for a soprano and played by a woman. Nothing could have been more Italian or more absurd.
One cannot say that this Italianism was an error of Gluck’s youth which he afterward renounced. Some of the finest airs in his French operas were taken from airs written in that Italian period, which he used again just as they were. Alfred Wotquenne has published a thematic catalogue of Gluck’s works where one can exactly trace these borrowings. From his fifth opera, Sofonisba (1744), we see the beginning of the famous duet between Armida and Hidraot. From Ezio (1750) springs Orpheus’ delicious air in the Elysian fields. The admirable song, “0 malheureuse Iphigénie!” from Iphigénie en Tauride, is an air from La Clemenza di Tito (1752). An air from La Danza (1775) reappeared note for note, with other words, in Gluck’s last opera, Echo et Narcisse. The ballet of the Furies in the second act of Orphée had already figured in the fine ballet in Don Juan (1761). Telemaco (1765), which is the finest of these Italian operas, furnished Agamemnon’s splendid air at the be-ginning of Iphigénie en Aulide and a quantity of airs for Paride ed Elena, Armide, and Iphigénie en Tauride. And lastly, the celebrated scene of Hate in Armide is entirely built up of fragments from eight different Italian operas! So it is evident that Gluck’s personality was quite formed in his Italian works and that no distinct break exists between his Italian and his French period. One is a natural growth from the other; there is no denying the fact.
It must not be thought that the revolution of the lyric drama, which made his name immortal, dates from his arrival in Paris. He’ had been preparing it since 1750, since that happy time when a new journey to Italy and perhaps his love for Marianne Pergin, whom he married that year, stimulated him to a fresh outpouring of music. It was then he conceived the project of trying new dramatic reforms in Italian opera by endeavoring to connect and develop its action and bring unity into it, by making the recitative dramatic, and by seeking inspiration in nature itself. It must be remembered that the Orfeo ed Euridice of 1762 and the Alceste of 1767 are Italian operas”the new kind of Italian opera,” as Gluck said; and that the principal merit of the innovations in them belong, according to his own confession, to an Italian, Raniero da Calzabigi of Leghorn, the author of the librettos, who had a clearer idea of the dramatic reform needed than Gluck himself. Even after Orfeo he returned to Italian opera in its old form in Il Trionfo di Clelia (1763), in Telemaco (1765), and in two cantatas with words by Metastasio. Just before his arrival in Paris, and a long time after Alceste, his compositions were Italian in style. And when he set about his reforms, they were not applied to French or German opera but to Italian opera. The material he worked upon was purely Italian and remained so until the end.
Gluck began his reform of French opera through song, that is, through the lied.
We have a collection of his lieder written in 1770 to odes by Klopstock: Klopstock’s Oden and Lieder beym Clavier zu singen in Musik gesetzt von Herrn Ritter Gluck. Gluck admired Klopstock. He made his acquaintance in Rastadt in 1775, and to him and his niece Marianne he sang some of these lieder, as well as some extracts from Der Messias, which he had set to music. This collection of songs is a slight one and has not much value from an artistic point of view. But historically it is important enough, for it gives us some of the earliest examples of lieder of the kind conceived by Mozart and Beethoventhat is, simple melodies which are meant to be only an intensified expression of poetry.
It must be noticed that Gluck applied himself to this form of composition between Alceste and Iphigenie en Aulide at the time when he was preparing to come to Paris. And if one runs through the score of Orfeo or Iphigénie en Aulide, one sees that some of the airs are true lieder. Such is Orpheus’ lament, “Objet de mon amour,” repeated three times in the first act. Such also are a number of little airs in Iphigénie en Aulide: Clytemnestra’s in the first act, “Que j j’aime a voir ces hommages flatteurs,” which closely resembles Beethoven’s lied, An die f erne Geliebte; and nearly all Iphigenia’s in the first act, such as “Les voeux dont ce peuple m’honore”; and in the third act, “II faut de mon destin” and “Adieu, conservez dans votre ame,” These are either little musical sketches such as Beethoven wrote or romances written in Rousseau’s spiritspontaneous melodies which speak directly to the heart. The style of these works is, on the whole, nearer to opéra-comique than to French opera.
There is nothing surprising in this when we remember that Gluck had for some time been trying his hand at French opéracomique. From 1758 to 1764 he had written about a dozen French opéra-comiques to French words. It was no easy task for a German; for they needed grace, lightness, animation, and flowing melodic style. It was excellent exercise for Gluck; and in about ten years he learned to enter into the spirit of our language and to get a good idea of our lyrical resources. He showed extraordinary skill in this kind of work. Among his opéra-comiques are L’ile de Merlin (1768), La fausse esclave (1758 ), L’arbre enchanté (1759 ), Cythère assiégée (1759 ), L’ivrogne corrigé (1760), Le cadi dupe (1761), La rencontre imprévue, ou les pelerins de la Mecque (1764) ; the most celebrated of them was La rencontre imprévue, which was, according to Lesage, written to a libretto by Dancourt. It was easy work, perhaps almost too easy; but it suited this agreeable and unpretentious kind of production. Among these rather trivial compositions there are, however, some charming pieces which foreshadow Mozart in Die Ent f Entfuhrung aus dem Serail. Indeed, Mozart must have been inspired by them, for in Les Olefins de la Mecque one finds his jolly laugh, his healthy merriment, and even his smiling sympathy. Better still, there are pages of tranquil poetry (like the air, “Un ruisselet”) which bring to mind a dream of spring; and others, with greater breadth of style (like Ali’s air in the second act, “Tout ce que j’aime est au tombeau” ), where an echo of Orpheus’ laments may be found. But everywhere is clearness, appropriateness, restraint, and other quite French qualities.
In all this Gluck must have pleased the Encyclopedists, for they were the patrons of opéra-comique, of simple song, of unpedantic music, and of a popular musical drama understood by all. Gluck knew this so well that before he visited Paris he began to base many of his ideas of reform on Rousseau’s theories, and as soon as he arrived in Paris he communicated with Rousseau and devoted himself to pleasing him and was indifferent to the opinions of the public.
The principles of Gluck’s reform are well known. He set them out in 1769 in his celebrated preface to Alceste and also in his less well-known but equally interesting dedicatory letter to Paride ed Elena in 1770. I shall not dwell upon these principles, which have been so often quoted; I only wish to remark on certain aspects of them in order to show how Gluck’s opera responded to the hopes of the thinkers of his time.
In the first place, Gluck claimed not to have created a new kind of music but a new kind of musical drama; and he gives the chief honor of this creation to Calzabigii, who “conceived lyric drama upon a new plan where florid descriptions, useless comparisons, cold and sententious moralizings were replaced by interesting situations, strong emotions, simple expressive language, and a performance full of variety.” His reform was concerned with drama and not with music.
To this end he directed all his efforts:
“The voices, the instruments, and all sounds, even silence itself, should have one aim in view, and that is expressiveness; and the union between the words and the music should be so close that the music should belong quite as much to the poem as the poem to the music. ”
The result of this was that Gluck sought new methods (but he does not say new music):
“When I was engaged upon a scene, I tried to find a broad and strong expression for it; and I especially wished that every part of it should be related.”
This constant care for the unity and coherence of the whole work, which was lacking in Rameau, was so strong in Gluck that, curiously enough, he had no great faith in the expressive power of either melody or harmony.
To Corancez he said:
“Composers have looked in vain for the expression of certain emotions in the combination of notes that make up a song. Such a thing is not possible. A composer has resources in harmony, but they are often insufficient for him.”
To Gluck it was the place of a piece of music that was of especial importance; and by an air’s contrast or connection with the airs that preceded or followed it and by the choice of the instruments that accompanied it, he got his dramatic effects. From the compact plot of his chief works, from compositions like the first and second acts of Alceste and the second act of Orfeo and Iphigénie en Tauride, in spite of a few patchy bits here and there, it would be difficult to take any of the airs out of their place, for the whole is like a firmly linked chain.
Gluck’s progress in the theatrical world was steady. He limited his part as musician to “giving help to poetry, in order to strengthen the expression of feeling and the interest of the situations without interrupting the action of the play or retarding it by superfluous ornaments.” In a famous passage he says: “Music should give to poetry what the brightness of color and the happy combination of light and shade give to a well-executed and finely composed drawingit should fill its characters with life without destroying their outline.” That is a fine example of disinterestedness in a composer who was anxious to put his gifts at the service of drama. This disinterestedness will doubtless seem extreme to musicians but admirable to dramatic authors. It was at all events quite opposed to the French opera of that time as described by Rousseau, with its intricate music and unwieldy accompaniments.
People asked if this was not pauperizing art. But Gluck scouted the notion and said that his methods would lead art back to beauty; for beauty consisted not only of truth, as Rameau had said, but of simplicity:
“Simplicity, truth, and naturalness are the great fundamentals of beauty in the production of all art.”
Elsewhere he says: “I believed that the greater part of my work amounted to seeking out a noble simplicity.” (Letter to the grand duke of Tuscany, 1769.)
Like Diderot, Gluck took his chief model from Greek tragedy. “It will not do,” said Gluck, “to judge my music by its performance on the harpsichord in a room.” It was not salon music; it was music for wide spaces like the old Greek theaters:
“The frail amateur whose soul lives in his ears may perhaps find an air is too rough or a passage too strongly marked or badly prepared; he does not see that such music, in its particular situation, may be nobly expressive.”
Like painting in a fresco, one must see this art from a distance. If anyone criticized a passage in Gluck’s music, he would ask:
“Did it displease you in the theater? No? Well then, that is enough. When I have got my effect in the theater, I have got all I wanted; and I assure you it matters very little if my music is not agreeable in a salon or a concert hall. Your question is like that of a man who has placed himself on the gallery in the dome of the Invalides and who shouts out to an artist down below: `Hi! sir, what are you trying to paint down there? Is it a nose or an arm? For it resembles neither one nor the other.’ And the artist might shout back with good reason: `Well, supposing you come down and have a look and judge for yourself!’ ”
Grétry, who thoroughly understood Gluck’s art, said:
“Everything here should be on a big scale, for the picture is meant to be seen from a great distance. The musician works only in a broad way. There are no roulades. The song is nearly always syllabic. The harmony and the melody have to be well defined and every detail of a polished kind excluded from the orchestration. In a way, it is like painting with a broom. And if the words are to express only one meaning and a piece of music is to show unity of sentiment, the musician has the right and indeed is obliged to use only one kind of meter or rhythm. Gluck was only really great when he had put constraint upon his orchestra and the singing by confining it to one kind of expression.”
One knows well the force of these insistent and repeated rhythms where Gluck’s will and energy is so strongly marked. Bernhard Marx says that no musician is his equal in this, not even Handel. Perhaps Beethoven alone approaches him. All Gluck’s rules were made for an art of monumental size, an art which was intended to be viewed from a particular standpoint. “There was no rule,” said Gluck, “which I did not believe it my duty to sacrifice if I could gain an effect.”
Thus dramatic effect is, first and last, the main object of Gluck’s music. And this principle was carried to such extremes that Gluck himself admits such music lost nearly all its meaning not only when it was heard away from the theater but also when the composer was not there to conduct it. For if the least alteration was made in either the time or the expression, or if some detail was out of place, it was enough to spoil the effect of a scene; and as Gluck says, in such a case an air like “Jai perdu mon Eurydice” might become un air de marionettes (an air for a marionette show).
In all this one sees the true dramatic spirit. In some casesin the Trlonfo o di Clelia, of 1763, for examplewe know that Cluck first composed his opera in his head and would not write it down until after he had seen the actors and studied their methods of-singing. His work was then accomplished in a few weeks. Mozart also sometimes adopted this method. But Gluck carried this idea so far that at length he lost all interest in his scores, whether written or published. His manuscripts are terribly careless affairs, and he had to be almost bullied into correcting them for publication. I do not deny that all this shows rather a lack of balance, but there is something very interesting about it. It is certainly sure evidence of the violent reaction against the opera of that time, which was really dramatic music for the concert room, or chamber opera.
It goes without saying that with such ideas Gluck could scarcely help being led to that reform of the orchestra and operatic singing which people of taste were so earnestly desiring. After his arrival in Paris it was the first thing that claimed his attention. He attacked the unspeakable chorus, which sang in masks, without any gesturesthe men being ranged on one side with their arms crossed and the women on the other with fans in their hands. He attacked the still more unspeakable orchestra, who played in gloves so as not to dirty their hands, or to keep them warm, and who spent their time noisily tuning up and in wandering about and talking just as they pleased. But the most difficult people to deal with were the singers, who were vain and unruly. Rousseau in his amusing way says:
“The Opéra is no longer what it used to bea company of people paid to perform in public. It is true that they are still paid and that they perform in public; but they have become a Royal Academy of Music, a kind of royal court and a law unto themselves, with no particular pride in either truth or equity.”
Gluck mercilessly obliged his “academicians” to rehearse for six months at a time, excusing no faults and threatening to fetch the Queen or to return to Vienna every time there was any rebellion. It was an unheard-of thing for a composer to get obedience from operatic musicians. People came running to these bellicose rehearsals as if they were plays.
Dancing was still something outside the action of opera, and in the anarchy that prevailed before Cluck’s time it had been almost the pivot of opera around which everything else had revolved as best it could. Gluck, however, trampled on the dancers’ vanity and stood his ground against Vestris, who had tyrannized over everyone else. Gluck did not scruple to tell him that “he had no use for gambols, and that an artist who carried all his learning in his heels had not the right to be kicking about an opera like Armide.” ” He curtailed the dancing so far as possible and allowed it merely to form an integral part of the action, as may be seen in the ballet of the Furies or that of the spirits of the blessed in Orfeo. With Gluck the ballet, there-fore, lost some of the delightful exuberance it had had in Rameau’s operas; but what it lost in originality and richness it gained in simplicity and purity, and the dance airs in Orfeo are like classic bas-reliefs, the frieze of a Greek temple.
All through Gluck’s opera we find this simplicity and clearness, the subordination of the details of a work to the unity of the whole, and an art that was great and popular and intelligiblethe art dreamed of by the Encyclopedists.
But Gluck’s genius went beyond Encyclopedic dreams. He came to represent in music the free spirit of the eighteenth centurya spirit of musical nationalism set above all petty considerations of race rivalry. Before Gluck the problems of art had resolved themselves into a battle between French and Italian art. It had been a question of: Who will win? Pergolesi or Rameau? Then came Gluck. And what was his victory? French art? Italian art? German art? No; it was something quite differentit was international art as Gluck himself tells us:
“By fine melodies and natural feeling, by a declamation which shall closely follow the prosody of each language and the character of its people, I am seeking to find a means of writing music which will eliminate the ridiculous distinctions between music of different nations.”
May we not admire the loftiness of this ideal, which raised itself above ephemeral party conflicts and was the logical result of the philosophic thought of the centurya conclusion which the philosophers themselves had hardly dared to hope_ for? Yes, Gluck’s art is a European art. In that I feel he is finer than Rameau, who is exclusively French. When Gluck wrote for French people he did not pander to their caprices; he only ized upon the general and essential traits of the French spirit and style. In this way he escaped most of the affectations of the time. He is a classic. Why should not Rameau, who was so great a musician, have a place in the history of art as high as Gluck’s? It is because he did not really know how to rise above fashion, because one cannot find in him the strong will and clear reason which characterized Gluck. Gluck has been likened to Corneille. There were great dramatic poets in France before Corneille’s time, but none had his immortal style. “I compose music,” said Gluck, “in such a way that it will not grow old for some time to come.” Such an art, voluntarily denying itself (so far as possible) the pleasure of being in the fashion, is naturally less seductive than an art which follows the fashion as Rameau’s did. But this supreme liberty of spirit raises Gluck’s music out of the country and the age from which it sprang and makes it part of all countries and all ages.
Whether people liked it or not, Gluck made his influence felt in contemporary art. He put an end to the fight between Italian and French opera. Great as Rameau was, he was not strong enough to hold out against the Italians; he was not universal enough nor eternal enoughhe was too French. One art does not triumph over another by opposing it; it conquers by absorbing it and leaving it behind. Gluck conquered Italian opera by using it. He conquered the old form of French opera by broadening it. That impenitent lover of things Italian, Grimm, was obliged to bow before Gluck’s genius, and though he never liked him, Grimm was compelled to admit, in 1783, that the lyric revolution during the past eight years had been marvelous and that Gluck must be allowed the glory of having begun it.
“It is he who with a heavy, knotted club has overthrown the old idol of French opera and driven out monotony, inaction, and all the tedious prolixity that possessed it. It is possibly to him we owe Piccinni’s and Sacchini’s masterpieces.”
Nothing is more certain. Piccinni, whom lovers of Italian opera set up against Gluck, was only able to fight against him by taking profit from his example and finding inspiration in his declamation and style. Gluck prepared a road for him as he did for Grétry, Méhul, and Gossec, and all the masters of French music; and one may even say that his breath faintly put life into a great part of the songs of the Revolution. His influence was not less felt in Germany where Mozart (whom he knew personally, and whose early works, like Die Ent f Entfuhrung aus dean Serail and the Paris Symphony, he admired) brought about the conquest of this reformed and Europeanized Italian opera though by means of quite another kind of musical greatness. Beethoven himself was profoundly impressed by Gluck’s melodies.
Thus Gluck had the highly unique privilege of directly influencing the three great musical schools of Europe all together and of leaving his imprint upon them. He was part of all of them and not confined by the limitations of any one of them. And this was because he had taken into his service the artistic elements of all nations: the melody of the Italians, the declamation of the French, the lied of Germany, the simplicity of the Latin style, the naturalness of opera–comique, the fine gravity of German thought-especially Handel’s thought. We must remember that Handel (who is said not to have liked Gluck at all) was Gluck’s chosen master on account of the wonderful beauty of his melodies, his grandeur of style, and his rhythms like armies on the march. By his education and life, which were divided among so many countries of Europe, Gluck was fitted for this great part of a European masterthe first master, if I mistake not, who by the domination of his genius imposed a kind of musical unity on Europe. His artistic cosmopolitanism gathered together the efforts of three or four races and two centuries of opera in a handful of works which expressed the essence of the whole in a concentrated and, one may say, economical fashion.
Perhaps it was too economical. We have to recognize that if Gluck’s melodic vein is exquisite, it is not very abundant, and that though he wrote some of the most perfect airs that have ever been composed, the number of them is small. We must measure this master by the matchless quality of his works and not by their quantity. He was poor in musical inventiveness, not only in polyphony and the development of concerted music, the treatment of themes and constructional work, but in melody itself since he was obliged often to take airs out of his old operas to put into his new ones. Cluck’s Parisian admirers set up a bust of him in 1778 and on it was inscribed: Musas praeposuit sirenis. Truly he did sacrifice the sirens to the muses, for he was a poet rather than a musician, and we may well regret that his musical gifts did not equal his poetic ones.
But if Mozart with his extraordinary musical genius and Piccinni with his greater melodic talent surpassed him as musicians, and if Mozart even surpassed him as a poet, yet it is only just to do homage to him for a part of their genius since they both applied his principles and followed his examples. In one way, at least, Gluck was the greatest, not only because he was a pioneer and showed them the way but because he was the noblest of them. He was the poet of all that is finest in life although he did not rise to those almost inaccessible and breathless heights of metaphysical dreams and faith in which Wagner’s art delighted. Gluck’s art was something profoundly human. If we compare his works with Rameau’s mythological tragedies, his feet seem to be on earth, for his heroes were men, and their joys and their sorrows were sufficient for him. He sang of the purest passions: of conjugal love in Orfeo and Alceste, of paternal and filial love in Iphigenie en Aulide, of fraternal love and friendship in Iphigenie en Tauride, of disinterested love, of sacrifice, and of the gift of oneself to those one loves. And he did it with admirable simplicity and sincerity. The inscription on his tomb runs as follows: “Hier ruht ein rechtschaffener deutscher Mann. Ein eif riger Christ. Ein treuer Gatte…. ” (Here lies an honest German. An ardent Christian. A faithful husband.) The mention of his musical talent was left to the last linewhich seems to show that his greatness was more in his soul than in his art. And that is as it should be, for one of the secrets of the irresistible fascination of that art was that from it came a breath of moral nobility, of loyalty, of honesty, and of virtue. It is this word “virtue” which seems to me to sum up the music of Alceste or Orfeo or the chaste Iphigenie. By “virtue” this composer endears himself to other men; in that he was, like Beethoven, something finer than a great musician he was a great man with a clean heart.