Music Reformed

WE do not readily think of the embattled Joseph II as a musician. Yet we are told that he received a “thorough musical education,” had a fine bass voice, heard a concert almost daily, and was “a skillful player from score” on the violoncello, the viola, and the clavier.1 Many nobles were musicians, many more were patrons of music. The middle classes followed suit; every household had a harpsichord; everyone learned to play some instrument. Trios and quartets were performed in the streets; open-air concerts were given in the parks and, on St. John’s Day, from illuminated boats on the Danube Canal. Opera flourished at the court and in the National Opera Theater founded by Joseph II in 1778.

Vienna rose to its early-nineteenth-century sovereignty as the musical capital of Europe because in the late eighteenth century it brought together the rival musical traditions of Germany and Italy. From Germany came polyphony, from Italy melody. From Germany came the Singspiel—a mixture of comic drama, spoken dialogue, incidental music, and popular songs; from Italy came opera buff a; at Vienna the two forms coalesced, as in Mozart’s The Abduction -from the Seraglio. Generally the Italian influence overcame the German in Vienna; Italy conquered Austria with arias, as Austria conquered North Italy with arms. In Vienna opera seria was chiefly Italian until Gluck came, and Gluck was formed on Italian music.


He was born at Erasbach, in the Upper Palatinate, to a Catholic forester who in 1717 moved the family to Neuschloss in Bohemia. In the Jesuit school at Komotau Christoph received instruction in religion, Latin, the classics, singing, violin, organ, and harpsichord. Moving to Prague in 1732, he took lessons on the violoncello, and supported himself by singing in churches, playing the violin at dances, and giving concerts in nearby towns.

Every clever boy in Bohemia gravitated to Prague, and some still cleverer found a way to Vienna. Gluck’s way was to secure a place in the orchestra of Prince Ferdinand von Lobkowitz. In Vienna he heard Italian operas, and felt the magnetism of Italy. Prince Francesco Melzi liked his playing, and invited him to Milan (1737). Gluck studied composition under Sammartini, and became devoted to Italian styles. His early operas (1741-45) followed Italian methods, and he conducted their premières in Italy. These successes won him an invitation to compose and produce an opera for the Haymarket Theatre in London.

There he presented La caduta de’ giganti (1746). It was dismissed with faint praise, and gruff old Handel said that Gluck knew “no more counterpoint than mein cook”;2 but the cook was a good basso and Gluck’s fame was not to rest on counterpoint. Burney met Gluck, and described him as “of a temper as fierce as Handel’s. … He was horribly scarred by smallpox, … and he had an ugly scowl.”3 Perhaps to balance his budget Gluck announced to the public that he would give “a concerto on twenty-six drinking glasses tuned [by filling them to different levels] with spring water, accompanied with the whole band [orchestra], being a new instrument of his own invention, upon which he performs whatever may be done on a violin or harpsichord.” Such a “glass harmonica,” or “musical glasses,” had been introduced in Dublin two years before. Gluck evoked the notes by stroking the rims of the glasses with moistened fingers. The performance (April 23, 1746) appealed to the curious, and was repeated a week later.

Saddened with this success, Gluck left London December 26 for Paris. There he studied the operas of Rameau, who had moved toward reform by integrating the music and the ballet with the action. In September he conducted operas at Hamburg, had a liaison with an Italian singer, and contracted syphilis. He recovered so slowly that when he went to Copenhagen (November 24) he was unable to conduct. He returned to Vienna, and married Marianne Pergia (September 15, 1750), daughter of a rich merchant. Her dowry made him financially secure; he took a house in Vienna, and disappeared into a long rest.

In September, 1754, Count Marcello Durazzo engaged him as Kapellmeister at two thousand florins per year to compose for the court. Durazzo had tired of conventional Italian opera, and collaborated with Gluck in a musical drama, L’innocenza giustificata, in which the story was no mere scaffolding for music, and the music no mere assemblage of arias, but the music reflected the action, and the arias—even the choruses—entered with some logic into the plot. The première (December 8, 1755) was therefore the herald and first product of the reform that history associates with Gluck’s name. We have seen elsewhere the contributions made by Benedetto Marcello, Jommelli, and Traëtta to this development, and the appeal made by Rousseau, Voltaire and the Encyclopedists for a closer union of drama and music. Metastasio had helped by proudly insisting that the music should be servant to the poetry.4 Winckelmann’s passion for restoring Greek ideals in art may have affected Gluck, and composers knew that Italian opera had begun as an attempt to revive the classic drama, in which the music was subordinated to the play. Meanwhile Jean-Georges Noverre (1760) pleaded for an elevation of the ballet from mere rhythmic prancing to dramatic pantomimes that would express “the passions, manners, customs, ceremonies, and costumes of all the peoples on earth.”5 By the mysterious alchemy of genius Gluck wove all these elements into a new operatic form.

One secret of success is to seize a propitious chance. What was it that brought Gluck to abandon the librettos of Metastasio and take Raniero da Calzabigi as the poet for Orfeo ed Euridice? The two men had been born in the same year, 1714, but far apart—Calzabigi in Livorno. After some adventures in love and finance he came to Paris, published there an edition of Metastasio’s Poesie drammatiche (1755), and prefaced it with a “Dissertazione” expressing his hope for a new kind of opera—“a delightful whole resulting from the interplay of a large chorus, the dance, and a scenic action where poetry and music are united in a masterly way.”6 Moving to Vienna, he interested Durazzo with his ideas on opera; the Count invited him to write a libretto; Calzabigi composedOrfeo ed Euridice; Durazzo offered the poem to Gluck, who saw in the simple and unified plot a theme that could elicit all his powers.

The result was presented to Vienna on October 5, 1762. For the role of Orpheus Gluck was able to secure the leading castrato contralto of the time, Gaetano Guadagni. The story was as old as opera; a dozen librettists had used it between 1600 and 1761; the audience could follow the action without understanding Italian. The music dispensed with unaccompanied recitatives, da capo arias, and decorative flourishes; otherwise it followed the Italian style, but it rose to lyric heights of a purity seldom attained before or since. The despondent cry of Orpheus after losing his beloved a second time to death—“Che farò senz’ Euridice?”—is still the loveliest aria in opera; on hearing this, and the threnody of the flute in the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” we wonder that the stormy Bohemian could have found such delicacy in his soul.

Orfeo was not enthusiastically received in Vienna, but Maria Theresa was deeply moved by it, and sent Gluck a snuffbox stuffed with ducats. Soon he was chosen to teach singing to the Archduchess Maria Antonia. Meanwhile he and Calzabigi worked on what some have rated their most perfect opera, Alceste. In a preface to the published form, written for Gluck by Calzabigi, the composer declared the principles of his operatic reform:

When I undertook to write the music for Alceste I resolved to divest it entirely of all those abuses … which have so long disfigured Italian opera. … I have striven to restrict music to its true office of serving poetry by means of expression, and by following the situations of the story, without interrupting the action or stifling it with useless superfluity of comments.... I did not think it my duty to pass quickly over the second section of an aria—of which the words are perhaps the most impassioned and important—in order to repeat regularly … those of the first part.... I have felt that the overture should apprize the spectators of the nature of the action that is to be represented, and to form, so to speak, its argument; … that the orchestral instruments should be introduced in proportion to the interest and intensity of the words, and not leave that sharp contrast between the aria and the recitative in the dialogue, … [which] wantonly disturbs the force and heat of the action.... I believed that my greatest labor should be devoted to seeking a beautiful simplicity.7

In short, the music was to serve and intensify the drama, and not make the drama a mere scaffolding for vocal or orchestral displays. Gluck put the matter extremely by saying that he was “trying to forget that I am a musician”;8 he was to be one person with the librettist in composing a dramma per musica. —The story of Alceste is a bit beyond belief, but Gluck redeemed it with a somber overture that prefigured and led into the tragic action; with scenes of touching sentiment between Alceste and her children; with her invocation to the underworld gods in the aria “Divinités du Styx”; with majestic chorales and spectacular ensembles. The Viennese audience gave the opera sixty hearings between its première, December 16, 1767, and 1779. The critics, however, found many faults in it, and the singers complained that it gave them insufficient scope to display their art.

Poet and composer tried again with Paride ed Elena (November 30, 1770). Calzabigi took the plot from Ovid, who had made the story of Paris and Helen a personal romance instead of an international tragedy. The work received twenty performances in Vienna, one in Naples, none elsewhere. Calzabigi assumed the blame for the comparative failure, and renounced the writing of librettos. Gluck sought other soil for his seed. A friend in the French embassy at Vienna, François du Rollet, suggested that Paris audiences might welcome the compliment of a French opera by a German composer. Following suggestions by Diderot and Algarotti that Racine’s Iphigénie offered an ideal subject for an opera, Du Rollet molded the play into a libretto, and submitted this to Gluck. The composer found the material perfectly suited to his taste, and at once set to work.

To pave the way to Paris Du Rollet addressed to the director of the Opéra a letter—printed in the Mercure de France for August 1, 1772—telling how indignant “Monsieur Glouch” was at the idea that the French language did not lend itself to music, and how he proposed to prove the opposite with Iphigénie en Aulide. Gluck softened the expected ire of Rousseau (then living quietly in Paris) by sending the Mercure a letter (February 1, 1773) expressing his hope that he might consult with Rousseau about “the means I have in view to produce a music fit for all the nations, and to let the ridiculous distinctions of national music disappear.”9 To complete this masterpiece of advertising, Marie Antoinette, remembering her old teacher, used her influence at the Opéra. The manager agreed to produce Iphigénie; Gluck came to Paris, and put singers and orchestra through such arduous and disciplined rehearsals as they had rarely experienced before. Sophie Arnould, the reigning diva, proved so intractable that Gluck threatened to abandon the project; Joseph Legros seemed too weakened by illness to play the mighty Achilles; Gaetan Vestris, the current god of the dance, wanted half the opera to be ballet.10 Gluck tore at his hair, or his wig, persisted, and triumphed. The première (April 19, 1774) was the musical sensation of the year. We can feel the agitation of the ebullient capital in a letter of Marie Antoinette to her sister Maria Christina in Brussels:

A great triumph, my dear Christine! I am carried away with it, and people can no longer talk of anything else. All heads are fermenting as a result of this event; … there are dissensions and quarrels as though it were … some religious dispute. At court, though I publicly expressed myself in favor of this inspired work, there are partisanships and debates of a particular liveliness; and in the city it seems to be worse still.11

Rousseau repaid Gluck’s advances by announcing that “Monsieur Gluck’s opera had overturned all his ideas; he was now convinced that the French language could agree as well as any other with a music powerful, touching, and sensitive.”12 The overture was so startlingly beautiful that the first night’s audience demanded its repetition. The arias were criticized as too many, interrupting the drama, but they were marked by a complex depth of feeling characteristic of Gluck’s music; of one of them, Agamemnon’s “Au faîte des grandeurs,” Abbé Arnaud exclaimed, “With such an air one might found a religion.”13

Gluck now rivaled the dying Louis XV as the talk of Paris. His burly figure, his rubicund face and massive nose were pointed out wherever he went, and his imperious temper became the subject of a hundred anecdotes. Greuze painted his portrait, showing the jovial good nature behind the lines of strife and strain. He ate like Dr. Johnson, and drank only less than Boswell. He made no pretense about scorning money, and joined readily in appreciation of his work. He treated courtiers and commoners alike—as inferiors; he expected noble lords to hand him his wig, his coat, his cane; and when a prince was introduced to him, and Gluck kept his seat, he explained, “The custom in Germany is to rise only for people one respects.”14

The director of the Opéra had warned him that if Iphigénie en Aulide was accepted, Gluck would have to write five more operas in quick order, since Iphigénie would drive all other operas from the stage. This did not frighten Gluck, who had a way of conscripting parts of his older compositions to squeeze them into new ones. He had Orfeo ed Euridice translated into French; and since no good contralto was available, he rewrote the part of Orpheus for the tenor Legros. Sophie Arnould, become tractable, played Eurydice. The Paris première was a heartening success. Marie Antoinette, now Queen of France, awarded a pension of six thousand francs to “mon cher Gluck”15 He returned to Vienna with his head in the stars.

In March, 1776, he was back in Paris with a French version of Alceste, which was produced to mild applause on April 23. Gluck, inured to success, reacted to this setback with angry pride: “Alceste 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.”16 In June he retreated to Vienna, and soon thereafter he began to put to music Marmontel’s revision of Quinault’s libretto Roland.

Now began the most famous contest in operatic history. For meanwhile the management of the Opéra had commissioned Niccolò Piccini of Naples to set to music the same libretto, and to come to Paris and produce it. He came (December 31, 1776). Informed of this commission, Gluck sent to Du Rollet (now in Paris) a letter of Olympian wrath:

I have just received your letter … exhorting me to continue my work on the words of the opera Roland. This is no longer feasible, for when I heard that the management of the Opéra, not unaware that I was doing Roland, had given the same work to M. Piccini to do, I burned as much of it as I had already done, which perhaps was not worth much.... I am no longer the man to enter into competition, and M. Piccini would have too great an advantage over me, since—his personal merit apart, which is assuredly very great—he would have that of novelty.... I am sure that a certain politician of my acquaintance will offer dinner and supper to three quarters of Paris in order to win him proselytes.17

For reasons not now clear this letter, obviously private, was published in the Année littéraire for February, 1777. It became, unintentionally, a declaration of war.

Gluck reached Paris May 29 with a new opera, Armide. The rival composers met at a dinner; they embraced, and conversed amicably. Piccini had come to France with no notion that he was to be a pawn in a mess of partisan intrigue and operatic salesmanship; he himself warmly admired Gluck’s work. Despite the friendliness of the protagonists the war went on in salons and cafés, in streets and homes; “no door was opened to a visitor,” reported Charles Burney, “without the question being asked, previous to admission,‘Monsieur, estes vous Picciniste ou Gluckiste?’18 Marmontel, d’Alembert, and Laharpe led in acclaiming Piccini and the Italian style; the Abbé Arnaud defended Gluck in a Profession de foi en musique; Rousseau, who had begun the war with his pro-Italian Lettre sur la musique française (1753), supported Gluck.

Armide was produced on September 23, 1777. Subject and music were reversions to modes established before Gluck’s reform; the story was from Tasso, exalting the Christian Rinaldo and the pagan Armida; the music was Lully restored with romantic tenderness; the ballet was Noverre in excelsis. The audience liked the mixture; it gave the opera a good reception; but the Piccinistes condemned Armide as a refurbishing of Lully and Rameau. They waited anxiously for their standard-bearer’s Roland. Piccini dedicated it to Marie Antoinette with apologies: “Transplanted, isolated, in a country where all was new to me, intimidated in my work by a thousand difficulties, I needed all my courage, and my courage forsook me.”19 At times he was on the verge of abandoning the contest and returning to Italy. He persevered, and had the comfort of a successful première (January 27, 1778). The two victories seemed to cancel each other, and the public war went on. Mme. Vigée-Lebrun saw it at first hand. “The usual battlefield was the garden of the Palais-Royal. There the partisans of Gluck and Piccini quarreled so violently that many a duel resulted.”20

Gluck returned to Vienna in March, stopping at Ferney to see Voltaire. He took home with him two librettos: one by Nicolas-François Guillard based on the Iphigenia in Tauris of Euripides, the other by Baron Jean-Baptiste de Tschoudi on the Echo and Narcissus theme. He worked on both books, and by the fall of 1778 he felt ready for another battle. So in November we find him in Paris again; and on May 18, 1779, he presented at the Opéra what most students consider his greatest composition, Iphigénie en Tauride. It is a somber story, and much of the music is monotonously plaintive; at times we tire of Iphigenia’s high-keyed laments. But when the performance is over, and the incantation of the music and the lines has stilled our skeptic reason, we realize that we have experienced a profound and powerful drama. A contemporary remarked that there were many fine passages in it. “There is only one,” said Abbé Arnaud, “—the entire work.”21 The first night’s audience gave the piece a wild ovation.

Gluck challenged the gods by hurrying to offer his other piece, Echo et Narcisse (September 21, 1779). It failed, and the maestro left Paris in a huff (October), declaring that he had had enough of France, and would write no more operas. If he had remained he could have heard another Iphigénie en Tauride, produced by Piccini after two years of labor. The première (January 23, 1781) was well received, but on the second night Mlle. Laguerre, who sang the title role, was so obviously drunk that Sophie Arnould destroyed the performance by calling it Iphigénie en Champagne.22 This contretemps ended the operatic war; Piccini handsomely admitted defeat.

Gluck, in Vienna, dreamed of other victories. On February 10, 1780, he wrote to Goethe’s Duke Karl August of Saxe-Weimar: “I have grown very old, and have squandered the best powers of my mind upon the French nation; nevertheless I feel an inward impulse to write something for my own country.”23 Now he put some odes of Klopstock to music that prepared for the finest lieder. In April, 1781, he suffered a stroke, but he was comforted by Vienna’s reception of Iphigenie in Tauris and the revival of OrfeoandAlceste. On November 15, 1787, while entertaining friends, he drank at one gulp a glass of strong liquor, which had been forbidden him. He fell into convulsions, and died within four hours. Piccini, in Naples, tried in vain to raise funds for annual concerts in his rival’s memory.24 Italy, pursuing melody, ignored Gluck’s reforms; Mozart followed the Italians, and must have been shocked at the idea of making music the servant of poetry. But Herder, coming at the end of this creative era, and looking back upon it with limited knowledge of Bach, Haydn, and Mozart, called Gluck the greatest composer of the century.25

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