Home » Uncategorized » Christoph von Gluck and “Orpheus und Eurydike”

Christoph von Gluck and “Orpheus und Eurydike”

NOTE: As a blogger, I have never claimed originality for the material about the lives of the composers whom I have discussed. The material is taken from many different sources (music history textbooks, encyclopedia articles, CD liner notes, and various websites) and simply edited by me. I never really thought that it was necessary to note that fact previously, but will do so from now on.


Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (July 2, 1714–November 15, 1787) was an opera composer of the early classical period who was born in Erasbach, now a district of Berching, Bavaria, the first of six surviving children. His father, Alexander Johannes, came from a long line of foresters, and married Gluck’s mother, Maria Walburga, in about 1711. During 1717 the family moved to Bohemia, where the father became head forester in the service of Prince Philipp Hyazinth von Lobkowitz in 1727. According to J. C. von Mannlich, who shared rooms with Gluck in Paris, it was as a Bohemian schoolboy that Gluck received his first musical training, both as a singer in the church choir and by learning. A childhood flight from home to Vienna is included in several contemporary accounts of Gluck’s life, including Mannlich’s, but recent scholarship claims that, if this incident happened at all, it occurred later, and the object of Gluck’s journeying was not Vienna but Prague, and connected to his studies at the University of Prague, where according to early biographies he began studying logic and mathematics in 1731. Gluck eventually left Prague without taking a degree, and vanishes from the historical record until 1737, a possible year, likely to have been 1736, in Vienna.

In 1737 Gluck arrived in Milan, Italy, where he studied under G. B. Sammartini, who, according to Carpani, taught Gluck “practical knowledge of all the instruments.” Apparently this relationship lasted for several years. Sammartini was not, primarily, a composer of opera, his main output being of sacred music and symphonies, but Milan boasted a vibrant opera scene, and Gluck soon formed an association with one of the city’s up-and-coming opera houses, the Teatro Regio Ducal, where his first opera, Artaserse, was performed on December 26, 1741. Set to a libretto by Metastasio, the opera opened the Milanese Carnival of 1742.Gluck composed an opera for each of the next four Carnivals at Milan. He also wrote operas for other cities of Northern Italy in between Carnival seasons, including Turin and Venice, where his Ipermestra was given during November 1744 at the Teatro San Giovanni Crisostomo. Nearly all of his operas in this period were, like Artaserse, set to Metastasio’s texts, despite the poet’s dislike for his style of composition.

In 1745 Gluck accepted an invitation to become house composer at London’s King’s Theatre, probably travelling to England via Frankfurt and in the company of Georg Christian, Fürst von Lobkowitz. Gluck’s two London operas, (La caduta de’giganti and Artamene) eventually performed in 1746, borrowed much from his earlier works, a method that was to re-occur throughout his career. Six trio sonatas were the other immediate fruits of his time in London. A more long-term benefit was exposure to the music of Handel – whom he later credited as a great influence on his style. Either Gluck or Lobkowitz bought a copy of Handel’s Messiah. The years 1747 and 1748 brought Gluck two highly prestigious engagements. First came a commission to produce an opera for Dresden, performed by Pietro Mingotti’s troupe, to celebrate a royal double wedding that would unite the ruling families of Bavaria and Saxony. Le nozze d’Ercole e d’Ebe, a festa teatrale, borrowed heavily from earlier works, and even from Gluck’s teacher Sammartini. The success of this work brought Gluck to the attention of the Viennese court, and, ahead of such a figure as Johann Adolph Hasse, he was selected to set Metastasio’s Semiramide riconosciuta to celebrate Maria Theresa’s birthday. On this occasion Gluck’s music was completely original, but the displeasure of the court poet, Metastasio, who called the opera “archvandalian music,” probably explains why Gluck did not remain long in Vienna despite the work’s enormous popular success . For the remainder of 1748 and 1749 Gluck travelled with Mingotti’s troupe, composing the opera La contesa de’ numi for the court at Copenhagen.

In 1750 Gluck abandoned Mingotti’s group for another company established by a former member of the Mingotti troupe, Giovanni Battista Locatelli. The main effect of this was that Gluck returned to Prague on a more consistent basis. For the Prague Carnival of 1750 Gluck composed a new opera, Ezio, again set to one of Metastasio’s works. His Ipermestra was also performed in the same year. The other major event of Gluck’s stay in Prague was, on September 15, 1750, his marriage to Maria Anna Bergin, aged 18 years old, the daughter of a rich but long-dead Viennese merchant. Gluck seems to have spent most of 1751 commuting between Prague and Vienna. The year 1752 brought another major commission to Gluck, when he was asked to set Metastasio’s La clemenza di Tito for the nameday celebrations of King Charles VII of Naples (later Charles III of Spain).

Gluck finally settled in Vienna where he became Kapellmeister. He wrote Le Cinesi for a festival in 1754 and La Danza for the birthday of the future Emperor Leopold II the following year. After his opera Antigono was performed in Rome in February, 1756, Gluck was made a Knight of the Golden Spur by Pope Benedict XIV. From that time on, Gluck used the title “Ritter von Gluck” or “Chevalier de Gluck.”
Gluck turned his back on Italian opera seria and began to write opéra comiques. In 1761, Gluck produced the groundbreaking ballet Don Juan in collaboration with the choreographer Gasparo Angiolini. The climax of Gluck’s opéra comique writing was La rencontre imprévue of 1764. By that time, Gluck was already engaged in his operatic reforms. Gluck had long pondered the fundamental problem of form and content in opera. He thought both of the main Italian operatic genres – opera buffa and opera seria – had strayed too far from what opera should really be and seemed unnatural. In Vienna, Gluck met likeminded figures in the operatic world: Count Giacomo Durazzo, the head of the court theatre, who was a passionate admirer of French stage music; the librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, who wanted to attack the dominance of Metastasian opera seria; the innovative choreographer Gasparo Angiolini; and the London-trained castrato Gaetano Guadagni.

The first result of the new thinking was Gluck’s reformist ballet Don Juan, but a more important work was soon to follow. On 5 October 1762, Orfeo ed Euridice was given its first performance, with music by Gluck to words by Calzabigi. The dances were arranged by Angiolini. The more flowing and dramatic style which resulted has been seen as a precursor to the music dramas of Richard Wagner. Gluck and Calzabigi followed Orfeo with Alceste (1767) and Paride ed Elena (1770), pushing their innovations even further. Calzabigi wrote a preface to Alceste, which Gluck signed, setting out the principles of their reforms. Gluck then began to spread his ideas to France. Under the patronage of his former music pupil, Marie Antoinette, who had married the future French king Louis XVI in 1770, Gluck signed a contract for six stage works with the management of the Paris Opéra. He began with Iphigénie en Aulide (1774). On August 2, 1774 the French version of Orfeo ed Euridice was performed. In the same year Gluck returned to Vienna, where he was appointed composer to the imperial court. Over the next few years the now internationally famous composer would travel back and forth between Paris and Vienna. On April 23, 1776, the French version of Alceste was given.

Gluck also wrote Armide (1777), Iphigénie en Tauride (1779) and Echo et Narcisse for Paris. During the rehearsals for Echo et Narcisse, Gluck suffered his first stroke. Since the opera itself was a complete failure, Gluck in disgust decided to return to Vienna. His musical heir in Paris was the composer Antonio Salieri, who had been Gluck’s protégé since he arrived in Vienna in 1767, and later had made friends with Gluck. Gluck brought Salieri to Paris with him and bequeathed him the libretto for Les Danaïdes by Leblanc du Roullet and Baron Tschudi. The opera was announced as a collaboration between the two composers; however, after the overwhelming success of its premiere on April 26 , 1784, Gluck revealed to the prestigious Journal de Paris that the work was wholly Salieri’s. In Vienna Gluck wrote a few more minor works but he generally lived in retirement. In 1781 he brought out a German version of Iphigénie en Tauride and other operas of his enjoyed great popularity in Vienna. On November 15, 1787, in Vienna, Gluck suffered another stroke and died a few hours later, aged 73.

The following works by Gluck are included in my collection.

Don Juan: Ballet Music.
Euristeo (then Alceste): Overture in DM.
Iphegenia in Aulis (1744): Suite du divertissement.
Orfeo ed Euridece: Dance of the Blessed Spirits.

—taken and edited from various sources


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