At Long Last Gluck

Michael Zwiebach on June 12, 2007
It's an ironic fact that these days, Handel's operas are being triumphantly presented around the world, while Christoph Gluck's are mostly ignored. Handel, for all his musical glories, was old-school opera seria — castrato singers in the primary roles, convoluted plots and subplots, and stand-and-deliver arias, one after another. Gluck, on the other hand, was the primary ignition switch on modern operatic ideology. He streamlined plots, eliminated extraneous characters, and valued brisk staging and smart acting. Most important, Gluck's music supported the action and drove it forward. He used every means possible, hugely expanding the musical resources of opera. He was the first composer to import trombones from their traditional role in church music into the theater orchestra (in Don Juan). In the same ballet, he originated much of the musical language of sturm und drang. Gluck's last masterwork, Iphigénie en Tauride (1779) opened French opera to foreign composers, including his eminent pupil, Antonio Salieri. Mozart saw it in its initial run, and modeled key scenes of his Idomeneo (1781) on similar scenes in Iphigénie. It was the shock to the system that caused Berlioz to abandon his medical studies for music. Iphigenie remained in the repertory for decades, influencing all the early creators of 19th-century French grand opera, especially Gasparo Spontini, whose La vestale (1807) is always considered a key turning point in that history. As one of the three greatest opera composers of the 18th century, and arguably the most modern, Gluck deserves a prominent place in the contemporary repertory. If this year's presentations of Orfeo ed Euridice at the Metropolitan Opera, the U.S. premiere of L'ile de Merlin, ou Le monde renverse (Merlin's Isle, or The World Upside Down) at Spoleto in May, and Iphigénie en Tauride (Iphigenia at Tauris) this month at the San Francisco Opera launch a trend, a huge injustice will be redressed. With a few more determined advocates, perhaps we will be able to appreciate Gluck's masterpieces on the stage as well as in the history books. In a strange way, the history books have ensured that a Gluck revival seems like old news. Music students know that Orfeo (1762) was the major success of a mid-century reform movement, setting a course for modern opera to come. It is the one Gluck opera that does seem to get out a little, though usually in its revised 1774 French version. Orfeo, however, was just the beginning. Imagine if a later operatic reformer, Richard Wagner, was normally represented on the stage by Das Rheingold, while Tristan und Isolde was confined mainly to recordings. Our view of Gluck is that lopsided. To correct it, you may have to start with a history book: Daniel Heartz' Music in European Capitals, Chapter 8, and his Haydn, Mozart, and the Viennese School, Chapter 3. Gluck's career had a long ascent, marked by unexpected twists and compositions across a wide range of musical-theatrical genres. All of this played into the operas for which he is known today.

A Debut in Milan

Born in Bohemia (the Czech Republic ) in 1714, where his forebears had been foresters for the noble Lobkowitz family, Gluck probably absorbed many folk influences in his early musical training. When he was about 20, a Prince Melzi of Milan took him into service, bringing him to that operatic center. Gluck's debut there in 1741 was his opera Artaserse, a resetting of a libretto by Metastasio, the most admired poet of the age. An itinerant musician throughout this period of his life, Gluck became a great cosmopolitan composer. He composed Italian operas in Vienna and Prague, and with a traveling opera troupe even made a solo visit to London. Coming into contact with all of these different musical scenes broadened his musical tastes. Many listeners were first introduced to Gluck's Italian arias via Cecilia Bartoli's CD Dreams and Fables (2001). Perhaps the biggest surprise, from a composer who is primarily known as an innovator, is the sheer beauty of the melodies. The range of emotions is broad, as well, and the composer's intellect brings music and words into an unusually close-knit relationship. In fact, two of the arias on Bartoli's recording were eventually refashioned for the title character in Iphigénie. One of these arias, "Se mai senti spirarti" (If ever you feel breathing on your visage) from La clemenza di Tito, caused a sensation and controversy because of the boldly dissonant harmony in the orchestra that supports a sustained high note in the voice. Eighteenth-century Italian operas were noted for their extreme subordination of accompaniment to voice, with dissonance folded into the texture like a subtle spice. Gluck's harmony, by contrast, calls attention to Sesto's agony in a direct way, paralleling the text. Think of how Mozart, and all 19th-century composers, use harmony — they are all, without exception, Gluck's heirs. Granted, Gluck sometimes was careless about text-setting, placing a high note on a closed instead of an open vowel. But it's easy to see why, by 1747, he had been invited to Vienna to write a festive opera, Semiramide, honoring Empress Maria Theresa's name day and celebrating the peace treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which ended the War of Austrian Succession. In 1752, he was given a major commission (Tito) at Naples' Teatro San Carlo, the heart of the Italian opera world. Ten years before Orfeo he was a famous composer. Having married Marianne Perger, the daughter of a Viennese banker, he was also financially secure. But he didn't have a steady position in Vienna. When the Seven Years' War broke out, in 1756, the imperial court eliminated Italian serious opera in the capital to save money. Count Giacomo Durazzo, a Venetian nobleman in charge of theatrical entertainment in Vienna who was aware of Gluck's genius, kept him on by attaching him to a French troupe that was resident in the Burgtheater, where he touched up the newest opéras-comique from Paris. Eventually, he began to compose his own. This is quite amazing in itself. French opéra-comique consisted largely of simple vaudeville tunes and short ensembles, performed by actors who sang, rather than trained singers. The genre is about verbal wit, and the music has to fit the words exactly in order to have an effect. Between 1758 and 1760, Gluck composed six opéras-comique, including at least a few acknowledged masterpieces, like La Cythère assiégé (Cythera besieged, 1759), L'arbre enchanté (The enchanted tree, 1759), and L'ivrogne corrigé (The drunkard cured, 1760). Later, in 1764, Gluck added his masterpiece on a Turkish theme, La recontre imprévue (The unforeseen encounter, 1764), which remained in the repertory, after the French troupe had left, in a German translation, inspiring Mozart to try his hand at a Turkish subject, Zaide. The study in simplicity, in "less is more," had a great effect on Gluck's later operas. You can feel that effect in the most famous song from Orfeo, "Che farò senza Euridice," a melody that doesn't bother to hide its pop origins. Gluck also worked on ballet, a genre that most successful Italian opera composers considered beneath their dignity. Dance was an integral element in Orfeo and in Gluck's Parisian lyric tragedies. He wrote several masterworks in this genre, too, including the awe-inspiring Don Juan (1761), which contained more than a few hints that profited Mozart and Da Ponte in creating their great opera buffa on the same subject. Count Durazzo, meanwhile, was one of the farsighted people who believed strongly in operatic reform — music and drama working together to create a unified impression, in order to recreate tragedy in the ancient Greek mold. Italian opera was dominated by huge, long arias for the principal singers that impeded dramatic flow. Many of Metastasio's librettos, the mainstays of the genre, were more than a quarter-century old in 1760, and their multiple amorous subplots were becoming the object of ridicule in literary circles. French tragédie lyrique was enfeebled — Rameau died in 1764, during rehearsals of his last work in the genre, Les boreades, and it was never performed in the 18th century. He had neither worthy contemporaries nor any successors. People like Durazzo saw that if the musical riches of Italian opera could be combined with the respect for drama, orchestral resources, and overall production strengths of French opera, that a true tragic opera might become possible. Durazzo found or brought to Vienna the collaborators who eventually created Orfeo, and he oversaw the epochal production. Gluck's first reform opera was short, concentrated, and dark. It was as if Bergman's The Seventh Seal were shown to an audience accustomed to a steady diet of Terms of Endearment. Its impact was extraordinary, but by then Durazzo and Gluck had their eyes on Paris' Académie Royale de Musique, known as "the Opéra" and the home of French tragédie lyrique.

The Perils of Paris

Several years and a lot of careful self-promotion later, with two more reform operas under his belt, Gluck got his wish and his first Iphigenia opera, Iphigénie en Aulide (Iphigenia at Aulis), was accepted for production during the 1774 season. In an example of "be careful what you wish for," the composer arrived at an institution in which only a Herculean effort could guarantee an adequate performance of the piece. Although the theater itself had been newly rebuilt after a fire had destroyed the old building, the musical standards were abysmal, and had been so for many years. The orchestra and chorus were in terrible shape. The writer Friedrich Melchior Grimm had dubbed the concertmaster "the woodchopper," because he had to beat his baton against his music stand loudly and continuously to keep everyone on the beat. The chorus was apparently not much better and was regularly stationed in rows at the back and sides of the stage. And naturally, soloists were used to their prerogatives, as star singers were everywhere. Gluck changed all of this in the rehearsals. That he had a temper to match Handel's probably didn't hurt. But the orchestra got hold of his extremely complicated writing, the chorus sang and moved at the same time, and the soloists did as they were bidden. The opera conquered Paris, even inspiring a fashionable hairstyle called à l'Iphigénie. Gluck signed a contract with the Paris Opéra in 1775 for two more operas, Electre and Iphigénie en Tauride, to complete a trilogy about the tragedy of the House of Atreus. Meanwhile, he wrote Armide (1777), a setting of Philippe Quinault's 17th-century libretto for Lully, in place of Electre. He also reworked two of his Viennese reform operas, Orfeo and Alceste (1767), for the Opéra. In his reform operas, Gluck is the tone poet of terror, and of human emotion in extremis. His stark musical landscapes reflect characters' inner turmoil. In Iphigénie en Tauride, he replaced the overture with an evocation of calm, followed by vivid storm music growing gradually louder, during which Iphigenia enters, imploring the gods for pity. Like Wagner in Die Walküre, Gluck leaves the music hanging on a dominant chord after the storm subsides, thrusting the audience into the center of the dramatic action. Iphigenia's recitative takes off from the same motive as her entrance in the storm. In his patterning of keys, use of motives, and harmonic movement, Gluck clearly thinks in terms of entire scenes, rather than individual moments. Gluck's harmony, too, intensifies tragic emotion, painting a true psychological portrait of his characters. In Act II, for example, Orestes has a fit at the memory of his mother's murder. The trombones enter. Then, briefly, he sings that "Calm has reentered my heart," a sentiment belied by the pulsating string syncopations and restless harmony. Sure enough, the Eumenides appear to torment him further. Thus, his demand to Iphigénie that he be allowed to die in his friend's place is not just a noble heroic sentiment. He has been hounded to that extremity, and the moment rings psychologically true. The level of dissonance in Gluck's scores is much greater than is typical of the period. For example, he reinforced the sustained dissonance of the central passage of "O malheureuse Iphigénie" (O wretched Iphigenia), the aria reworked from "Se mai spirarti," by adding choral support at that moment. At the climax of the opera, as the priestess Iphigenia, under duress, prepares to ritually slaughter her brother, Orestes (whom she has never known), the strings play a chromatically twisted version of the priests' march. As Heartz notes, no comparable use of harmony exists until Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony. And yet, Gluck's melodic power is undiminished in this opera, even if declamation is more prevalent than lyricism. The love duet — not too strong a term — between Orestes and Pylades in Act III, ending with the tenor Pylades' moving prayer, "Ah, mon ami" (Ah, my friend, I beg you for pity) is an extraordinary mix of lyrical elements, touching on many aspects of love. Pylades ends the act with a rousing call to arms in C major that, for a brief moment, beats back the shadows of the tragic atmosphere. It would be hard to imagine a more dramatically effective, musically powerful setting of this legend. Gluck's Iphigénia en Tauride, succeeds on every imaginable level, and synthesizes a wide range of musical genres and styles. Gluck was a true cosmopolitan, a kind of composer even rarer in the 19th than in the 18th century. If his arias lack the elaboration and vocal brilliance of Mozart's, his tight musico-dramatic structures are equally — or even more — impressive than those of his younger contemporary. In our own century, and the preceding one, Gluck's values became nearly universal in opera composition. Britten is not a better melodist, nor Janácek a better harmonist, nor Berg more structurally sound. None of them were more original or powerful orchestrators. Their operatic aesthetics would not have been possible had not the fiery Bohemian brought opera into the modern age, insisting that it have depth and impact to go with its high gloss and entertainment value. It will be the ultimate irony if Gluck's operas cannot assume their rightful place: side by side with their heirs on today's operatic stage.