Michael McCooe: Composer – Christoph Willibald Gluck

Born in 1714, Christoph Willibald Gluck was a classical German composer. Christoph Willibald Gluck was a true musical revolutionary, who composed some of the 18th Century’s most popular operas.

Embracing music

Christoph Willibald Gluck showed a strong inclination for music from an early age. In 1727, Gluck left home to escape his father’s expectations, going to Prague, where he supported himself financially as a musician. In Prague, Gluck started training in music with Czech composer and cellist Bohuslav Cernohorsky. After moving to Milan, he studied composition with the Italian composer and organist Giovanni Battista Sammartini for four years, during which time he wrote various sonatas.

While living in Milan, Gluck wrote operas prolifically, becoming well-known as an operatic composer. During this period, Gluck earned his first commercial successes with operas like Artaserse (1741), Demofoonte (1742) and Ippolito (1745). In these early works, Gluck conformed to the established Italian operatic style. After showcasing two operas in London that failed to earn critical success during 1746, as well as spending time with Handel while in the British capital, Gluck moved to Vienna in 1748.

Road to innovation

Gluck saw renewed success in Vienna, when he worked on Pietro Metastasio’s opera Semiramide Riconosciuta, which debuted in 1748. During the 1750s, Gluck started to embrace French influences. The composer began creating music for French Vaudeville comedies, where the dialogue is sung or spoken in the style of street songs, with his first attempt being 1756’s Tircis et Doristée. Other early examples of this work include La Fausse Esclave, L’Île de Merlin (1758) and Le Cadi dupé (1761).

The composer’s life changed forever in 1762, when he started writing the opera Orfeo ed Euridice. Based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, this was his first “reform” opera, where Gluck broke away from existing complex operatic norms, to imbue a “noble simplicity” into both the music and the drama of the piece. Orfeo ed Euridice was first performed in late 1762, to resounding success. The piece eventually went on to set the standard for an entire generation of operatic composers.

Master reformer  

Gluck followed Orfeo ed Euridice with the Italian reform operas Alceste (1767) and Paride ed Elena (1770), which were both wildly successful. The composer summed up his style in the foreword to Alceste, which is based on the ancient Greek play Alcestis by Euripides. In this, Gluck wrote that music should “serve poetry by means of expression and by following the situations of the story, without interrupting the action or stifling it with a useless superfluity of ornaments.”

During the 1770s, Gluck released more ground-breaking operas in Paris. This included Iphigénie en Aulide and a French version of Orfeo (both 1774). The most remarkable was Armide, which debuted in 1777. Gluck’s fifth work for the Parisian stage, Armide is a tragic love story set during the First Crusade. It used the same libretto featured in Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1686 eponymous French Baroque opera, which was based on Torquato Tasso’s 1581 epic Italian poem La Gerusalemme liberate.

Gluck’s last major success came in the form of the 1779 opera Iphigénie en Tauride. Based on another of Euripides’ plays, this time Iphigenia in Tauris, this piece chronicles the tales of Agamemnon’s family following the Trojan War. In Iphigénie en Tauride, Gluck took his reform style to its logical conclusion, with the work boasting shorter recitatives than his other reform operas, as well as récitatif accompagné. Gluck spent his last years in Vienna, before passing away from a stroke in 1787.

Major influence

Christoph Willibald Gluck’s operas heralded the beginning of a new era. His reform pieces, especially his Italian works, overturned the outdated conventions of opera seria, which had previously dominated the genre. Instead, Gluck blended the French and Italian operatic traditions, combining simplicity with dramatic impetus. This provided a model that many drew from in the 19th Century, ensuring that today, Christoph Willibald Gluck is best remembered as a musical revolutionary.

You can listen to some of my favourite classics on my Michael McCooe SoundCloud profile, which is updated on a regular basis.