The opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) was 29 years younger than Händel and 42 years older than Mozart — although Mozart narrowed the age gap somewhat by starting to compose operas at age 11.
Gluck tried out many different styles during his forty-year composing career, but today he is best remembered as a ‘reform composer’ who put his music in the service of drama and characterization, as opposed to the empty vocalizing of the late Baroque period.
The name Gluck sometimes causes confusion in Germany (among people who don’t know their opera composers) because of its similarity to the German word Glück, with an Umlaut over the u, meaning luck or happiness. To advertise its first Gluck opera festival in 2005, the Nürnberg Opera used a slogan in English, “Feel Gluck”, which sounds (sort of) like the German expression Viel Glück, meaning ‘good luck’.
Gluck was born near Nürnberg, in an area called the Operpfalz, but he never lived or worked in Nürnberg. As far as anyone knows he only set foot in Nürnberg once in his whole life, when he was passing through on his way to Paris. He grew up mainly in what is now the Czech Republic, then under Austrian rule, and he studied in Prague and Vienna.
This is a transparency (for the overhead projector) that I always had with me when I was teaching opera appreciation courses at the adult education center in Frankfurt. It says that Gluck composed about 49 operas, including the nineteen on my list. I forget why I chose to list these particular operas, and not the others, but the list did serve to show that Gluck’s career can be divided into three phases:
- From 1741 to 1756 he did a lot of travelling around Europe and composed operas for Milan, Venice, Dresden, Copenhagen, Prague, Naples and Rome. (The German names for these cities are given on the transparency.)
- In the 1750s he settled in Vienna (Wien in German), where he lived and worked for over a decade.
- From around 1774 he worked mainly in Paris, though he often traveled back and forth between Paris and Vienna. His operas were very popular in Paris in the 1770s (notwithstanding a silly controversy between his fans and those of the Italian composer Niccolò Piccinni). Gluck’s status in Paris was enhanced by the fact that the Queen of France, Marie-Antoinette, was a big fan of his and had even taken voice lessons from him during her childhood in Vienna.
Fans of Mozart’s early operas might be surprised to see two of his titles here on the Gluck list, La clemenza di Tito and Il re pastore. In the 18th century, it was not uncommon for as many as two or three dozen composers to set the same libretto to music — the libretto of La clemenza di Tito, for example, had already been used by nearly forty other composers, including Gluck, before Mozart took it on in 1791.
Today, Gluck’s operas are not performed as often as Händel’s or Mozart’s, but I have managed to see five of them so far (listed below in the order of composition):
Ezio, first version, composed by Gluck for Prague in 1750:
For some reason, the Frankfurt Opera chose to present Gluck’s first version of Ezio, rather than the quite different version he composed for Vienna thirteen years later. Both were based on parts of a libretto by Pietro Metastasio that had also been used by several other composers, including Händel.
Ezio himself was a Roman general who returned victorious to Rome, only to get involved in a maze of conflicts involving a plot to assassinate the emperor Valentiniano (not that he didn’t deserve it). The Frankfurt production was notable for its costumes by Christian Lacroix, and for its cast featuring Paula Murrihy as Fulvia, Sonia Prina as Ezio and Sofia Fomina as Onoria. Three years later the production was revived with a different but also impressive cast, including Cecelia Hall, Sydney Mancasola, Theo Lebow and Michael Porter. Unusually, the countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic changed roles for the revival; in the first series he had sung the role of the Emperor Valentiniano, but in the revival series he was Ezio, the victorious general.
Orfeo ed Euridice, first version, composed by Gluck for Vienna in 1762:
On March 24, 2000, I conducted an afternoon workshop for the English teachers at the adult education center in Leipzig, Germany, entitled “Putting grammar in its place”. That same evening, I went to the Leipzig opera house and saw an Italian-language performance (which I later described as “seductive”) of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, in which he re-tells the story of how the legendary singer and luth player Orpheus sang his way into the underworld in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to rescue his bride Euridice, who had died of a snake bite on their wedding day.
All you loyal readers of my post on Operas by Claudio Monteverdi might recall that Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) is his earliest opera that is still extant, and is widely regarded as the first real opera ever. In the Leipzig program booklet to Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice the dramaturge Brunhild Matthius writes: “The singer Orpheus succeeded in conquering the powers of death in the fury of Hades through singing and playing the lyre. Seen in this light, one may with some justification call Orpheus an archetype of opera.”
Iphigénie en Aulide, composed by Gluck for Paris in 1774:
This opera is based on the play Iphigénie en Aulide by the French dramatist Jean Racine (1639-1699), who in turn was inspired by the ancient Greek dramatist Euripides. The plot has to do with the half-hearted efforts of King Agamemnon to avoid sacrificing his daughter Iphigénie to the gods in return for favorable winds to he can sail his fleet to Troy and start fighting the Trojan War. (I saw this opera in Nürnberg in 2005, and have discussed it in my post Feel Gluck in Nürnberg.)
Armide, composed by Gluck for Paris in 1777:
Opera composers in the 17th, 18th and even 19th centuries had a conspicuous tendency to set many of their operas in the years 1096 to 1099, during the time of the First Crusade — not any of the other Crusades, just the First. This was not because there was anything special about the First Crusade (which was just as much a blatant war of aggression as all the others), but because two Italian poets, Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) and Torquato Tasso (1544-1595) wrote sprawling epic poems about the First Crusade, with dozens or hundreds of characters and sub-plots featuring glorious Christian knights battling infidels and sorceresses in faraway countries.
Gluck’s Armide is one of these First-Crusade operas, based on a passage from Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata. I saw it in Vienna in 2016, and have discussed it in my post on The Vienna State Opera.
Iphigénie en Tauride, composed by Gluck for Paris in 1779:
This is a sequel to Gluck’s earlier opera Iphigénie en Aulide, composed five years later. I saw Iphigénie en Tauride at the Garnier Opera in Paris with Susan Graham in the title role and Marc Minkowski conducting. (See my post Gluck at the Opéra Garnier.)
My photos in this post are from 2005, 2006, 2014 and 2016.
I revised the text in 2023.