Christoph Willibald Gluck © Joseph Siffred Duplessis (1775)
Christoph Willibald Gluck
© Joseph Siffred Duplessis (1775)
Wednesday 2 July sees the 300th anniversary of the birth of Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck, yet this major anniversary hasn’t exactly been trumpeted through the world’s opera houses. Gluck was a great operatic reformer, yet his music – save for Orfeo’s celebrated aria “Che farò senza Euridice?” – rarely features in concert halls or opera houses. “Do you actually like Gluck?” a conductor asked me recently, “He’s so boring!” In terms of opera, the common perception is that Gluck doesn’t sell, yet the influence he had on the genre was immense. Thankfully, in the likes of Riccardo Muti, John Eliot Gardiner and Marc Minkowski, Gluck has received strong advocacy, with fine performances and recordings allowing new audiences to be won over to his musical style. Enjoy listening to the playlist the Bachtrack editors have selected below.

Gluck was born in Bavaria in 1714, in or around Erasbach, but his family moved to Bohemia in childhood (his native tongue remained Czech through his life). As a schoolboy, he received his first musical instruction, learning to play several instruments and singing in the church choir. Gluck enrolled at the University of Prague in 1731, yet left without a degree. Prague, however, was a centre of musical excellence and Gluck participated in Italian oratorio performances and played organ in the Týn Church in the Old Town Square.

He travelled to Italy, studying in Milan with Giovanni Battista Sammartini. His setting of Metastasio's Artaserse was Gluck’s first opera, premièred on 26 December 1741 at the Regio Ducal Teatro. He was asked to compose four carnival operas for Milan in as many years, but also produced operas in other northern Italian cities, almost all set to Metastasio's texts, despite the poet's dislike for his compositional style.  

A visit to London – and a possible meeting with Handel – followed, before Gluck settled in Vienna in Habsburg service, where he enjoyed great success, including a setting of Metastasio's La clemenza di Tito, which was later set by Mozart. Later, Gluck tried to break the mould that operas were stuck in. He felt that opera seria and opera buffa styles has become fossilized, and he attempted to reform opera’s dramaturgical practices. Singers ruled the stage, with much showy ostentation of vocal ornamentation in arias holding up the action. Gluck wanted to return opera to its dramatic roots – a lot of the florid vocal writing was stripped away, as was secco recitative (accompanied only by continuo) in order to create a more flowing style of music drama: “I did not wish to arrest an actor in the greatest heat of dialogue in order to wait for a tiresome ritornello… nor to wait while the orchestra gives him time to recover his breath for a cadenza.” He tried to write “without interrupting the action or stifling it with a useless superfluity of ornaments”. Gluck’s greatest early successes in this new style were Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste. His style influenced the thinking of later composers, such as Richard Wagner.

Gluck headed to Paris, where he wrote eight operas, combining French and Italian styles. Under the patronage of Marie Antoinette, Gluck signed a contract for six works for the Paris Opéra, starting with Iphigénie en Aulide. Its première sparked a huge controversy, with Gluck's opponents led by those championing the Neapolitan style of Niccolò Piccinni.

Gluck's greatest success in Paris - or anywhere - was his 1779 opera Iphigénie en Tauride, which featured shorter recitatives (récitatif accompagné) helping to propel the action forward. After the poor reception of Echo et Narcisse, Gluck left Paris and returned to Vienna, where he lived for the rest of his life.

 

The best known aria composed by Gluck is undoubtedly “Che farò senza Euridice” from Orfeo ed Euridice. The opera exists in several versions. Here, from the Vienna 1762 version (in Italian) is Agnes Baltsa singing the role of Orfeo:

 

When Gluck revised his opera for Paris in 1774, the role of Orphée was given to a high tenor. Here, Juan Diego Flórez sings “J'ai perdu mon Eurydice”

 

Here is an extract from Orphée as ballet, choreographed by Pina Bausch:

 

The “Dance of the furies” is an orchestral highlight from the opera, performed here by the fabulous Les Musiciens du Louvre and Marc Minkowski: 


From Gluck’s opera Ezio, here is the title character’s aria “Se il fulmine sospendi” performed by the counter-tenor Franco Fagioli: 

 

From Armide, here is Patricia Petibon singing Armide’s aria from the end of the opera: “Le perfide Renaud quand le barbare”

 

Gluck’s greatest opera is arguably Iphigenie en Tauride. Here is the stormy introduction and chorus:

 

Gluck composed music for the ballet Don Juan ou Le Festin de Pierre (Don Juan, or the Stone Guest's Banquet). Here is a clip from a performance at Versailles in 2006, including the Fandango and the Don’s descent into hell:

 

Not everything Gluck wrote is related to the stage. Here is his Symphony in G major, Wq. deest, Chen G3, "Weimarer":