Gluck’s surname means ‘Joy’ – and so does his music. Or some of it. Hear Kathleen Ferrier’s recording of the aria ‘Che faro senza Euridice’ (‘What is life to me without thee’) from Orfeo ed Euridice and the directness and depth of the music is unmistakeable: it’s pure aural gold.
Gluck was a pivotal figure in opera’s development, switching its emphasis away from the virtuosity of its singers to the core of the drama they were supposed to express. His works prepared the ground not only for the operas of Mozart, but also – many decades later – Berlioz and Wagner, who revered him. His biography was written by Alfred Einstein. Strange, then, that it is rare to hear much of his work today, beyond a few “greatest hits”.
Without Gluck (who was born in the Upper Palatinate in 1714 and died in Vienna in 1787) the history of opera would have been unrecognisable. Berlioz summed him up, writing: “He innovated in almost every field... he was gifted with an extraordinary feeling for expression and a rare understanding of the human heart, and his sole aim was to give passions a true, profound and powerful language.”
Gluck developed an antipathy to traditional baroque Italian opera seria – perhaps because he was not especially good at writing them. He enjoyed some early successes in the genre, but an attempt to establish himself in London came to a rapid and ignominious end, drawing harsh words from Handel, who famously declared that Gluck “knows no more counterpoint than my cook”.
Counterpoint was not what interested Gluck. Literature inspired him, poetry, drama and character; when an opera libretto was underpowered, so, arguably, were his results. But at his finest, Gluck reached the cutting edge of Enlightenment composition well ahead of anybody else.
Einstein made an intriguing accusation, however, suggesting that just after the success of Orfeo ed Euridice in 1762, Gluck reverted to the old opera seria style he disliked for an opera entitled Ezio – possibly for the sake of a good fee. Perhaps he did. But perhaps it didn’t matter: according to Sir Roger Norrington, Gluck’s significance is deeper than just his attempts at musical revolution.
“Gluck’s influence arose from his melodic genius as much as from his reforming zeal,” he comments. “The touching honesty of his arias gives them tremendous power. I admire the way Gluck risks great simplicity in his musical methods, at a time when elaboration and show were taken to such lengths – Gluck is basically a very serious composer, but he touches the heart with the strength of his feeling.”
Gluck reached the zenith of fame via a tremendous controversy, stirred up as only Parisian high society knew how. He was the favourite composer of Marie Antoinette, who had once been his pupil in Vienna. With her help, he secured some operatic commissions in Paris in the 1770s and moved to live there. Madame du Barry, mistress of King Louis XV and no friend to his grandson’s queen-to-be, set up a direct opponent, championing a leading Italian composer of opera seria, Niccolo Piccini, and having him summoned to the French capital. Amid these musical dangerous liaisons, the city divided into passionate Gluckists and Piccini-ists, their fans even fighting duels to establish the superiority of their favourite.
Ultimately the composers fought a musical duel, both writing operas on the same subject, Iphigénie en Tauride. The result? Gluck’s quality shone through for all to hear.
Now it has a chance to do so again.
The OAE, Royal Festival Hall, 30 September, 7pm. Box office: 0844 875 0073