Christoph Willibald von Gluck
Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-1787), Bohemian-German composer, was born in Bohemia, studied in Prague, where he worked as an organist, then moved to Vienna before spending the next decade or so travelling and working in various parts of Europe. He settled back in Vienna in 1752 where he wrote works in both the Italian and French styles. By 1752 he was well enough thought of to be given a court pension.
In 1761 with the poet, Calzabigi, he wrote the ballet-pantomime “Don Juan”. This work is the first of its kind to marry the music and the dance as an integrated dramatic whole; and prefigured his first so-called “reform-opera”, “Orfeo ed Euridice”, staged the next year. Another opera using these same dramatic techniques, “Alceste” was performed in 1767, before Gluck decided to change from the Italian style to the French. Among original works he adapted “Orfeo ed Euridice” for the French stage, which was a roaring success but brought him into direct conflict with those who preferred the Italian style, represented by one Niccolo Piccinni. Gluck remained immensely popular until a failed opera in 1779 made him decide to retire. He wrote very little more until his death in 1787.
Gluck is one of those composers whose value to his art is far greater than the sum of his compositions. In his “reform operas” he managed with simplicity and clarity to find a balance between music and drama – even to dissolve each within the other. He chose plots that had a dramatic simplicity based on understandable human emotions. Technically, he was not a great composer, but he by-passed any shortcomings with his ability to portray psychological insight in music, tender or passionate, gentle or vigorous, through which the listener can immediately sense the truth of the drama.
His more popular operas are still regularly performed and recorded. Orfeo’s great lament - in English known as “What is life to me without thee…” - is one of the most recorded of all mezzo or alto arias. As well as complete recordings, parts of Don Juan and Orpheo ed Euridice are on many compilation CDs.
- The “von” in his name comes from a Papal knighthood.
“Oxford Companion to Music”
“The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music”
- A revised version penned by Richard Wagner nearly three quarters of a century later, using Wagnerian techniques, is the version usually performed today.