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Summary Article: Gluck, Christoph Willibald von
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Bohemian-German composer. His series of ‘reform’ operas moved music away from the usual practices of the day, in which the interests of singers were the most important considerations. He felt that music should serve poetry by means of expression and follow the situations of the story without interrupting the action. He therefore replaced the endless recitatives with orchestral accompaniments, which helped improve the dramatic flow. In 1762 his Orfeo ed Euridice/Orpheus and Eurydice revolutionized the 18th-century idea of opera by paying more attention to the dramatic aspects of opera and less attention to the formal musical aspects. It was followed by Alceste/Alcestis (1767) and Paride ed Elena/Paris and Helen (1770).

In 1774 his Iphigénie en Aulide/Iphigenia in Aulis, produced in Paris, France, brought to a head the fierce debate over the future of opera in which Gluck's French style had the support of Marie Antoinette, while his Italian rival Niccolò Piccini had the support of Madame du Barry. With Armide (1777) and Iphigénie en Tauride/Iphigenia in Tauris (1779), Gluck won a complete victory over Piccini.

Born in Erasbach, Bavaria, the son of a forester, he left home in the face of his parents' opposition to music and entered Prague University in 1731. About 1735 in Vienna, Austria, he entered the service of Prince Melzi, with whom he went to Italy. He may have studied under Giovanni-Battista Sammartini in Milan, where he made his debut as an opera composer in 1741 with Artaserse (libretto by Pietro Metastasio). A number of operas followed, all in the conventional Italian form. He went to England, perhaps with Prince Lobkowitz, in 1745, possibly visiting Paris on the way. In London, he met George Frideric Handel, produced two operas, and appeared as a performer on the glass harmonica. In about 1747 he joined the Mingotti touring opera company, later becoming their Kapellmeister (director), and travelled widely.

Gluck married in 1750 and settled in Vienna two years later. He was connected with the court as Kapellmeister to Maria Theresa from 1754, though without official title (only in 1774 was he appointed court composer). Under the management of Count Durazzo the Viennese theatre moved away from conventional opera seria (treating classical subjects in a formal style), and Gluck wrote a number of French opéras-comiques (including spoken dialogue). The dramatic ballet Don Juan, using the choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre's ideas on modern dance, was produced in 1761.

In Orfeo ed Euridice/Orpheus and Eurydice, Gluck and his librettist Raniero de Calzabigi placed more importance on the drama of the opera rather than the musical side. The aims of this ‘reform’ were set out in the prefaces to Alceste/Alcestis and Paride ed Elena/Paris and Helen. In many ways, such as making the chorus and ballet more important, these works adopted features of French opera, and Gluck now turned to Paris, where Iphigénie en Aulide/Iphegenia in Aulis was produced in 1774, followed by French versions of Orfeo and Alceste in 1774 and 1776, and Armide in 1777. Gluck was reluctantly involved in a squabble between his supporters and the partisans of Piccinni, but this was settled by the triumph of his Iphigénie en Tauride (1779). His last opera for Paris, Echo et Narcisse/Echo and Narcissus (1779), was unsuccessful, and he returned to Vienna, where he remained until his death.

Gluck's idea of a drama in which music and stage action work together had a huge influence on later composers. Richard Wagner's idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk (‘total art-work’) is an obvious successor. Although Orfeo ed Euridice has remained popular, the rest of Gluck's output is still relatively neglected.

WorksOpera seriaArtaserse (1741), Demetrio, Demofoonte (1743), Il Tigrane, La Sofonisba (1744), Ipermestra, La caduta de' giganti (1746), Artamene (1746), Le nozze d'Ercole e d'Ebe, La Semiramide riconosciuta (1748), La contesa dei numi (1749), Ezio (1750), La clemenza di Tito (1752), Le cinesi, Antigono, Il rè pastore (1756), Telemaco (1765).

French opera-comiqueL'Îsle de Merlin (1758), La Cythère assiégée (1759), L'Arbre enchanté (1759), L'Ivrogne corrigé, Le Cadi dupé (1761), La Rencontre imprévue (1764).

‘reform’ operaOrfeo ed Euridice (1762), Alceste (1767), Paride ed Elena (1770).

French opera for parisIphigénie en Aulide (1774), Orphée et Euridice (1774) and Alceste (1776; both French versions of the earlier Italian operas), Armide (1777), Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), Echo et Narcisse (1779).

BalletDon Juan (1761), Semiramide (1765), and others.

Other a number of symphonies, eight trio sonatas, a setting of De profundis for chorus and orchestra (1787), and seven settings of Friedrich Klopstock's Odes.


Gluck, Christoph Willibald von


Gluck, Christophe

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