Christoph Willibald Gluck Biography

(Composer of Italian and French Opera in the Early Classical Period)

Birthday: July 2, 1714 (Cancer)

Born In: Erasbach, Germany

Christoph Willibald (Ritter von) Gluck was a composer of French and Italian opera from the early classical period best-known for inducing practical reform of dramaturgical practices of opera at the Habsburg court in Vienna. With his radical new works, particularly Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste, Gluck thrived in breaking the dominance that Metastasian opera seria enjoyed for decades. He used orchestral recitative and shortened the usually long da capo aria in his operas thereby introducing more drama in his works that represented an end of the older style of the opera seria and start of modern music drama. The operas he wrote later were half the size of the standard baroque operas. Gluck was strongly influenced by the French opera and moved to Paris where he combined the traditions of Italian and French operas and spawned eight operas for the Parisian stage. Among these Iphigénie en Tauride, which is generally considered his finest work with which he took his operatic reform to its logical conclusion, became a huge success. He gained prominence for bringing about a revolution in French opera, however after his opera Echo et Narcisse received poor reception, Gluck left Paris and returned to Vienna where he lived for the rest of his life. He was held in deep respect and honour by celebrated composers - Mozart, Wagner and Berlioz.

Quick Facts

French Celebrities Born In July, Italian Celebrities Born In July

Died At Age: 73


Spouse/Ex-: Marianne Pergin

father: Alexander Johannes

mother: Maria Walburga

children: Marianne

Born Country: Germany

Composers French Men

Died on: November 15, 1787

place of death: Vienna, Austria

Cause of Death: Heart Arrhythmia

Childhood & Early Life

An official document that Gluck signed and submitted in 1785 in Vienna mentioned his birth date as July 2, 1714. He was born to Maria Walburga and Alexander Gluck. His paternal ancestors were mostly foresters. His father served as a soldier under Philipp Hyazinth von Lobkowitz during the War of Spanish Succession, and as gunbearer to the Eugene of Savoy. Alexander later served as a forester and hunter in 1711 and settled outside Berching. Many believe that Gluck was born in the house constructed by Alexander in Erasbach in 1713. On July 4, 1714, Gluck was baptized Christophorus Willibaldus in Weidenwang.

Gluck and his family moved to Reichstadt after his father sold the Erasbach house in August 1717 and started serving the Duchess of Tuscany as head forester in Reichstadt. The family again relocated to a house near Böhmisch Kamnitz after Alexander became forest-master there on April 1, 1722, under Count Philipp Joseph von Kinsky. The family then shifted to Eisenberg in 1727 where Alexander took his final post as head forester to Prince Philipp Hyazinth von Lobkowitz. It remains obscure as to whether Gluck was sent to the Jesuit college in Komotau.

Details of early life and education of Gluck are sparse, however it was most likely that he developed interest in music early and wanted to pursue the art. According to one belief, Alexander wanted Gluck to succeed him as a forester, however Gluck was determined to take up music. He thus left home in 1727 or 1728 to avoid disagreement with his father and earned food and shelter by singing as he travelled to Prague. He sang and played cello, violin and the organ at the Týn Church. In 1940, Hans Joachim Moser claimed that the documents he found about the composer suggest that he completed his matriculation in logic and mathematics from the University of Prague in 1731. German-Austrian musicologist Gerhard Croll, whose scientific work was focussed on the life and work of Gluck, however found this information as extremely surprising while other biographers could not find any document that backed such claim of Moser. Nevertheless Gluck left Prague without obtaining a degree.

It is believed by some that Gluck went to Vienna in 1734 and worked under Georg Christian Lobkowitz from 1735 to 1736. Gluck possibly got introduced to Prince Antonio Maria Melzi through the Lobkowitz family and became a musician in Melzi’s orchestra in Milan.

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Gluck went to Milan in 1737 and remained under the tutelage of Giovanni Battista Sammartini till 1741. Gluck soon became associated with the Teatro Regio Ducale where his first opera Artaserse was staged in December 1741. The following year, the opera opened the Milanese Carnival. Gluck thereafter composed four operas, one each for the next four Carnivals at Milan.

With time Gluck earned repute as an operatic composer and accepted invitation from Lord Middlesex and became house composer at the King's Theatre in London in 1745. However when Gluck arrived in England, theatres in London were closed due to Jacobite Rebellion and his operas, La caduta de' giganti and Artamene were staged only in 1746. Gluck got introduced to the music of George Frideric Handel which left a deep impact on him and influenced his style. The two jointly gave a concert in the Haymarket Theatre and although Handel criticised Gluck saying that he “knows no more counterpoint than my cook”, Gluck described Handel as the “divine master of our art.”

Gluck’s career bolstered when he received a commission to produce an opera for Pillnitz. He composed Le nozze d'Ercole e d'Ebe, which was performed by the troupe of Pietro Mingotti on June 29, 1747, to celebrate a royal double wedding of the Saxon crown prince and the Bavarian elector to each other's sisters. Gluck caught attention of the Viennese court following this work and was chosen to set the court poet Pietro Metastasio’s work La Semiramide riconosciuta for celebrating birthday of ruler of the Habsburg dominions, Maria Theresa. The opera was premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna on May 14, 1748. Despite displeasure of Metastasio, the opera became a huge success and was performed 27 times. Gluck eventually left Vienna and travelled with Mingotti's troupe for rest of the year and the year that followed.

Gluck left Mingotti’s troupe in 1750 and joined the group of Giovanni Battista Locatelli. Several works of Gluck were presented by Locatelli in Prague including the baroque opera Ezio set on Metastasio's libretto. It was premiered during the Prague Carnival in 1750. Gluck also composed La clemenza di Tito set on Metastasio’s libretto for the name day celebrations of King Charles VII of Naples. The opera was premiered on November 4, 1752, with celebrated Italian castrato and opera singer Caffarelli starring as Sextus.

Gluck accepted invitation of Prince Joseph of Saxe-Hildburghausen and became Kapellmeister and settled in Vienna. He composed Le cinesi in 1754 for a royal festival and La danza in 1755 to celebrate eighth birthday of the future Emperor Leopold II.

Gluck went to Rome after Christmas in 1755 and composed the opera seria Antigono, the only opera that the virtuoso ever premiered in Rome. Its premiere, on February 9, 1756 at the Teatro Argentina, was sold out following which Pope Benedict XIV made Gluck a Knight of the Golden Spur. Since then the composer used the title Ritter von Gluck or Chevalier de Gluck.

Gluck stopped working on Italian opera seria and started to compose opéra comiques. His longest, finest and most popular work in this genre was La rencontre imprévue (1763). Meanwhile his reformist ballet, Don Juan, which stood out for its coherent narrative element, with a libretto by Ranieri de' Calzabigi, and choreography by Gasparo Angiolini premiered in Vienna on October 17, 1761.

Marie Antoinette, who went on to become the last Queen of France before the French Revolution, was a student of Gluck and evolved as a good musician. She later became his patron in Spring 1774 and introduced him to the Paris public.

Gluck's radical reform of opera seria started with Orfeo ed Euridice, set to a libretto by Calzabigi. Essay on the Opera (1755) by Count Francesco Algarotti, proved to be a major influence in development of Gluck's reformist ideology. Both Gluck and Calzabigi were influenced by the ideas of Algarotti resulting in their work Orfeo ed Euridice. Gluck wanted to make the drama of the opera more important instead of the star singers who performed it, and made efforts to achieve a noble, Neo-Classical or beautiful simplicity through the opera replacing complex plots and music. The opera that premiered on October 5, 1762, in Vienna became the most popular work of Gluck as also one of the most influential ones on several German operas that followed.

Orfeo was followed by Alceste (1767) and Paride ed Elena (1770). While publishing the score of Alceste, Gluck included a famous preface, probably written by Calzabigi, where the two set out their principles for operatic reform. The programmatic points of their ideals follow the ones given by Algarotti in Essay on opera in music. Some of these includes simpler, more flowing melodic lines; no da capo arias, no long melismas and no opportunity for vocal improvisation.

Gluck’s first work for the Paris stage, Iphigénie en Aulide was premiered by the Paris Opéra on April 19, 1774. It raised a storm of controversy with Gluck’s opponents bringing Italian composer Niccolò Piccinni to Paris to show superiority of Neapolitan opera. The Parisian public, divided into Gluckists and Piccinnists, got engaged in a disgraceful war which continued even after Gluck left Paris in 1780.

Meanwhile Gluck was inducted as composer to the imperial court in Vienna on October 18, 1774. His fifth opera for the French stage Iphigénie en Tauride that premiered on May 18, 1779 became a huge success. Some believe that head of the Paris Opéra, Devismes, incited rivalry between the two composers by asking both to set an opera on the subject of Iphigenia in Tauris. Piccinni's version of the opera premiered in January 1781 was however not as successful as that of Gluck. The last original opera written by Gluck was Écho et Narcisse (1779).

Personal Life & Legacy

On September 15, 1750, Gluck married Maria Anna Bergin, daughter of a late wealthy Viennese merchant. Gluck suffered from high blood pressure and melancholy. On 15 November 1787, while having lunch with friends, Gluck suffered a heart arrhythmia and succumbed to it a few hours later. He was interred in the Matzleinsdorfer Friedhof in Vienna. His remains were later transferred to the Vienna Central Cemetery on September 29, 1890.

Although a fire in 1809 destroyed half of his works, his extant pieces include around thirty-five complete full-length operas, approximately twelve shorter operas and operatic introductions, and several ballets and instrumental works. Reflections and influence of the plot of Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice is apparent in Beethoven’s Fidelio, Mozart's The Magic Flute, and Wagner's Das Rheingold. Influence of Gluck’s reforms on Mozart is also palpable from other works of the latter, particularly his opera Idomeneo

Noted Italian composer Antonio Salieri, a protégé of Gluck since he arrived in Vienna in 1767, was Gluck’s musical heir in Paris. His students including Salieri, Spontini, Méhul, Cherubini and Sacchini continued his legacy and thrived in dominating the French stage during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period. The French grand opera Les Troyens of Hector Berlioz (considered the greatest French admirer of Gluck) is often regarded as the culmination of the Gluckian tradition. Although Gluck never wrote any opera in German, his works influenced German operas, most notably works of imminent composers like Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner.

Croll remained director of the Gluck Complete Edition for three decades since 1960. He founded the International Gluck Society in 1986, co-founded Gluck Festival in the virtuoso’s home region, served as director of the Salzburg Gluck Research Centre, and remained instrumental in maintaining the rich oeuvre of the composer.

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