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Christoph Willibald Gluck 1714-1787

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Arnold1740-1802 Gluck1714-1787
Beethoven 1770-1827  
Boccherini1743-1805 Haydn1732-1809
Clementi1752-1832 Hummel1778-1837
Czerny1794-1857 Mozart1756-1791
Diabelli1781-1858 Rossini1792-1868
Dussek1760-1812 Schubert1797-1828
Field1782-1837 Weber1786-1826


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Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck was an opera composer of the early Classical period. After spending many years at the Habsburg court at Vienna, he brought about the practical reform of opera. He aimed to make the music serve the drama through its expression of the situations of the story, without the sharp interruptions between recitative and aria.


Gluck was born in Erasbach (now a district of Berching, Bavaria)  At about 14 he left home to study in Prague, where he worked as an organist. He soon moved to Vienna and in 1737 Gluck arrived in Milan, where he studied under G.B. Sammartini, who, according to Carpani, taught Gluck "practical knowledge of all the instruments". Apparently this relationship lasted for several years. Sammartini was not, primarily, a composer of opera, his main output being of sacred music and symphonies, but Milan boasted a vibrant opera scene, and Gluck soon formed an association with one of the city's up-and-coming opera houses, the Teatro Regio Ducal, where his first opera, Artaserse, was performed on 26 December 1741. Set to a libretto by Metastasio, the opera opened the Milanese Carnival of 1742.

Gluck composed an opera for each of the next four Carnivals at Milan, with renowned castrato Giovanni Carestini appearing in many of the performances, so the reaction toArtaserse is unlikely to have been completely unfavourable. He also wrote operas for other cities of Northern Italy in between Carnival seasons, including Turin and Venice, where hisIpermestra was given during November 1744 at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo. Nearly all of his operas in this period were, like Artaserse, set to Metastasio's texts, despite the poet's dislike for his style of composition.

In 1745 Gluck accepted an invitation to become house composer at London's King's Theatre, probably travelling to England via Frankfurt. The timing was poor, as the Jacobite Rebellion had caused much panic in London, and for most of the year the King's Theatre was shut. Gluck's two London operas, (La caduta de'giganti and Artamene) eventually performed in 1746, contained much borrowing from his earlier works, a method that was to re-occur throughout his career. Six trio sonatas were the other immediate fruits of his time in London. A more long-term benefit was exposure to the music of Handel, whom he later accounted a great influence on his style, and the naturalistic acting style of David Garrick.

The years 1747 and 1748 brought Gluck two highly prestigious engagements. First came a commission to produce an opera for Dresden, performed by Pietro Mingotti's troupe, to celebrate a royal double wedding that would unite the ruling families of Bavaria and Saxony. Le nozze d'Ercole e d'Ebe, a festa teatrale, borrowed heavily from earlier works, and even from Gluck's teacher Sammartini. The success of this work brought Gluck to the attention of the Viennese court, and, ahead of such a figure as Johann Adolph Hasse, he was selected to set Metastasio's Semiramide riconosciuta to celebrate Maria Theresa's birthday. Vittoria Tesi took the title role. On this occasion Gluck's music was completely original, but the displeasure of Metastasio, the court poet, who called the opera "archvandalian music", probably explains why Gluck did not remain long in Vienna despite the work's enormous popular success (it was performed 27 times to great acclaim). For the remainder of 1748 and 1749 Gluck travelled with Mingotti's troupe, contracting a venereal disease from the prima donna and composing the opera La contesa de' numi for the court at Copenhagen.

In 1750 he abandoned Mingotti's group for another company established by a former member of the Mingotti troupe, Giovanni Battista Locatelli. The main effect of this was that Gluck returned to Prague on a more consistent basis. For the Prague Carnival of 1750 Gluck composed a new opera, Ezio (again set to one of Metastasio's works), and his Ipermestra was also performed in the same year. The other major event of Gluck's stay in Prague, on 15 September 1750, was his marriage to Maria Anna Bergin, aged 18 years old, the daughter of a long-dead rich Viennese merchant. The marriage brought Gluck financial security, and he seems to have spent most of 1751 commuting between Prague and Vienna.

The year 1752 brought another major commission to Gluck, when he asked to set Metastasio's La clemenza di Tito (the specific libretto was the composer's choice) for the nameday celebrations of King Charles III of Spain, held at Naples. The opera was performed on 4 November at the Teatro di San Carlo, and the world-famous mezzo-soprano castrato Caffarelli(Gaetano Majorano) took the role of Sextus. For Caffarelli Gluck composed the famous, but notoriously dissident, aria "Se mai senti spirarti sul volto", that provoked widespread admiration and equally widespread vituperation in equal measure. Gluck later reworked this aria for his Iphigénie en Tauride

Gluck finally settled in Vienna where he became Kapellmeister. He wrote Le Cinesi for a festival in 1754 and La Danza for the birthday of the future Emperor Leopold II the following year. After his opera Antigono was performed in Rome in February, 1756, Gluck was made a Knight of the Golden Spur by Pope Benedict XIV. From that time on, Gluck used the title "Ritter von Gluck" or "Chevalier de Gluck".

Gluck turned his back on Italian opera seria and began to write opéra comiques. In 1761, Gluck produced the groundbreaking ballet Don Juan in collaboration with the choreographerGasparo Angiolini. The climax of Gluck's opéra comique writing was La rencontre imprévue of 1764. By that time, Gluck was already engaged in his operatic reforms.

Gluck had long pondered the fundamental problem of form and content in opera. He thought both of the main Italian operatic genres — opra buffa and opera seria — had strayed too far from what opera should really be. They seemed unnatural, the singing in opera seria was devoted to superficial effects, the content was uninteresting and fossilised. Opera buffa had long lost its original freshness, its jokes were threadbare, the repetition of the same characters made them seem no more than stereotypes. In opera seria too, the singers were effectively absolute masters of the stage and the music, decorating the vocal lines so floridly that audiences could no longer recognise the original melody. Gluck wanted to return opera to its origins, focusing on human drama and passions, and making words and music of equal importance.

In Vienna, Gluck met likeminded figures in the operatic world: Count Giacomo Durazzo, the head of the court theatre, who was a passionate admirer of French stage music; the librettistRanieri de' Calzabigi, who wanted to attack the dominance of Metastasian opera seria; the innovative choreographer Gasparo Angiolini; and the London-trained castrato Gaetano Guadagni.

With a series of radical new works in the 1760s, among them Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste he used new techniques such as abandoning simple recitative in favour of orchestral recitative, arioso and aria running into one another, and broad musical dramatic periods incorporating different types of solo singing,chorus singing and dance. The simple and direct plots appealed to audiences and his music had energy and contrasting serenity. He acheived a new relationship between music and drama.

In 1773 Gluck moved to Paris and wrote 8 operas for the Parisian stages. Among them is Iphigenie en Tuaride which was very successful and generally thought to be his greatest work. However after having suffered a stroke and after the poor reception of his opera Echo et Narcisse he left Paris, returning to Vienna, where he subsequently died after a second stroke in 1787.

Gluck's musical legacy was around 35 complete operas, together with numerous ballets and instrumental works. His reforms influenced Mozart, particularly his opera Idomeneo (1781). Gluck left behind a flourishing school of disciples in Paris, who would dominate the French stage throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period. As well as Salieri, they includedSacchini, Cherubini, Méhul and Spontini.

Gluck's greatest French admirer would be Hector Berlioz, whose epic Les Troyens may be seen as the culmination of the Gluckian tradition. Though Gluck wrote no operas in German, his example influenced the German school of opera, particularly Weber and Wagner, whose concept of music drama was not so far removed from Gluck's own.



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