How Gluck revolutionised opera

Iphigénie en Tauride at the Palais Garnier

By Charlotte Ginot-Slacik 03 August 2021

© akg-images / De Agostini Picture

How Gluck revolutionised opera

Christoph Willibald von Gluck – whose Iphigénie en Tauride is currently playing at the Palais Garnier – was the architect of two major reforms: Italian opera first, then lyric tragedy. Gluck triggered numerous disputes in his lifetime before being adulated by the romantic generation. Here is a portrait of a composer who changed the face of opera, and a concise glossary intended for everyone.

It all begins in Vienna
“When I undertook to write the music to Alceste, I resolved to refuse all those excesses due to singers' vanity and unwillingness or the overabundant submissiveness of composers who have so long disfigured Italian opera and made what was the most splendid and beautiful of spectacles into the most ridiculous and wearisome. I endeavoured to restore the music to its true role, which is to serve poetry through its very expression and to follow the development of the narrative without interrupting the action or suffocating it with a proliferation of superfluous ornamentation”. In 1767, in the preface for Alceste, Gluck theorised on the reform of opera seria which he himself had initiated five years earlier with Orfeo ed Euridice. In doing so, the musician was expressing his desire to draw inspiration from French opera in order to put an end to the inane narratives, the reign of all-powerful performers, and gratuitous vocal virtuosity in scenes lacking any dramatic power. The German musician was assisted in his reform of Italian opera by some exceptional associates (Ranieri Calzabigi his librettist, Gasparo Angiolini his choreographer, Giovanni Maria Ouaglio his set designer and the castrato Gaetano Guadagni).

When it came to "opéra comique", Gluck had a remarkable awareness of the workings of the French style. His reforms began with Orfeo ed Euridice which had its world premiere at the Burgtheater in Vienna on October 5, 1762. By side-lining the omnipresent aria da capo, Gluck and Calzabigi opted instead for vocal virtuosity born out of the drama itself. Driven by the quest for a more natural form of singing and the desire to replace the artificial alternation between the recitative (close to regular speech) and the aria (devoted to virtuosity), the two writers accentuated the complexity of the forms by generalising the use of song-like recitatives accompanied by the orchestra. The second major innovation came with the simplification of the librettos. In imperial Vienna, the structure inherited from Pietro Metastasio, the official court poet from thirty years earlier, still dominated: namely, political intrigues from Ancient Rome which Metastasio used as a means to echo the intrigues of his own era. In contrast, Gluck and Calzabigi returned to the ancient Greek model, drastically reducing the number of protagonists on stage. (There are just two heroes in Alceste!).

I have endeavoured to restore music to its true role, which is to serve the poetry through its very expression and to follow the development of the storyline without interrupting the action or suffocating it with a proliferation of superfluous ornamentation. C.W. Gluck

The story continues in Paris
In 1774, Gluck travelled to Paris at the invitation of the young Marie-Antoinette whom he had tutored in Austria. “I am about to go to Paris to produce Iphigénie en Aulide on the grand stage of the Opera. The enterprise is certainly bold and the obstacles will be great as it must forcefully challenge national prejudices against which reason alone is not enough.” The resistance Gluck had to overcome in his desire to reform musical tragedy was just as powerful as in Austria: a century had passed since Lully developed the model for French opera (Cadmus et Hermione, 1673), wherein understanding the language took precedence. Regularly performed after the musician’s death, Lully’s tragedies represented the first operas of the European “repertoire”. Given their knowledge and awareness of earlier works, French audiences were particularly demanding when it came to new productions as Rameau, in his day discovered to his detriment: He was reproached for composing in an overly complex, or, in short, an overly baroque way (Hippolyte et Aricie, 1733). After offering opera seria unprecedented musical subtlety and dramatic power, Gluck needed to make French tragedy shine with a new splendour. And for that battle, the German musician found a powerful ally: the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “Iphigénie has turned all my ideas upside down. It proves that the French language is as susceptible as any other to powerful, emotive and moving music.” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, April 17, 1774).

A sworn opponent of Rameau, Rousseau advocated the natural alliance between language and music while criticising lyrical tragedy for its scenic devices, its old-fashioned language, and its staid dramatic situations.

Once again, through a process of creative thinking inspired by the Greek tragedies, Gluck would renew the conventions. In 1779, Iphigénie en Tauride revolutionised opera. It featured an overture in which the raging elements combine with the heroine’s tormented soul, and offered an expressive role for the chorus as both commentators on and participants in the action – in accordance with the Greek precepts of noble, mutually-shared emotions… Gluck’s vision of opera recalled the grandeur of Lully whilst transposing the expression of the tragedy to one and all.

Even so, the German musician encountered obstacles on his way that were beyond the realms of music: “I would find it difficult to accept once more to be the object of the criticism or the praises of the French nation, they are as fickle as a red rooster.” In 1776, Alceste reignited the Franco-Italian dispute. Which language, Italian or French, is more conducive to musical expression? Amid the aesthetic debate, there was also an underlying political confrontation between two princesses (Marie-Antoinette, a supporter of Gluck, and the Comtesse Du Barry, a defender of the Italian clan) and, above all, two images of France. Despite the success of Iphigénie en Tauride, the interest of a foreign musician for French theatre remained problematic in a nation where music and power were closely intertwined. Even as late as 1908, the nationalist Claude Debussy declared with acrimony: “Queen Marie-Antoinette, who never ceased to be Austrian—something for which we made her pay once and for all—imposed Gluck on French tastes: and, as a result, our fine traditions have become perverted and our need for clarity has been submerged. After Meyerbeer, we arrive, logically enough, at Richard Wagner.”

The day I was finally allowed to listen to Iphigénie en Tauride, I vowed as I left the Opera that I would become a musician. H. Berlioz

“It seems to me that if Gluck were to return to Earth; on hearing that, he would say of me: “That's surely my son!” (Hector Berlioz). After making Gluck his guiding divinity, Berlioz wrote in his memoirs: “The day when, after an anxious wait, I was finally allowed to listen to Iphigénie en Tauride, I vowed, as I left the Opera, that father, mother, uncles, aunts, grandparents and friends notwithstanding, I would become a musician.” Often described by the French composer as the “Shakespeare of music”, Gluck fascinated the romantic generation by his quest for a musical art free of divertissement and intended to elevate the listener. Both staunch detractors of an Italian opera dominated by the star cult of its singers, Berlioz and Wagner made Gluck the first romantic musician. Berlioz paid him two direct tributes: First, in 1863, he re-orchestrated Orphée et Eurydice for the Paris Opera, adapting the role of Orphée to the voice of the prima donna Pauline Viardot. The production, which Wagner himself attended, was a triumph. A few months later, he completed Les Troyens whose tragic grandeur and heroic solemnity also echoed Gluck’s style. Wagner, similarly obsessed by Gluck, revised Iphigénie en Aulide in 1847, and then drew inspiration from the German musician’s choruses for his own operatic reforms. Another name also emerged among the self-proclaimed heirs of Gluck: that of Franz Liszt who, in 1864, conducted Orphée et Eurydice in Weimar. As a prelude, Liszt created a new symphonic poem, Orpheus, inspired by the “moving and sublimely sincere perspective with which the great maestro viewed his subject”.

Liszt went on to say: “At the very least, let those barbarous times never return, when raging passions like those of inebriated and unbridled Maenads, reaping revenge on the disdain that art had for their coarse proclivities, would destroy it under the murderous thyrsi and their inane Furies.” Gluck was regarded as a prophet by the Berlioz/Liszt/Wagner triad. His two reforms which aimed to rid opera of its fusty traditions expressed the new status of music: by refuting the entertaining dimension of opera seria and lyrical tragedy, the German musician imposed a new way of listening to which his three successors aspired. Like a new religion, art – and music in particular – upended customs and practices and transcended the listener enabling him to attain the sublime. “Sometimes one must mock the rules and make one’s own rules in order to maximise the effect” predicted Gluck in 1775. Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner could not have said it better.

Charlotte Ginot-Slacik : After winning prizes for aesthetics and culture at the Conservatoire de Paris, Charlotte Ginot-Slacik received her doctorate for Figures from Spain in the works of Luigi Dallapiccola, Bruno Maderna and Luigi Nono. She teaches music history and instruction at the CNSMD de Lyon and has collaborated as a dramatist with the Orchestre national du Capitole in Toulouse. More particularly, her research has explored the connections between music and politics in the 20th century.

© plainpicture/christian plochacki

A concise glossary of Gluck intended for everyone

Opera seria
Noble characters, and storylines opposing State prerogatives and love-related conflict, clashed intense vocal virtuosity. In essence, that is opera seria as Gluck knew it.

Lyrical tragedy
A genre forged by Lully, the musician appointed by Louis XIV to create a French genre that was independent of Italy. In 1673, Lully drew on the dramas of Corneille and Racine to invent a form of declamation inspired by the specificities of the French language. Commissioned by the Court of Versailles, lyrical tragedy was also intended to exalt the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV by singing the praises of the king.

Aria da capo
In the 18th century, the characters in an opera interacted vocally in two ways. First, by way of the recitative, which enabled the public – who had no surtitles at their disposal! – to understand the progression of the story. And then, the singers would apply their vocal virtuosity in the aria da capo—so called for the systematic repeat of the first part (da capo or, in English, from the start). The performers would give greater embellishment to the repeat, thus proving their vocal prowess.

In baroque Italy, and Naples in particular, it was fairly common practise to castrate young boys in order to retain their high-pitched tessitura and enable them to sing in church at a time when women were still barred from doing so. It did not take long for the opera world to develop a fascination for the castratos for their vocal agility and their ability to perform both male and female roles.

The Greek model
Gluck was familiar with ancient Greek tragedy and the fundamental role that the chorus played in it. Both commentator and actor, the chorus is the true hero of the tragedy in that it aims to provoke a political and artistic reflection on the part of the audience.

5 questions about Iphigenia in Tauris

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5 questions about Iphigenia in Tauris

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