Classical Music | Piano Music

Christoph Gluck

Dance of the Blessed Spirits, from Orfeo ed Euridice  Play

Spencer Myer Piano

Recorded on 08/22/2006, uploaded on 01/22/2009

Musician's or Publisher's Notes

Orfeo ed Euridice was the first of Christoph Gluck’s reform operas and his most famous contribution to the genre. In a time of ornate Italian operas, driven by the display of vocal virtuosity, with libretti weighted down with superfluous subplots, Orfeo ed Euridice was not only a stark contrast to all of this, but inevitably shaped the direction of opera for generations of composers to come. Inspired by Francesco Algarotti’s Essay on Opera, written in 1755, Gluck set out to create a work in which drama, not the singers, was first and foremost, and the plot was simple and straightforward. Seemingly self-evident ideas necessary for good storytelling, the application of them in Orfeo ed Euridice nearly singlehandedly made overly ornate Italian operas a thing of the past and, furthermore, laid the foundation for operas by Mozart, Weber, and most importantly Wagner.

Orfeo ed Euridice premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna on October 5, 1762 for the name-day celebrations of Emperor Francis I with the famed castrato Gaetano Guadagni as Orfeo. Twelve years later, the opera was staged in Paris. For its presentation in the French capital, Gluck revised the opera by replacing the original Italian libretto with one in French, rewriting the castrato role of Orfeo for high tenor, and the insertion of additional ballet numbers to appease the tastes of Parisian audiences.

Nearly a century after the opera’s original composition, Hector Berlioz created a third version of the opera in 1859, combining Gluck’s Italian and French versions. Berlioz worked mainly from the 1774 French version, reverting only to the original Italian version when it he deemed it superior. He also rewrote the role of Orfeo, at the suggestion of Giacomo Meyerbeer, for the French contralto Pauline Viardot. During the 19th century, it became equally common for the part to be sung by a contralto as by a tenor. Though others have combined Gluck’s Italian and French versions, Berlioz’s has become the most popular and respected.

One of the most popular numbers from Orfeo ed Euridice is “Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” an orchestral number at the beginning of Scene II in Act II. Orfeo has found his way past the Furies that guard the gate to Hades by pacifying them with his lyre and singing. He is now in Elysium searching for his departed wife Euridice. Featuring a solo flute, accompanied by strings, Dance of the Blessed Spirits is a piece of a simple ternary design. The outer sections, in F major, depict a calm pastoral mood and the beautiful landscape of the Elysian Fields, where the souls of the heroic and those chosen by the gods rest in happiness in the afterlife. The central episode shifts into the relative minor with a more passionate melody, yearning and lonely, suggesting Orfeo’s desperate search to find his beloved and restore her to his world. The piece has gained popularity separate from the opera itself, appearing in a number of transcriptions for solo instruments.     Joseph DuBose

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 "Dance of the Blessed Spirits", from Orfeo             Gluck (arr. Sgambati)

Christoph Willibald Gluck revolutionized opera by writing works in which the music faithfully interpreted the drama and enhanced the words of the libretti.  One of his most beloved operas, Orfeo, contains a ballet serving as an intermezzo between scenes that is scored for strings and solo flute.  This short ballet became known as the "Dance of the Blessed Spirits", and was transcribed for piano solo by Giovanni Sgambati, a noted pupil of Franz Liszt.  I first heard this mesmerizing transcription played on a recording from 1925 by the great pianist/composer Sergei Rachmaninoff; it was apparently a favorite of his.    Spencer Myer