Christoph Gluck, the first of six surviving children, was
born in Erasbach (now a part of Bavaria) on July 2nd, 1714. Three
years later his family moved to Bohemia where his father was in the service of
Prince Phillip Hyazinith von Lobkovitz. Gluck's father intended to bring up his
son in his own profession, forestry, but in Bohemia Gluck became entranced by
the power of music. Gluck later wrote that he made astounding progress and
learned to play several instruments. According to some accounts of Gluck's
childhood, he left home as a child for Vienna paying for his way by singing as
he traveled. It is, however, generally believed now that his exodus from
Bohemia occurred later and his destination was not Vienna but Prague. Early
biographies state that Gluck studied logic and mathematics while at the
University of Prague and, no doubt, took advantage of Prague's flourishing
musical scene. However, Gluck left Prague without taking a degree.
The next record in Gluck's life shows him arriving in Milan
in 1737 where he studied composition under G. B. Sammartini. He also staged his
first opera, Artaserse, which opened the Milanese Carnival of 1742. Set
to a libretto by Metastasio, conflicting anecdotes about the performance make
it unclear as to its public impression. Its reception, however, could not have
been too unfavorable as Gluck composed operas to open the Carnival for the next
Accepting an invitation to become the house composer at
London's King Theater in 1745, Gluck's visit to England was met simply with bad
luck. The Jacobite Rebellion had caused a good deal of panic in the British
capital and the King's Theater remained closed for most of the year. The two
operas Gluck composed for performance in London had to wait until the following
year, 1746, to be staged. Nevertheless, Gluck's time in London was not
completely wasted. There he was exposed to music of Handel, which he later
admitted as being a strong influence on his style. Handel, on the other hand,
did not have so high a regard for Gluck's music.
During 1747-48, Gluck received two remarkable commissions.
The first was for an opera to be produced in Dresden to celebrate a royal
double wedding between the ruling familes of Bavaria and Saxony. The success of
this work led to the second commission: an opera to celebrate Maria Theresa's
birthday in Vienna. Though Gluck's opera for the Empress's birthday enjoyed
great success, Gluck left Vienna after the court poet and librettist of the
opera, Metastasio, expressed displeasure at Gluck's work. For the next couple
of years, he spent his time with a traveling opera company.
In 1750, Gluck returned to Prague. Later that year in
September, he married Maria Anna Bergin, the daughter of a wealthy, but
deceased, Viennese merchant. A few years later, he settled in Vienna with the
position of Kapellmeister. Though up until this time Gluck's operas were set to
Metastasio libretti—the standard of Italian opera—he had long contemplated the
nature of opera. Gluck felt that the major forms of Italian opera (opera buffa
and opera seria) had become caricatures of their true ideals. Instead of the
focus being upon the singers and their superfluous ornamentations of melodies
or the standardized troupe of characters, Gluck wanted the intent of opera to
be upon human passions with a closer connection between words and music.
Finding other likeminded men in Vienna, Gluck embodied his operatic reforms in Orfeo
ed Euridice, which premiered on October 5th, 1762. Since its
first performance, Orfeo has remained a staple of the opera repertoire.
Two other operas, Alceste and Paride ed Elena, followed over the
next several years that furthered Gluck's ideas even more. His innovations in
opera influenced his contemporary Mozart, particularly in Idomeneo, as
well as establishing the groundwork for Weber and Wagner.
Having successfully demonstrated his ideas in Vienna, Gluck
signed a contract with the Paris Opéra for six stage works. The first of these,
Iphigénie en Aulide, set off a controversy that engulfed the entire
French capital and oddly foretells that great debate between Wagner and Brahms
that occurred a century later. Gluck's opponents brought Niccolò Piccinni, the
leading composer of Italian opera at the time, to Paris and the city became
divided between the supporters of Gluck and those of Piccinni, though neither
composer took part.
Eventually returning to Vienna, Gluck left Paris in the
hands of his protégé, Antonio Salieri. Gluck wrote little after his return to
the Austrian capital. In 1787, he suffered a stroke and died a few days later
on November 15th, 1787.
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