Christoph Willibald Gluck, 2017

Christoph Willibald Gluck, 2017

July 10, 2017.  Recent anniversaries: Gluck and more.  We missed several significant anniversaries and will make up for at least some of them.  The great reformer of the opera,  Christoph Willibald Gluck was born in a small town of Erasbach in Bavaria on July 2nd of 1714.  He was four when his family moved to Bohemia (Antonio Christoph Willibald GluckSalieri, his pupil, wrote in his memoir that Czech was Gluck’s native language and that he expressed himself in German with difficulty).  Gluck studied mathematics at the university of Prague but probably never graduated.  In 1737 he went to Milan to study music with Giuseppe Sammartini.  Gluck’s first opera was Artaserse, on the libretto of the famous Metastasio, composed for the Carnival of 1742 and performed in the Teatro Regio Ducal (the theater, one of the largest in Milan, burned down in 1776 and as his replacement Nuovo Regio Ducal Teatro alla Scala was built; we now know it as La Scala).  In 1745 Gluck traveled to London.  There he composed an opera, but more importantly, became familiar with the operas of George Frideric Handel.  Handel was not terribly impressed with Gluck’s compositions: the music historian Charles Burney wrote in his “Life of Handel” that the great master said of Gluck “he knows no more of contrapunto, as mein cook, Waltz” (an interesting mixture of three languages that is).  Gluck didn’t stay in London for too long; in 1747 he was back in Vienna, writing an opera to celebrate the Empress Maria Theresa's birthday.   The opera was La Semiramide riconosciuta, again on Metastasio's libretto, and the assignment was very prestigious: Gluck got it ahead of the much more established Johann Adolph Hasse.  The opera was a popular success but Metastasio called it “archvandalian music, which is insupportable’” and Gluck left Vienna shortly after. 

For the next few years Gluck earned money as an “itinerant maestro di cappella,” moving around Europe, first with the troupe of the impresario Pietro Mingotti and later with the troupe of Giovanni Battista Locatelli.  He directed different orchestras, composed, and staged productions of his own operas.  One of them was La clemenza di Tito, written on Metastasio’s old libretto.  The opera, composed to celebrate the name day of King Charles VII of Naples, was performed in Teatro di San Carlo, Naples’s most important theater, and featured the famous soprano castrato Cafarelli.  One aria, the exceptionally difficult Se mai senti spirarti sul volto, became especially popular.  Castratos disappeared from opera stages by the end of the 19th century; fortunately, we have the incomparable Cecilia Bartoli, who brought to life so many arias from the castrato repertoire.  Here she is in Se mai senti recorded live in 2001; the ensemble Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin is conducted by Bernhard Forck.  As for La Clemenza, it proved to be a very popular libretto. Gluck’s 1752 rendition wasn’t the first one: Antonio Caldara wrote an opera in 1734, and before Gluck there were 17 more operas written on the same text, Hasse using it not once but three times, creating different version in 1735, 1738 and then in 1759.  Of the famous composers, Baldassare Galuppi and Josef Myslivecek used the libretto.  Altogether, 45 operas were written to Metastasio’s piece.  But the most famous one was, without a doubt, the one written by Mozart in 1791, his last one.

By 1751 Gluck settled in Vienna.  The most productive, but also the most disappointing period of his life was still ahead of him.  We’ll write about it another time.

Two more names we’d like to mention: another Czech-speaker, the composer Leoš Janáček was born on July 3rd of 1854.  And the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi was born on this day, July 9th of 1879.

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