Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) was an Austrian composer and opera reformer. His operas represent an end to the older style of the opera seria and the beginning of the modern music drama.
Christoph Willibald Gluck was born of German-Bohemian stock on July 2, 1714, at Erasbach in the Upper Palatinate. His father was a forester. In 1726, according to some sources, Gluck was sent to a Jesuit college where he received formal music lessons as part of his education. At the age of 19 he enrolled in the university in Prague, where he was also actively engaged in musical activities.
After a short stay in Vienna in 1736, Gluck went to Milan, where he was in the employ of the Melzi family from 1737 to 1739. At this time he studied with the composer Giovanni Battista Sammartini. In 1741 Gluck's first opera, Artaserse, after a libretto by Pietro Metastasio, was produced.
During the next 20 years Gluck pursued the career of the typical 18th-century opera composer. He was active in Vienna, traveled extensively to serve his various patrons, and produced one or two new operas a year. In 1762, however, his dramatic ballet Don Juan was performed in Vienna; this event marked a significant change in Gluck's career. Don Juan is a ballet which narrates a story rather than presents a series of abstract geometric patterns. Most significantly, the music for Don Juan reflects the action onstage, thereby paving the way for Gluck's "reform" operas. In 1766, in Vienna, Gluck returned to the "reform" ballet, producing Semiramide, in which music and plot complement one another.
Gluck came under the influence of the Italian dramatist and man of letters Ranieri Calzabigi, active in Vienna as court poet following Metastasio's long, brilliant career. Gluck and Calzabigi collaborated on three operas. Their first collaboration was Orfeo ed Euridice, produced in Vienna in 1762. They severely modified the legendary tale and abandoned the traditional "dry" recitative; the opera is one of great simplicity and directness in which nothing extraneous hinders the presentation of the drama. Calzabigi and Gluck thus opened the way for the possibilities for reform of the old-fashioned Italian opera seria. Their second collaborative effort, Alceste, modeled on the Euripides drama, premiered in 1767 in Vienna. Three years later Paride ed Elena, their last collaboration, was produced in Vienna.
In 1770 Gluck was at the height of his fame. François du Roullet, attaché to the French embassy in Vienna, wrote a libretto for Gluck, but in the French style, based on Racine's famous drama Iphigénie en Aulide. Du Roullet's drama proved to be the means which brought Gluck to France. In 1773 he agreed to compose several French operas and moved to Paris at the instigation of his former pupil, Marie Antoinette, to supervise the productions. Iphigénie en Aulide was premiered the following year, which also saw the production of the French version of Orfeo ed Euridice. In 1775, as an act of homage to the memory of Jean Baptiste Lully and as a diplomatic gesture to French sensitivities, Gluck undertook to compose an opera based on Philippe Quinault's drama Armide, which had already been composed by Lully.
The French version of Gluck's Alceste was mounted at the Paris Opéra in 1776, and Armide was presented in 1777. His career came to a close with Iphigénie en Tauride in 1779. He retired from public life that year and returned to Vienna, where, following a stroke, he died on Nov. 15, 1787.
Gluck was a very practical man of the theater, and during the 2 decades he was involved with opera reform he continued to compose other operas and entertainments in the old-fashioned, traditional style. It was largely due to Calzabigi's and Gluck's efforts that a general reexamination of the condition of the musical theater in the mid-18th century resulted in a series of masterpieces. Gluck's major accomplishment was to prove the efficacy of a lofty, serenely neoclassic style for the music drama. The reform operas were intended to demonstrate the possibilities the music theater held for the presentation of great, sublime ideas, and Gluck's efforts must be considered a success.
Gluck was very conscious of the precise role music was to play in the theater. "I sought to restrict music to its true function, namely to serve the poetry by means of the expression—and the situations which make up the plot—without interrupting the action or diminishing its interest by useless and superfluous ornament…. I have not cherished the invention of novel devices except when they were demanded by the situation and the expression. There was, finally, no rule which I did not gladly violate for the sake of the intended effect" (Dedicatory Letter, Alceste, 1769). In his five major reform operas there are no distracting subplots or senseless comedy scenes; the dramas move irrevocably toward the denouement, and Gluck always made the music entirely suitable for the intention of the drama.
Gluck's impact was tremendous. He received the ultimate accolade in France by precipitating several literary and critical "wars." During his lifetime there were many imitators and disciples, especially in France. The perfection of Gluck's operatic vision haunted the imaginations of composers as diverse as Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner a century later. In Gluck's creations the genesis of modern opera composition is to be found.
The best biography of Gluck in English is Alfred Einstein, Gluck (trans. 1936; rev. ed. 1964). The operas are discussed in depth by Donald J. Grout, A Short History of Opera (2 vols., 1947; rev. ed., 1 vol., 1965). See also Joseph Kerman, Opera as Drama (1956).