Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck
(2 July 1714, Erasbach - 15 November 1787, Viena)
C.W. Gluck was a German composer of Italian and French opera who lived in the Classical period. In the middle of the 18th century, helped by his talent and his understanding of the new trends in music, he contributed substantially to the improvement of the traditional Seria opera.
Being the first of six surviving children, he was born in a family with no musical tradition. He probably received his first musical education at the age of 8 at the Jesuit gymnasium in Komotau (today Chomutov). According to J. C. von Mannlich, who shared rooms with Gluck in Paris, it was as a Bohemian schoolboy that Gluck received his first musical training, both as a singer in the church choir and by learning. In order to become self sufficient and to escape from a life of forestry, the young Gluck left home (probably about 1727) and, supporting himself with his music, made his way to Prague, where he played in several churches, began university work (1731), and continued his musical studies.
Hired by Prince Antonio Maria Melzi, Gluck arrived in Milan sometime in 1737. Here he gained practical knowledge of all the instruments under the careful guidance of his new teacher, Giovanni Battista Sammartini. At that time Milan was a thriving center of opera and symphonic music, the perfect environment for Gluck to practice his composing skills. His first opera, Artaserse, was premiered in the Teatro Ducal in Milan on December 26, 1741, which represented his first great dramatic success. In each of the next 4 years he wrote opera for Milan: Demofoonte (1742), Arsace (1743), Sofonisba (1744), and Ippolito (1745). He also wrote opera for Venice: Cleonice (1742); for Crema: Il Tigrane (1743) and for Turin: Poro (1744).
In these early works, of which mostly only fragments have survived, Gluck largely followed the existing Italian operatic fashion—melodic but never grand, charming without intensity. Occasional intensely passionate outbursts and the beginning of characterization, however, foreshadowed the great dramatic composer he was to become.
In 1745, having been invited to become house composer at the King's Theatre, Gluck left Italy for London. Gluck’s London sojourn was short, as he was in Dresden by June 1747, composing operas for and possibly singing with a traveling opera troupe run by Pietro Mingotti. The success of his works brought Gluck to the attention of the VIennese court, and, ahead of such a figure as Johann Adolph Hasse, he was selected to set Metastasio's La Semiramide riconosciuta to celebrate Maria Theresa's birthday. This completely original work brought Gluck a great deal of success as it was performed 27 times to great acclaim.
After he left England (possibly in 1746) Gluck came into contact with two travelling opera companies, one of which, on June 29, 1747, performed his opera-serenade Le nozze d’Ercole e d’Ebe at Pillnitz Castle, near Dresden, on the occasion of the double wedding between the electoral families of Bavaria and Saxony.
Shortly after Gluck was able to win a position in Vienna, in the employ of Prince Joseph Friedrich von Sachsen-Hildburghausen, he was offered a position at the Viennese court, a more prestigious position than the former. In 1755 he was hired by Count Giacomo Durazzo to compose music for concerts at the Burgtheater, his duties later were expanded to include adapting and writing additional music for French comic operas.
Gluck turned his back on Italian opera seria and directed his attention to comic opera. In 1761 he produced the groundbreaking ballet Don Juan in collaboration with the choreographer Gasparo Angiolini. 1762 was the year that Gluck created his new opera that embodied his new ideeas - the Viennese version of Orfeo ed Euridice - in collaboration with the poet Rainere Calzabigi. This work past almost unnoticed in the beginning. Inspired by more courage and experience, Gluck creates in 1774 a second version, amplified - Orphée et Euridice, in french - premiered in that same year in Paris. His success was proportionate to the value of the score. Much of the elements from the seria opera are replaced with accessible melodies, that catch your ear, but at the same time with depth, accordingly to the public's taste. The french version is considered the true expression of Gluck's reform in the opera area.
Other works followed: Alceste (1767), Iphigénie en Aulide (1776), Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), etc. Gluck had little interest in composing during his last years. He turned down chances to write several operas, instead passing promising librettos on to his student, Antonio Salieri. Nevertheless, the great composer was still at the center of Viennese operatic life.
Gluck’s music style was criticized by a lot by people who still preferred traditional Italian compositions. Due to influences from various teachers and important musicians, his operas symbolized the beginning of modern, musical dramas that marked the end for ‘opera seria’ styles. Most of Gluck’s compositions were influenced by Italian sacred music. Apart from his major compositions, Gluck composed a few arias, solo motets, and chorals. He also composed 9 symphonies, 6 trio sonatas and 2 trio sonatas.
Regarding the development of the opera, Christoph Willibald Gluck can be considered, therefore, the ”bridge” between the Baroque and Classicism eras, and also a predecessor of the romantic spirit.
Here you can find a list of Christoph Willibald Gluck's works.