The Reforms of Gluck

This is taken from R. A. Streatfeild's The Opera, originally published in 1907.

The death of Lulli left French opera established upon a sure foundation. The form which he perfected seemed, with all its faults, to commend itself to the genius of the nation, and for many years a succession of his followers and imitators, such as Campra and Destouches, continued to produce works which differed little in scope and execution from the model he had established. The French drama of the seventeenth century had reached such a high point of development that its influence over the sister art was all-powerful. The composers of the French court willingly sacrificed musical to declamatory interest, and thus, while they steered clear of the mere tunefulness which was the rock on which Italian composers made shipwreck, they fell into the opposite extreme and wrote works which seem to us arid and jejune. Paris at this time was curiously isolated from the world of music, and it is strange to find how little the development of Italian opera affected the French school. Marais (1650-1718) was more alive to Southern influences than most of his contemporaries, and in his treatment of the aria there is a perceptible approach to Italian methods; but Rameau (1683-1764) brought back French opera once more to its distinctive national style. Though he followed the general lines of Lulli's school, he brought to bear upon it a richer sense of beauty and a completer musical organisation than Lulli ever possessed. In his treatment of declamation pure and simple, he was perhaps Lulli's inferior, but in all other respects he showed a decided advance upon his predecessor. He infused new life into the monotonous harmony and well-worn modulations which had done duty for so many years. His rhythms were novel and suggestive, and the originality and resource of his orchestration opened the eyes of Frenchmen to new worlds of beauty and expression. Not the least important part of Rameau's work lay in the influence which his music exerted upon the genius of the man to whom the regeneration of opera is mainly due. Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) was the son of a forester. Such musical education as he received he acquired in Italy, and his earlier works are written in the Italian style which was fashionable at the time. There are few indications in his youthful operas of the power which was destined later to work such changes in the world of opera. He was at first whole-hearted in his devotion to the school of Porpora, Hasse and the others who did so much to degrade Italian opera. 'Artaserse,' his first work, was produced in 1741, the year in which Handel bade farewell for ever to the stage. It was successful, and was promptly followed by others no less fortunate. In 1745 Gluck visited England where he produced 'La Caduta de' Giganti,' a work which excited the contempt of Handel. In the following year he produced 'Piramo e Tisbe,' a pasticcio, which failed completely. Its production, however, was by no means labour lost, if it be true, as the story goes, that it was by its means that Gluck's eyes were opened to the degradation to which opera had been reduced. It was about this time that Gluck first heard Rameau's music, and the power and simplicity of it compared with the empty sensuousness of Italian opera, must have materially strengthened him in the desire to do something to reform and purify his art. Yet, in spite of good resolutions, Gluck's progress was slow. In 1755 he settled at Vienna, and there, under the shadow of the court, he produced a series of works in which the attempt to realise dramatic truth is often distinctly perceptible, though the composer had as yet not mastered the means for its attainment. But in 1762 came 'Orfeo ed Euridice,' a work which placed Gluck at the head of all living operatic composers, and laid the foundation of the modern school of opera.

The libretto of 'Orfeo' was by Calzabigi, a prominent man of letters, but it seems probable that Gluck's own share in it was not a small one. The careful study which he had given to the proper conditions of opera was not likely to exclude so important a question as that of the construction and diction of the libretto, and the poem of 'Orfeo' shows so marked an inclination to break away from the conventionality and sham sentiment of the time that we can confidently attribute much of its originality to the influence of the composer himself. The opening scene shows the tomb of Eurydice erected in a grassy valley. Orpheus stands beside it plunged in the deepest grief, while a troop of shepherds and maidens bring flowers to adorn it. His despairing cry of 'Eurydice' breaks passionately upon their mournful chorus, and the whole scene, though drawn in simple lines, is instinct with genuine pathos. When the rustic mourners have laid their gifts upon the tomb and departed, Orpheus calls upon the shade of his lost wife in an air of exquisite beauty, broken by expressive recitative. He declares his resolution of following her to the underworld, when Eros enters and tells him of the condition which the gods impose on him if he should attempt to rescue Eurydice from the shades. Left to himself, Orpheus discusses the question of the rescue in a recitative of great intrinsic power, which shows at a glance how far Gluck had already distanced his predecessors in variety and dramatic strength. The second act takes place in the underworld. The chorus of Furies is both picturesque and effective, and the barking of Cerberus which sounds through it is a touch, which though its naïveté may provoke a smile, is characteristic of Gluck's strenuous struggle for realism. Orpheus appears and pleads his cause in accents of touching entreaty. Time after time his pathetic song is broken by a sternly decisive 'No,' but in the end he triumphs, and the Furies grant him passage. The next scene is in the Elysian fields. After an introduction of charming grace, the spirits of the blessed are discovered disporting themselves after their kind. Orpheus appears, lost in wonder at the magical beauty of all around him. Here again is a remarkable instance of Gluck's pictorial power. Simple as are the means he employs, the effect is extraordinary. The murmuring of streams, the singing of birds, and the placid beauty of the landscape are depicted with a touch which, if light, is infallibly sure. Then follows the famous scene in which Orpheus, forbidden to look at the face of his beloved, tries to find her by touch and instinct among the crowd of happy spirits who pass him by. At last she approaches, and he clasps her in his arms, while a chorus of perfect beauty bids him farewell as he leads her in triumph to the world above. The third act shows the two wandering in a cavern on their way to the light of day. Eurydice is grieved that her husband should never look into her eyes, and her faith is growing cold. After a scene in which passionate beauty goes side by side with strange relapses into conventionality, Orpheus gives way to her prayers and reproaches, and turns to embrace her. In a moment she sinks back lifeless, and he pours forth his despair in the immortal strains of 'Che farò senza Euridice.' Eros then appears, and tells him that the gods have had pity upon his sorrow. He transports him to the Temple of Love, where Eurydice, restored to life, is awaiting him, and the opera ends with conventional rejoicings.

Beautiful as 'Orfeo' is—and the best proof of its enduring beauty is that, after nearly a hundred and fifty years of change and development, it has lost none of its power to charm—we must not be blind to the fact that it is a strange combination of strength and weakness. Strickly speaking, Gluck was by no means a first-rate musician, and in 1762 he had not mastered his new gospel of sincerity and truth so fully as to disguise the poverty of his technical equipment. Much of the orchestral part of the work is weak and thin. Berlioz even went so far as to describe the overture as une niaiserie incroyable, and the vocal part sometimes shows the influence of the empty formulas from which Gluck was trying to escape. Throughout the opera there are unmistakable traces of Rameau's influence, indeed it is plain that Gluck frankly took Rameau's 'Castor et Pollux' as his model when he sat down to compose 'Orfeo.' The plot of the earlier work, the rescue of Pollux by Castor from the infernal regions, has of course much in common with that of 'Orfeo' and it is obvious that Gluck took many hints from Rameau's musical treatment of the various scenes which the two works have in common.

In spite, however, of occasional weaknesses, 'Orfeo' is a work of consummate loveliness. Compared to the tortured complexity of our modern operas, it stands in its dignified simplicity like the Parthenon beside the bewildering beauty of a Gothic cathedral; and its truth and grandeur are perhaps the more conspicuous because allied to one of those classic stories which even in Gluck's time had become almost synonymous with emptiness and formality.

Five years elapsed between the production of 'Orfeo' and of Gluck's next great opera, 'Alceste'; but that these years were not wasted is proved by the great advance which is perceptible in the score of the later work. The libretto of 'Alceste' is in many ways superior to that of 'Orfeo,' and Gluck's share of the work shows an incontestable improvement upon anything he had yet done. His touch is firmer, and he rarely shows that inclination to drop back into the old conventional style, which occasionally mars the beauty of 'Orfeo.' Gluck wrote a preface to the published score of 'Alceste,' which is one of the most interesting documents in the history of music. It proves conclusively—not that any proof is necessary—that the composer had thought long and seriously about the scope of his art, and that the reforms which he introduced were a deliberate attempt to reconstruct opera upon a new basis of ideal beauty. If he sometimes failed to act up to his own theories, it must be remembered in what school he had been trained, and how difficult must have been the attempt to cast off in a moment the style which had been habitual to him for so many years.

When 'Alceste' was produced in Paris in 1776, Gluck made some alterations in the score, some of which were scarcely improvements. In his later years he became so completely identified with the French school that the later version is now the more familiar.

The opera opens before the palace at Pheræ, where the people are gathered to pray Heaven to spare the life of Admetus, who lies at the point of death. Alcestis appears, and, after an air of great dignity and beauty, bids the people follow her to the temple, there to renew their supplications. The next scene shows the temple of Apollo. The high priest and the people make passionate appeal to the god for the life of their king, and the oracle replies that Admetus must perish, if no other will die in his place. The people, seized with terror, fly from the place, and Alcestis, left alone, determines to give up her own life for that of her husband. The high priest accepts her devotion, and in the famous air 'Divinités du Styx,' she offers herself a willing sacrifice to the gods below. In the original version the second act opened with a scene in a gloomy forest, in which Alcestis interviews the spirits of Death, and, after renewing her vow, obtains leave to return and bid farewell to her husband. The music of this scene is exceedingly impressive, and intrinsically it must have been one of the finest in the opera, but it does not advance the action in the least, and its omission sensibly increases the tragic effect of the drama. In the later version the act begins with the rejoicings of the people at the recovery of Admetus. Alcestis appears, and after vainly endeavouring to conceal her anguish from the eyes of Admetus is forced to admit that she is the victim whose death is to restore him to life. Admetus passionately refuses the sacrifice, and declares that he will rather die with her than allow her to immolate herself on his account. He rushes wildly into the palace, and Alcestis bids farewell to life in an air of extraordinary pathos and beauty. The third act opens with the lamentations of the people for their departed queen. Hercules, released for a moment from his labours, enters and asks for Admetus. He is horrified at the news of the calamity which has befallen his friend, and announces his resolve of rescuing Alcestis from the clutches of Death. Meanwhile Alcestis has reached the portals of the underworld, and is about to surrender herself to the powers of Hell. Admetus, who has not yet given up hope of persuading her to relinquish her purpose, appears, and pleads passionately with her to leave him to his doom.

His prayers are vain, and Alcestis is tearing herself for the last time from his arms, when Hercules rushes in. After a short struggle he defeats the powers of Death and restores Alcestis to her husband. The character of Hercules did not appear in the earlier version of the opera, and in fact was not introduced until after Gluck had left Paris, a few days after the production of 'Alceste.' Most of the music allotted to him is probably not by Gluck at all, but seems to have been written by Gossec, who was at that time one of the rising musicians in Paris. The close of the opera is certainly inferior to the earlier parts, but the introduction of Hercules is a great improvement upon the original version of the last act, in which the rescue of Alcestis is effected by Apollo. The French librettist did not treat the episode cleverly, and indeed all the last scene is terribly prosaic, and lacking in poetical atmosphere. To see how the appearance of the lusty hero in the halls of woe can heighten the tragic interest by the sheer force of contrast, we must turn to the 'Alcestis' of Euripides, where the death of Alcestis and the strange conflict of Hercules with Death is treated with just that touch of mystery and unearthliness which is absent from the libretto which Gluck was called upon to set. Of the music of 'Alceste,' its passion and intensity, it is impossible to speak too highly. It has pages of miraculous power, in which the deepest tragedy and the most poignant pathos are depicted with unfaltering certainty. It is strange to think by what simple means Gluck scaled the loftiest heights. Compared with our modern orchestra the poverty of the resources upon which he depended seems almost ludicrous. Even in the vocal part of 'Alceste' he was so careful to avoid anything like the sensuous beauty of the Italian style, that sometimes he fell into the opposite extreme and wrote merely arid rhetoric. Yet he held so consistently before him his ideal of dramatic truth, that his music has survived all changes of taste and fashion, and still delights connoisseurs as fully as on the day it was produced. 'Paride ed Elena,' Gluck's next great work, shows his genius under a more lyrical aspect. Here he gives freer reign to the romanticism which he had designedly checked in 'Alceste,' and much of the music seems in a measure to anticipate the new influences which Mozart was afterwards to infuse into German music. Unfortunately the libretto of 'Paride ed Elena,' though possessing great poetical merit, is monotonous and deficient in incident, so that the opera has never won the success which it deserves, and is now almost completely forgotten.

The admiration for the French school of opera which had been aroused in Gluck by hearing the works of Rameau was not by any means a passing fancy. His music proves that the French school had more influence upon his development than the Italian, so it was only natural that he should wish to have an opportunity of introducing his works to Paris. That opportunity came in 1774, when, after weary months of intrigue and disappointment, his 'Iphigéne en Aulide' was produced at the Académie Royale de Musique. After that time Gluck wrote all his greatest works for the French stage, and became so completely identified with the country of his adoption, that nowadays we are far more apt to think of him as a French than as a German composer. 'Iphigénie en Aulide' is founded upon Racine's play, which in its turn had been derived from the tragedy of Euripides. The scene of the opera is laid at Aulis, where the Greek fleet is prevented by contrary winds from starting for Troy. Diana, who has been unwittingly insulted by Agamemnon, demands a human sacrifice, and Iphigenia, the guiltless daughter of Agamemnon, has been named by the high priest Calchas as the victim. Iphigenia and her mother Clytemnestra are on their way to join the fleet at Aulis, and Agamemnon has sent a despairing message to bid them return home, hoping thus to avoid the necessity of sacrificing his child. Meanwhile the Greek hosts, impatient of delay, clamour for the victim, and are only appeased by the assurance of Calchas that the sacrifice shall take place that very day. Left alone with Agamemnon, Calchas entreats him to submit to the will of the gods. Agamemnon, torn by conflicting emotions, at first refuses, but afterwards, relying upon the message which he has sent to his wife and daughter, promises that if Iphigenia sets foot in Aulis he will give her up to death. He has hardly spoken the words when shouts of joy announce the arrival of Clytemnestra and Iphigenia. The message has miscarried, and they are already in the camp. As a last resource Agamemnon now tells Clytemnestra that Achilles, the lover of her daughter, is false, hoping that this will drive her from the camp. Clytemnestra calls upon Iphigenia to thrust her betrayer from her bosom, and Iphigenia replies so heroically that it seems as though Agamemnon's plot to save his daughter's life might actually succeed. Unfortunately Achilles himself appears, and, after a scene of reproach and recrimination, succeeds in dispelling Iphigenia's doubts and winning her to complete reconciliation.

The second act begins with the rejoicings over the marriage of Iphigenia. The general joy is turned to lamentation by the discovery of Agamemnon's vow and the impending doom of Iphigenia. Clytemnestra passionately entreats Achilles to save her daughter, which he promises to do, though Iphigenia professes herself ready to obey her father. In the following scene Achilles meets Agamemnon, and, after a long altercation, swears to defend Iphigenia with the last drop of his blood. He rushes off, and Agamemnon is left in anguish to weigh his love for his daughter against his dread of the angry gods, Love triumphs and he sends Areas, his attendant, to bid Clytemnestra fly with Iphigenia home to Mycenae.

In the third act the Greeks are angrily demanding their victim. Achilles prays Iphigenia to fly with him, but she is constant to her idea of duty, and bids him a pathetic farewell. Achilles, however, is not to be persuaded, and in an access of noble rage swears to slay the priest upon the steps of the altar rather than submit to the sacrifice of his love. After another farewell scene with her mother Iphigenia is led off, while Clytemnestra, seeing in imagination her daughter under the knife of the priest, bursts forth into passionate blasphemy. Achilles and his Thessalian followers rush in to save Iphigenia, and for a time the contest rages fiercely, but eighteenth-century convention steps in. Calchas stops the combat, saying that the gods are at length appeased; Iphigenia is restored to Achilles, and the opera ends with general rejoicings.

'Iphigénie en Aulide' gave Gluck a finer opportunity than he had yet had. The canvas is broader than in 'Alceste' or 'Orfeo,' and the emotions are more varied. The human interest, too, is more evenly sustained, and the supernatural element, which played so important a part in the two earlier works, is almost entirely absent. Nevertheless, fine as much of the music is, the restraint which Gluck exercised over himself is too plainly perceptible, and the result is that many of the scenes are stiff and frigid. There is scarcely a trace of the delightful lyricism which rushes through 'Paride ed Elena' like a flood of resistless delight. Gluck had set his ideal of perfect declamatory truth firmly before him, and he resisted every temptation to swerve into the paths of mere musical beauty. He had not yet learnt how to combine the two styles. He had not yet grasped the fact that in the noblest music truth and beauty are one and the same thing.

In 'Armide,' produced in 1777, he made another step forward. The libretto was the same as that used by Lulli nearly a hundred years before. The legend, already immortalised by Tasso, was strangely different from the classical stories which had hitherto inspired his greatest works. The opening scene strikes the note of romanticism which echoes through the whole opera. Armida, a princess deeply versed in magic arts, laments that one knight, and one only, in the army of the Crusaders has proved blind to her charms. All the rest are at her feet, but Rinaldo alone is obdurate. She has had a boding dream, moreover, in which Rinaldo has vanquished her, and all the consolations of her maidens cannot restore her peace of mind. Hidraot, her uncle, entreats her to choose a husband, but she declares that she will bestow her hand upon no one but the conqueror of Rinaldo. While the chorus is celebrating her charms, Arontes, a Paynim warrior, enters bleeding and wounded, and tells how the prowess of a single knight has robbed him of his captives. Armida at once recognises the hand of the recalcitrant Rinaldo, and the act ends with her vows of vengeance against the invincible hero.

The second act shows Rinaldo in quest of adventures which may win him the favour of Godfrey of Bouillon, whose wrath he has incurred. Armida's enchantments lead him to her magic gardens, where, amidst scenes of voluptuous beauty, he yields to the fascinations of the place, lays down his arms, and sinks into sleep. Armida rushes in, dagger in hand, but the sight of the sleeping hero is too potent for her, and overcome by passion, she bids the spirits of the air transport them to the bounds of the universe. In the third act we find that Rinaldo has rejected the love of the enchantress. Armida is inconsolable; she is ashamed of her weakness, and will not listen to the well-meaning consolations of her attendants. She calls upon the spirit of Hate, but when he appears she rejects his aid, and still clings desperately to her fatal passion. The fourth act, which is entirely superfluous, is devoted to the adventures in the enchanted garden of Ubaldo and a Danish knight, two Crusaders who have set forth with the intention of rescuing Rinaldo from the clutches of the sorceress. The fifth act takes place in Armida's palace. Rinaldo's proud spirit has at length been subdued, and he is completely the slave of the enchantress. The duet between the lovers is of the most bewitching loveliness, and much of it curiously anticipates the romantic element which was to burst forth in a future generation. Armida tears herself from Rinaldo's arms, and leaves him to be entertained by a ballet of spirits, while she transacts some business with the powers below. Ubaldo and the Danish knight now burst in, and soon bring Rinaldo to a proper frame of mind. He takes a polite farewell of Armida, who in vain attempts to prevent his going, and is walked off by his two Mentors. Left alone, Armida calls on her demons to destroy the palace, and the opera ends in wild confusion and tumult.

To say that 'Armide' recalls the romantic grace of 'Paride ed Elena,' is but half the truth. The lyrical grace of the earlier work is as it were concentrated and condensed in a series of pictures which for voluptuous beauty surpass anything that had been written before Gluck's day. Against the background formed by the magical splendour of the enchanted garden, the figure of Armida stands out in striking relief. The mingled pride and passion of the imperious princess are drawn with wonderful art. Even while her passion brings her to the feet of her conqueror, her haughty spirit rebels against her fate. Such weaknesses as the opera contains are principally attributable to the libretto, which is ill-constructed, and cold and formal in diction. Rinaldo is rather a colourless person, and the other characters are for the most part merely lay-figures, though the grim figure of Hate is drawn with extraordinary power. But upon Armida the composer concentrated the full lens of his genius, and for her he wrote music which satisfies every requirement of dramatic truth, without losing touch of the lyrical beauty and persuasive passion which breathes life into soulless clay.

In 'Iphigénie en Tauride,' the last of his great works, which was produced in 1778, Gluck reached his highest point. Here he seems for the first time thoroughly to fuse and combine the two elements which are for ever at war in his earlier operas, musical beauty and dramatic truth. Throughout the score of 'Iphigénie en Tauride' the declamation is as vivid and true as in 'Alceste,' while the intrinsic loveliness of the music yields not a jot to the passion-charged strains of 'Armide.' The overture paints the gradual awakening of a tempest, and when the storm is at its height the curtain rises upon the temple of Diana at Tauris, where Iphigenia, snatched by the goddess from the knife of the executioner at Aulis, has been placed as high priestess. The priestesses in chorus beseech the gods to be propitious, and when the fury of the storm is allayed, Iphigenia recounts her dream of Agamemnon's death, and laments the woes of her house. She calls upon Diana to put an end to her life, which already has lasted too long. Thoas, the king of the country, now enters, alarmed by the outcries of the priestesses. He is a prey to superstitious fears, and willingly listens to the advice of his followers, that the gods can only be appeased by human blood. A message is now brought that two young strangers have been cast upon the rock-bound coast, and Thoas at once decides that they shall be the victims. Orestes and Pylades are now brought in. They refuse to make themselves known, and are bidden to prepare for death, while the act closes with the savage delight of the Scythians.

The second act is in the prison. Orestes bewails his destiny, and refuses the consolation which Pylades offers in a noble and famous song. Pylades is torn from his friend's arms by the officers of the guard, and Orestes, left to himself, after a paroxysm of madness sinks to sleep upon the prison floor. His eyes are closed, but his brain is a prey to frightful visions. The Furies surround him with horrible cries and menaces, singing a chorus of indescribable weirdness. Lastly, the shade of the murdered Clytemnestra passes before him, and he awakes with a shriek to find his cell empty save for the mournful form of Iphigenia, who has come to question the stranger as to his origin and the purpose of his visit to Tauris. In broken accents he tells her—what is new to her ears—the tale of the murder of Agamemnon, and the vengeance taken upon Clytemnestra by himself; adding, in order to conceal his own identity, that Orestes is also dead, and that Electra is the sole remnant of the house of Atreus. Iphigenia bursts into a passionate lament, and the act ends with her offering a solemn libation to the shade of her brother.

In the third act Iphigenia resolves to free one of the victims, and to send him with a message to Electra. A sentiment which she cannot explain bids her choose Orestes, but the latter refuses to save his life at the expense of that of his friend. A contention arises between the two, which is only decided by Orestes swearing to take his own life if Pylades is sacrificed. The precious scroll is thereupon entrusted to Pylades, who departs, vowing to return and save his friend.

In the fourth act Iphigenia is a prey to conflicting emotions. A mysterious sympathy forbids her to slay the prisoner, yet she tries to steel her heart for the performance of her terrible task, and calls upon Diana to aid her. Orestes is brought on by the priestesses, and while urging Iphigenia to deal the blow, blesses her for the pity which stays her hand. Just as the knife is about to descend, the dying words of Orestes, 'Was it thus thou didst perish in Aulis, Iphigenia my sister?' bring about the inevitable recognition, and the brother and sister rush into each other's arms. But Thoas has yet to be reckoned with. He is furious at the interruption of the sacrifice, and is about to execute summary vengeance upon both Iphigenia and Orestes, when Pylades returns with an army of Greek youths—whence he obtained them is not explained—and despatches the tyrant in the nick of time. The opera ends with the appearance of Pallas Athene, the patroness of Argos, who bids Orestes and his sister return to Greece, carrying with them the image of Diana, too long disgraced by the barbarous rites of the Scythians.

'Echo et Narcisse,' an opera cast in a somewhat lighter mould, which was produced in 1779, seems to have failed to please, and 'Iphigénie en Tauride' may be safely taken as the climax of Gluck's career. It is the happiest example of his peculiar power, and shows more convincingly than any of its predecessors where the secret of his greatness really lay. He was the first composer who treated an opera as an integral whole. He was inferior to many of his predecessors, notably to Handel, in musical science, and even in power of characterisation. But while their works were often hardly more than strings of detached scenes from which the airs might often be dissociated without much loss of effect, his operas were constructed upon a principle of dramatic unity which forbade one link to be taken from the chain without injuring the continuity of the whole. In purely technical matters, too, his reforms were far-reaching and important. He was first to make the overture in some sort a reflection of the drama which it preceded, and he used orchestral effects as a means of expressing the passion of his characters in a way that had not been dreamed of before. He dismissed the harpsichord from the orchestra, and strengthened his band with clarinets, an instrument unknown to Handel. His banishment of recitativo secco, and his restoration of the chorus to its proper place in the drama, were innovations of vast importance to the history of opera, but the chief strength of the influence which he exerted upon subsequent music lay in his power of suffusing each of his operas in an atmosphere special to itself.





Copyright © Daniel McAdam· All Rights Reserved