Christoph Willibald Gluck: Biography & Music

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

An award-winning, Classical-era composer, Christoph Gluck is best remembered for his contributions to the operatic genre. He's largely responsible for the reformation of the genre into the serious form we know today.

Who is Christoph Gluck

Christoph Gluck was made a Knight of the Golden Spur by Pope Benedict XIV, he worked in the courts of numerous aristocrats, including serving as the Kapellmeister in Vienna, and was largely seen during his lifetime as a successful composer. Despite all of this, he is largely remembered as a reformer of the opera. His work changed the path of the opera and perhaps saved it from eventual oblivion.

A Brief Biography

Christoph Gluck
Christoph Gluck

Born in Germany in 1714, Gluck may have begun musical study as a schoolboy. While music appeared to be his passion, he did not pursue it at university. Instead, he studied math and logic at the University of Prague, though he did not finish. He began formal musical training in 1737, studying composition with Giovanni Battista Sammartini, and developed a fascination with the opera genre during this time. He traveled much of his life, spending time in London, Paris, Prague, and Vienna (he is most often associated with Vienna), before his death in Austria in 1787.

Gluck's Operas, Pre-Reformation

From the beginning, Gluck considered the opera to be a serious art form, which put him at odds with many of the composers at the time. He considered the opera too light and superficial, believing that the music had become too embellished to understand and that the stories were old and unoriginal (a bit like going to the movies today one might say). Gluck's first opera, Artaserse, was largely unsuccessful, most likely due to the seriousness of it. Despite this, he earned a number of recognitions from respected noblemen, resulting in important engagements for compositions: for a marriage between Bavarian and Saxony families he wrote Le nozze d'Ercole e d'Ebe; for Maria Theresa's birthday, La Semiramide riconosciuta; and for the nameday celebration of King Charles VII, La clemenza di Tito.

Gluck's Reformations

At this point, Gluck had enough clout to start really making some changes to the genre. First, he increased the importance of the story in relation to the music. The music began supporting the story instead of the opera being a vehicle for musical showmanship. He noted that arias, the songs in the opera, were written solely for the musical demonstration of the singer with little regard for the actual story (basically, 'look at me! I can sing high and fast with lots of notes!').

He also got rid of dry recitative, the spoken/sung music that was accompanied only by the continuo (that's basically a low string and keyboard instrument accompanying). This made the opera less choppy, and instead the musical and theatrical parts flowed more seamlessly. His earliest work in this new style, Don Juan wasn't a success, but the next one, Orfeo ed Euridice was a great success and is still part of the repertoire today. Finally, to cement his reforms, Alceste was a rounding success.

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