Christoph Willibald Gluck

"Gluck" redirects here. For the surname, see Glück.
For the British painter known as Gluck, see Gluck (painter).
Gluck in a 1775 portrait by Joseph Duplessis

Christoph Willibald (Ritter von) Gluck (German: [ˈkʁɪstɔf ˈvɪlɪbalt ˈɡlʊk]; 2 July 1714 – 15 November 1787) was a composer of Italian and French opera in the early classical period. Born in the Upper Palatinate (now part of Germany) and raised in Bohemia,[1] he gained prominence at the Habsburg court at Vienna, where he brought about the practical reform of opera's dramaturgical practices that many intellectuals had been campaigning for over the years. With a series of radical new works in the 1760s, among them Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste, he broke the stranglehold that Metastasian opera seria had enjoyed for much of the century.

The strong influence of French opera in these works encouraged Gluck to move to Paris, which he did in November 1773. Fusing the traditions of Italian opera and the French national genre into a new synthesis, Gluck wrote eight operas for the Parisian stages. One of the last of these, Iphigénie en Tauride, was a great success and is generally acknowledged to be his finest work. Though he was extremely popular and widely credited with bringing about a revolution in French opera, Gluck's mastery of the Parisian operatic scene was never absolute, and after the poor reception of his Echo et Narcisse he left Paris in disgust and returned to Vienna to live out the remainder of his life.

Early years

Castle Jezeří (Schloss Eisenberg), 1882

Gluck was born on 2 July 1714 in Erasbach near Neumarkt (now a district of Berching, Bavaria).[2] His father Alexander was a forester in Erasbach, and after 1717 head forester in Reichstadt (today Zákupy), Kreibitz (today Chřibská) and Eisenberg (today Jezeří), all in northern Bohemia.[2] According to some biographers, it was here, in the middle of Lusatian Mountains, where 8-year-old Christoph[3] received his first musical education at the Jesuit gymnasium in Komotau (today Chomutov).[4] In 1727 the family moved to Eisenberg, where his father was admitted to the service of Prince Philip Hyazinth von Lobkowitz.[5]

The Alsatian painter Johann Christian von Mannlich says it was as a Bohemian schoolboy that Gluck received his first musical training. Mannlich relates in his memoirs, written in French and published in 1810, that Gluck told him about his early life at a luncheon in Saint-Cloud, near Paris, in 1774. He quotes Gluck as saying:

My father was forestmaster at M... in Bohemia and he planned that eventually I should succeed him. In my homeland everyone is musical; music is taught in the schools, and in the tiniest villages the peasants sing and play different instruments during High Mass in their churches. As I was passionate about the art, I made rapid progress. I played several instruments and the schoolmaster, singling me out from the other pupils, gave me lessons at his house when he was off duty. I no longer thought and dreamt of anything but music; the art of forestry was neglected.[6]

A childhood flight from home to Vienna is included in several contemporary accounts of Gluck's life, including Mannlich's, but some scholars have cast doubt on Gluck's picturesque tales of earning food and shelter by his singing as he travelled. Most now claim that the object of Gluck's travels was not Vienna but Prague, where according to early biographies he began studying logic and mathematics in 1731. At the time the University of Prague boasted a flourishing musical scene that included performances of both Italian opera and oratorio. Gluck eventually left Prague without taking a degree, and vanishes from the historical record until 1737.[7]

According to the music historian Daniel Heartz, there has been considerable controversy concerning Gluck's native language. Gluck's protégé in Vienna, the Italian-born Antonio Salieri, says in his memoirs (translated into German by Ignaz von Mosel), that "Gluck, whose native tongue was Czech, expressed himself in German only with effort, and still more so in French and Italian... ."[8] Gluck's first biographer, Anton Schmid, accepted that Gluck spoke Czech, but thought Salieri incorrect, proposing instead that Gluck learned Czech in Prague.[9] Heartz writes: "More devious manoeuvres have been attempted by Gluck's German biographers of this [the 20th] century, while the French ones have, without exception, taken Salieri at his word. Arend objected that not a single letter written in Czech can be found, to which Jacques-Gabriel Prod’homme countered that no letters written by Liszt in Hungarian were known either, but does this make him a German?"[10] Hans Joachim Moser wanted a lyric work in Czech as proof.[11] In fact, the music theorist Larent Garcin, writing in 1770 (published 1772) before Gluck arrived in Paris, included Gluck in a list of several composers of Czech opéras-comiques (although such a work by Gluck has yet to be documented).[12]


In 1737 Gluck arrived in Milan, where he studied under G. B. Sammartini, who, according to Carpani, taught Gluck "practical knowledge of all the instruments." Apparently this relationship lasted for several years. Sammartini was not, primarily, a composer of opera, his main output being of sacred music and symphonies, but Milan boasted a vibrant opera scene, and Gluck soon formed an association with one of the city's up-and-coming opera houses, the Teatro Regio Ducal, where his first opera, Artaserse, was performed on 26 December 1741. Set to a libretto by Metastasio, the opera opened the Milanese Carnival of 1742. According to one anecdote, the public would not accept Gluck's style until he inserted an aria in the lighter Milanese manner for contrast.

Nevertheless, Gluck composed an opera for each of the next four Carnivals at Milan, with renowned castrato Giovanni Carestini appearing in many of the performances, so the reaction to Artaserse is unlikely to have been completely unfavourable. He also wrote operas for other cities of Northern Italy in between Carnival seasons, including Turin and Venice, where his Ipermestra was given during November 1744 at the Teatro San Giovanni Crisostomo. Nearly all of his operas in this period were, like Artaserse, set to Metastasio's texts, despite the poet's dislike for his style of composition.

Travels: 1745–1752

In 1745 Gluck accepted an invitation to become house composer at London's King's Theatre, probably travelling to England via Frankfurt and in the company of Georg Christian, Fürst von Lobkowitz. The timing was poor, as the Jacobite Rebellion had caused much panic in London, and for most of the year the King's Theatre was closed. Gluck's two London operas, (La caduta de' giganti and Artamene) eventually performed in 1746, borrowed much from his earlier works, a method that was to re-occur throughout his career. Six trio sonatas were the other immediate fruits of his time in London. A more long-term benefit was exposure to the music of Handel – whom he later credited as a great influence on his style – and the naturalistic acting style of David Garrick. Either Gluck or Lobkowitz bought a copy of Handel's Messiah.[13] Handel's own experience of Gluck pleased that composer less: Charles Burney reports Handel as saying that "he [Gluck] knows no more of contrappunto, as mein cook, Waltz". This statement is very likely true, but misunderstood. Gustavus Waltz was an excellent singer who performed in many of Handel's works and he was an excellent contrapuntist.

The years 1747 and 1748 brought Gluck two highly prestigious engagements. First came a commission to produce an opera for Dresden, performed by Pietro Mingotti's troupe, to celebrate a royal double wedding that would unite the ruling families of Bavaria and Saxony. Le nozze d'Ercole e d'Ebe, a festa teatrale, borrowed heavily from earlier works, and even from Gluck's teacher Sammartini. The success of this work 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. Vittoria Tesi took the title role. On this occasion Gluck's music was completely original, but the displeasure of the court poet, Metastasio, who called the opera "archvandalian music," probably explains why Gluck did not remain long in Vienna despite the work's enormous popular success (it was performed 27 times to great acclaim). For the remainder of 1748 and 1749 Gluck travelled with Mingotti's troupe, contracting a venereal disease from the prima donna and composing the opera La contesa de' numi for the court at Copenhagen.

In 1750 he abandoned Mingotti's group for another company established by a former member of the Mingotti troupe, Giovanni Battista Locatelli. The main effect of this was that Gluck returned to Prague on a more consistent basis. For the Prague Carnival of 1750 Gluck composed a new opera, Ezio (again set to one of Metastasio's works, with the manuscript located at the Lobkowicz Palace). His Ipermestra was also performed in the same year. The other major event of Gluck's stay in Prague was, on 15 September 1750, his marriage to Maria Anna Bergin, aged 18 years old, the daughter of a rich but long-dead Viennese merchant. Gluck seems to have spent most of 1751 commuting between Prague and Vienna.

The year 1752 brought another major commission to Gluck, when he was asked to set Metastasio's La clemenza di Tito (the specific libretto was the composer's choice) for the nameday celebrations of King Charles VII of Naples (later Charles III of Spain). The opera was performed on 4 November at the Teatro di San Carlo, and the world-famous mezzo-soprano castrato Caffarelli (Gaetano Majorano) took the role of Sextus. For Caffarelli Gluck composed the famous, but notoriously difficult, aria "Se mai senti spirarti sul volto," which provoked admiration and vituperation in equally large measures. Gluck later reworked this aria for his Iphigénie en Tauride. According to one account, the Neapolitan composer Francesco Durante claimed that his fellow composers "should have been proud to have conceived and written [the aria]." Durante simultaneously declined to comment whether or not it was within the boundaries of the accepted compositional rules of the time.


Gluck finally settled in Vienna, where he became Kapellmeister. He wrote Le cinesi for a festival in 1754 and La danza for the birthday of the future Emperor Leopold II the following year. After his opera Antigono was performed in Rome in February, 1756, Gluck was made a Knight of the Golden Spur by Pope Benedict XIV. From that time on, Gluck used the title "Ritter von Gluck" or "Chevalier de Gluck."

Gluck turned his back on Italian opera seria and began to write opéra comiques. In 1761, Gluck produced the groundbreaking ballet Don Juan in collaboration with the choreographer Gasparo Angiolini. The climax of Gluck's opéra comique writing was La rencontre imprévue of 1764. By that time, Gluck was already engaged in his operatic reforms.

Operatic reforms

Gluck had long pondered the fundamental problem of form and content in opera. He thought both of the main Italian operatic genres – opera buffa and opera seria – had strayed too far from what opera should really be and seemed unnatural. Opera buffa had long lost its original freshness. Its jokes were threadbare and the repetition of the same characters made them seem no more than stereotypes. In opera seria the singing was devoted to superficial effects and the content was uninteresting and fossilised. As in opera buffa, the singers were effectively absolute masters of the stage and the music, decorating the vocal lines so floridly that audiences could no longer recognise the original melody. Gluck wanted to return opera to its origins, focusing on human drama and passions and making words and music of equal importance.

In Vienna, Gluck met likeminded figures in the operatic world: Count Giacomo Durazzo, the head of the court theatre, who was a passionate admirer of French stage music; the librettist Ranieri de' Calzabigi, who wanted to attack the dominance of Metastasian opera seria; the innovative choreographer Gasparo Angiolini; and the London-trained castrato Gaetano Guadagni.

The first result of the new thinking was Gluck's reformist ballet Don Juan, but a more important work was soon to follow. On 5 October 1762, Orfeo ed Euridice was given its first performance, with music by Gluck to words by Calzabigi. The dances were arranged by Angiolini and the title role was taken by Guadagni. Orfeo, which has never left the standard repertory, showed the beginnings of Gluck's reforms. His idea was to make the drama of the work more important than the star singers who performed it, and to do away with dry recitative (recitativo secco, accompanied only by continuo) that broke up the action. The more flowing and dramatic style which resulted has been seen as a precursor to the music dramas of Richard Wagner.

Gluck and Calzabigi followed Orfeo with Alceste (1767) and Paride ed Elena (1770), pushing their innovations even further. Calzabigi wrote a preface to Alceste, which Gluck signed, setting out the principles of their reforms.


Gluck then began to spread his ideas to France. Under the patronage of his former music pupil, Marie Antoinette, who had married the future French king Louis XVI in 1770, Gluck signed a contract for six stage works with the management of the Paris Opéra. He began with Iphigénie en Aulide (19 April 1774). The premiere sparked a huge controversy, almost a war, such as had not been seen in the city since the Querelle des Bouffons. Gluck's opponents brought the leading Italian composer, Niccolò Piccinni, to Paris to demonstrate the superiority of Neapolitan opera and the "whole town" engaged in an argument between "Gluckists" and "Piccinnists." The composers themselves took no part in the polemics, but when Piccinni was asked to set the libretto to Roland, on which Gluck was also known to be working, Gluck destroyed everything he had written for that opera up to that point.

On 2 August 1774 the French version of Orfeo ed Euridice was performed, with the title role transposed from the castrato to the tenor voice. This time Gluck's work was better received by the Parisian public. In the same year Gluck returned to Vienna, where he was appointed composer to the imperial court. Over the next few years the now internationally famous composer would travel back and forth between Paris and Vienna. On 23 April 1776, the French version of Alceste was given.

Gluck also wrote Armide (1777), Iphigénie en Tauride (1779) and Echo et Narcisse for Paris. During the rehearsals for Echo et Narcisse, Gluck suffered his first stroke. Since the opera itself was a complete failure, Gluck decided to return to Vienna.

His musical heir in Paris was the composer Antonio Salieri, who had been Gluck's protégé since he arrived in Vienna in 1767, and later had made friends with Gluck. Gluck brought Salieri to Paris with him and bequeathed him the libretto for Les Danaïdes by François-Louis Gand Le Bland Du Roullet and Baron Tschudi. The opera was announced as a collaboration between the two composers; however, after the overwhelming success of its premiere on 26 April 1784, Gluck revealed to the prestigious Journal de Paris that the work was wholly Salieri's.

Last years

In Vienna Gluck wrote a few more minor works but he generally lived in retirement. In 1781 he brought out a German version of Iphigénie en Tauride and other operas of his enjoyed great popularity in Vienna.

On 15 November 1787, in Vienna, Gluck suffered another stroke and died a few hours later, aged 73. At a formal commemoration on 8 April 1788 his friend and pupil Salieri conducted Gluck's De profundis and a requiem by the Italian composer Niccolò Jommelli was given. Like many other prominent musicians and painters Gluck was buried in the Matzleinsdorfer Friedhof. Gluck's remains were later transferred to a tomb in the Vienna Zentralfriedhof.[14]

Gluck's musical legacy includes approximately 35 complete full-length operas plus around a dozen shorter operas and operatic introductions, as well as numerous ballets and instrumental works. His reforms influenced Mozart, particularly his opera Idomeneo (1781). Gluck left behind a flourishing school of disciples in Paris, who would dominate the French stage throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period. As well as Salieri, they included Sacchini, Cherubini, Méhul and Spontini. Gluck's greatest French admirer would be Hector Berlioz, whose epic Les Troyens may be seen as the culmination of the Gluckian tradition. Though Gluck wrote no operas in German, his example influenced the German school of opera, particularly Weber and Wagner, whose concept of music drama was not so far removed from Gluck's own.



O del mio dolce ardor (4:03)
Piece from the opera Paride ed Elena performed in 1935, lyrics by Ranieri de' Calzabigi, conducted by Dino Olivieri, performed by Beniamino Gigli and orchestra members of La Scala, Milan

Che farò senza Euridice (in German)
Performed by Ernestine Schumann-Heink in 1907

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Songs with piano

A number of additional works in German, Italian and French are considered doubtful or spurious.

Arias and solo motets

A number of additional Latin motets have been identified as parodies from Gluck's operas.


Instrumental music



  1. Brown & Rushton 2001, Introduction and "1. Ancestry, early life and training."; Heartz 1988, pp. 517–526. Sources differ concerning Gluck's nationality: Kuhn 2000, p. 272, and Croll 1991, p. 308, say he was German, while Brown & Rushton 2001 give Bohemian; Hayes et al. 1992, p. 453, Bohemian-Austrian; and Harewood & Peattie 1997, p. 261, Austrian.
  2. 1 2 Schmid, Hans (1964), "Gluck, Christoph Willibald Ritter von", Neue Deutsche Biographie (NDB) (in German), 6, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, pp. 466–469
  3. Gluck himself never used Willibald (Heartz 1988, p. 517, note 6).
  4. Daniel Heartz relates that this assertion has been the subject of much debate. Gluck himself does not appear in the list of students, although one of his younger brothers does. All instruction was in Latin, and Gluck's failure to learn Latin, which he had to study later in life, argues against it (Heartz 1988, p. 520).
  5. Heartz 1988, p. 518.
  6. Quoted and translated by Heartz 1988, p. 521, who cites and provides the French original: "Gluck à Paris en 1774", La Revue Musicale (1934), p. 260: "Mon père, nous disoit-il, étoit maître des eaux et forêts à N... en Bohème; il m'avoit destiné à le remplacer un jour dans son poste. Dans mon pays tout le monde est musicien; on enseigne la musique dans les écoles et dans les moindres villages les paysans chantent et jouent des différens instrumens pendant la grand-messe dans leurs églises. Comme j'étois passionné pour cet art, je fis des progrès rapides. Je jouois de plusieurs instrumens, et le maître, en me distinguant des autres écoliers, me donna des leçons chz lui dans ses moments de loisir."
  7. Brown & Rushton 2001, "1. Ancestry, early life and training."
  8. Quoted and translated by Heartz 1988, pp. 524–525, citing Ueber das Leben und die Werke des Anton Salieri, K. k. Hofkapellmeister, I. F. Edlen von Mosel (Vienna, 1827): "Gluck, dessen Muttersprache die böhmisch war, drückte sich in der deutschen, und noch mehr in der französischen und italienischen, nur mit Mühe aus... ."
  9. Schmid 1854, p. 39, cited by Heartz 1988, p. 525.
  10. Heartz 1988, p. 525; Arend 1920, p. 20; Prod'homme 1948, chapter one.
  11. Moser 1940, pp. 20–21, cited by Heartz 1988, p. 525.
  12. Garcin 1772, p. 115; reproduced by Heartz 1988, p. 527; cited by Brown & Rushton 2001.
  13. This copy was used around 1789 by Mozart for his adaption of this oratorio (K. 572).
  14. Brown & Rushton 2001, "7. Final years in Vienna.".
  15. Wiener Zeitung, 9 April 1788, p. 855


Further reading

External links

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