Widely travelled and cosmopolitan, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s determination to make opera simpler and free of frills would reform the art form far beyond his own works. Here's a guide to his style and some recommended recordings...
In the famous Alceste preface, Gluck claims to have taken care ‘not to halt a singer in the heat of his dialogue to make him wait through a boring ritornello, nor stop him in mid-word on a favourable vowel’. In other words, his ‘reform’ word-setting is generally syllabic in character, allowing the text to come through clearly and with natural emphases.
Gluck advocated a closer connection between an opera’s overture and the subsequent drama, as vividly demonstrated in his Alceste or Iphigénie en Aulide. The introduction depicts a calm sea and then an orchestral storm, which leads into the action.
The watchword of Gluck’s renewed style, exemplified throughout Orfeo ed Euridice, is to aim for a ‘beautiful simplicity’, to avoid ‘making a display of complexities at the expense of clarity’, bringing his approach close to the ideal established by the contemporary art-historian Johann Winckelmann’s advocacy of ‘noble simplicity and calm greatness’ in ancient Greek art.
Music historian Charles Burney recorded that in his hearing Handel had said of Gluck, ‘he knows no more of contrapunto [counterpoint] as mein cook’ – referring to the bass, Gustavus Waltz, who may have worked for Handel in a culinary capacity; counterpoint in Gluck’s scores is limited – but that may be a conscious stylistic decision.
Orfeo ed Euridice
Bernarda Fink etc; Barockorchester/René Jacobs
Harmonia Mundi HMY2921742/43
The 1762 version of Gluck’s historic work comes up fresh as paint in this performance.
Sonia Prina etc; Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis
Virgin Classics 0709292
Alan Curtis proves that there is more to pre-Reform Gluck than one might expect.
Soloists; Staatsopernchor & Staatsorchester Stuttgart/Constantinos Carydis
Arthaus Musik 101251
Catherine Naglestad is the heroine in this French version of Gluck’s drama.
Paride ed Elena
Magdalena Kozená etc; Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh
DG Archiv E4775415
This, one of Gluck’s least known scores, is a feast for lovers of soprano singing.
Original text by George Hall
Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.