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.