Opera, Italian for ‘work’, is an art form over 400 years old. Inspired by mythology, history, folk stories and politics, composers have turned to writing operas as an outlet of creativity, but the stories behind opera’s broad and fascinating history are incredibly thought provoking in themselves.
The fifth week of our opera history course at the Royal College of Music has seen us studying the operas of Gluck, paying close attention to his reforms to the way opera was written and perceived by its audiences. Willibald Christoph Gluck (1714-1787) is best known for is opera ‘Orpheo ed Euridice’, based on the ancient legend Orpheus and Euridice. I think it is important to remember that opera’s ‘purpose’ previous to Gluck had been rather light and fun entertainment. Of course, darker themes were addressed, but in general opera was, by and large, a social event accompanied by virtuosic and light music. Gluck made it known that he highly disregarded this ‘ridiculous and wearisome’ Italian opera. Gluck believed opera was ready for reform, and made it no secret that he was to lead this ‘stripping down’ of opera into something much simpler. Gluck believed that by ‘stifling the action with superfluidity of ornaments’ composers were taking music away from its ‘true office of serving poetry’. In order to serve the text, Gluck controversially removed virtuosic melismas, da capo arias and vocal improvisation, and instead increased the orchestra’s dramatic presence and gave it a greater role.
Although these reforms paved the way for the operas of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner, I believe Gluck’s dogmatic views on the true purpose of music to be somewhat flawed. Gluck talks of the ‘true purpose’ of music being to serve the text. Perhaps in opera this holds more truth than symphonies based on stories or texts, though talking of music’s true purpose is not something that can be taken lightly. Music and its purpose has a highly personalised response from each person. Some people interpret music as a playful use of emotions, some see it as escapism, others as an academic and chemical process. For Gluck, its true purpose was to serve the text and through his musical reforms, he could bring the text out by keeping the musical interest out of the vocal line and putting it in the orchestra. A good example of this is Orfeo’s arioso “Che puro ciel”. Here the voice is reduced to the minor role of recit-style oration. Here it is the oboe that carries the main melody, supported by solos from the flute, cello, bassoon, and horn. There is also accompaniment from the strings (playing in triplets) and the continuo. This is thought to be the most complex orchestration that Gluck ever wrote.
Although, on the face of it, Gluck’s ideas for reform appear rather opinionated and controversial, we cannot deny that his opera style triggered a major shift in Operas style. An example of Gluck’s influence is the quotation in Mozart’s Don Giovanni of Gluck’s Alceste. Mozart used the same chord progression in the garden scene for the Commendatore speaking to Don Giovanni that Gluck used in his opera when the High Priest says Alceste will die if no one takes her place. The influence is unquestionable, and leads us to question whether Gluck’s philosophy behind music and opera, although seemingly narrow minded, holds a longevity to inspire and influence other great composers.