First Performance of Gluck’s Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Composed when he was already a famous opera composer, Gluck’s work with librettist Calzabigi led him to champion revolutionary reforms in opera that have made him a key figure in the transition from the Baroque to the classical and pre-Romantic styles.

Summary of Event

Largely self-taught, Christoph Gluck gained early experience in Prague, Vienna, and Milan, developing a conservative and direct style of writing. He composed his first operas in Italy (1741-1745), for Milan, Venice, Crema, and Turin. Invited to London, he produced two operas (1746) that were poorly received. His works failed to impress George Frideric Handel, but he had success as a performer on the “musical glasses.” A traveling musician for six more years, he managed to fulfill opera commissions in Dresden, Vienna, Copenhagen, Prague, and Naples, while also performing in Hamburg and Munich. It was only in 1752, at the age of thirty-eight, that he [kw]First Performance of Gluck’s Orfeo and Euridice (Oct. 5, 1762) [kw]Euridice, First Performance of Gluck’s Orfeo and (Oct. 5, 1762) [kw]Orfeo and Euridice, First Performance of Gluck’s (Oct. 5, 1762) [kw]Gluck’s Orfeo and Euridice, First Performance of (Oct. 5, 1762) [kw]Performance of Gluck’s Orfeo and Euridice, First (Oct. 5, 1762) Orfeo and Euridice (Gluck) Opera [g]Austria;Oct. 5, 1762: First Performance of Gluck’s Orfeo and Euridice[1650] [c]Theater;Oct. 5, 1762: First Performance of Gluck’s Orfeo and Euridice[1650] [c]Music;Oct. 5, 1762: First Performance of Gluck’s Orfeo and Euridice[1650] Gluck, Christoph Calzabigi, Ranieri Durazzo, Giacomo Guadagni, Gaetano decided to settle in Vienna, where he acquired a princely patron and contacts at the imperial court.

Gluck quickly found favor with the imperial family and its circle, while he became a protégé of the powerful intendant of Vienna’s theaters, Count Giacomo Durazzo. The latter secured him important employments plus commissions for numerous operas offered at court. These were at first in Italian, but Gluck then followed the new taste Durazzo was promoting for stage works in French. Durazzo’s influence was yet more significant, however, since he was an enthusiastic advocate for the new program of reforming opera.

Opera in the Baroque era had been highly stylized, involving distinct set pieces (mainly arias, but also duets and ensembles) spaced between long passages of declamation over keyboard chords known as recitativo secco (“dry” recitative). The ultimate formalization of this idiom had been made in widely utilized librettos by the famous Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), who since 1730 had been the court poet in Vienna and was originally a moral reformer. By Gluck’s day, operas were generally quite artificial entertainments, with highly contrived plots and an emphasis upon vocal display by the singers.

The artificiality and ornamentation of the prevalent operatic style provoked a new movement in opera that valued dramatic coherence, theatrical verity, and a closer linking of music to the poetic texts being set. One of the most influential of the writers and intellectuals who advocated such reforms was Francesco Algarotti (1712-1764), whose Saggio sopra l’opera in musica (1755; An Essay on the Opera, 1767) was a widely read critique of alleged abuses in the form. Other writers added pleas of their own, while a number of composers were influenced by their ideas, notably Tommaso Traetta (1727-1779).

In 1761, the Italian businessman, poet, and intellectual Ranieri Calzabigi arrived in Vienna. An admirer and defender of Metastasio, he was otherwise a strong advocate of reform ideals and was quickly brought into the city’s theatrical life by Durazzo. Durazzo drew Calzabigi into one progressive project, the mounting of a “reform” ballet-pantomime, Don Juan: Ou, Le Festin de Pierre (1761), composed by Gluck. The latter had long been a traditionalist: He had composed twenty-nine operas at that point, of which twenty-one had been Italian, and sixteen of those twenty-one had used texts by Metastasio. There has been much debate as to how much of Gluck’s involvement in “reform opera” was self-motivated and how much was at Calzabigi’s prompting. The composer himself later admitted Calzabigi’s influence. Nevertheless, Gluck was seen by Durazzo and Calzabigi as the ideal collaborator in an opera exemplifying the ideals of the reformers.

A court occasion provided the opportunity for the production of Orfeo ed Euridice (Orfeo and Euridice), which was first performed on October 5, 1762, and constituted one of the most enduring treatments of the myth of music’s first hero, Orpheus. While by no means as radical or novel as the later mythology of the opera would have it, the production was a model of dramatic clarity within direct musical expressiveness. It still included set pieces, but they were integrated into a coherent and uncluttered entity. The work was enthusiastically received, not the least thanks to its star performer, the widely admired castrato Gaetano Guadagni, who created the title role. (The following year, 1763, he created the role of Oreste in Traetta’s own “reform” opera, Ifigenia in Tauride, and he returned in another Gluck opera in 1765. In later years, Guadagni specialized entirely in the role of Orfeo in various operatic works by Gluck and others.)

Gluck does not seem to have converted entirely to the reformed, post-Baroque style of opera, for he returned to the traditional style in five more Italian stage pieces, plus one in French. Even in these six productions, however, reform influences were undeniably evident in his work. Durazzo was forced out of the Viennese court, but Calzabigi stayed on to collaborate on two more Italian operas with Gluck, Alceste Alceste (Gluck and Calzabigi) (pr. 1767, pb. 1769) and Paride ed Elena (1770). These two works sealed Gluck’s commitment to the new aesthetics, especially with the greater integration of the chorus’s role in the first of them.

When Gluck had Alceste published in 1769, it appeared with a dedicatory preface over Gluck’s signature but actually written by Calzabigi. Exactly whose initiatives were paramount in the composition is not clear, but the statements made in the preface seem to fuse the ideas on which the two collaborators agreed, and it stands as the clearest manifesto of the so-called Viennese reform opera movement. In this manifesto, the collaborators emphasized their goals: They sought to make the music serve the poetry and not just call attention to itself; to keep the plot clear and direct, without distracting interruptions; to use vocal forms purely for dramatic expression and not cheap display; to break down the old, arbitrary division between recitative and aria; and “to avoid complexity at the expense of clarity.”

The goals expressed in the preface to Alceste were all intended to fulfill the understanding “that simplicity, truth, and naturalness are the great principles of beauty in all manifestations of art.” The latter statement was a revealing maxim, for it matched perfectly the mentality of the pioneering art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann in his influential (if misleading) definition of “classicism” in ancient Greek terms as “noble simplicity and calm greatness.” True figures of the Enlightenment, Calzabigi and Gluck were the most effective exponents of establishing the new ideals of classicism Classicism;opera Music;classical in music and theater. Classicism;theater


Most of Gluck’s operas have had uneven fates and often-limited appreciation, in unfair disdain for their seeming oversimplicity. Orfeo and Euridice, however, has been an exception. Berlioz, who adored Gluck, revised the French version of the opera for Pauline Viardot. In the early twenty-first century, the opera has most often been performed in the original Italian but with interpolations from the Paris revision. Richard Wagner, who saw Gluck as the preeminent “reformer” of opera before himself, made a German revision of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide (1774) aimed at updating his predecessor in his own terms. It has been Orfeo and Euridice, however, that has kept Gluck’s name alive, surviving as the earliest opera firmly established in the standard international repertoire and an endlessly beloved vehicle for singers.

Though Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) was his one disciple and stylistic heir, Gluck left behind no true “school” for his “reform opera.” Such younger contemporaries as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were influenced by his techniques but never fully accepted his model. Nevertheless, his principles of dramatic clarity and his replacement of the old “dry” recitative with consistent orchestral writing became standard in operatic form in the early Romantic, lyric theater of the next century. Critical and public appreciation of the “noble simplicity” of Gluck’s dramatic expressiveness remains backward. Nevertheless, the tradition of Gluck’s role in the reform and classicizing of opera, however oversimplified, has secured him an indelible place in cultural history.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Drummond, John D. Opera in Perspective. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986. Contextual survey of operas and their history; includes a section on Orfeo and Euridice.
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    xlink:type="simple">Einstein, Alfred. Gluck. Translated by Eric Blom. London: Dent, 1936. A long-standard study of the composer’s life and career.
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    xlink:type="simple">Grout, Donald Jay. A Short History of Opera. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965. Standard overview of the art form’s history.
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    xlink:type="simple">Howard, Patricia. Christoph Willibald Gluck: A Guide to Research. New York: Garland, 1987. Thoroughly assembled and annotated survey of sources and studies of the composer.
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    xlink:type="simple">_______. Gluck and the Birth of Modern Opera. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964. Probing study by the leading Gluck specialist.
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    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. C. W. Gluck: Orfeo. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981. Topical essays on the work by a group of leading scholars and musicians.
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    xlink:type="simple">Kerman, Joseph. Opera as Drama. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Classic study, with a fine chapter on Orfeo and Euridice.
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    xlink:type="simple">Newman, Ernest. Gluck and the Opera. London: Bertram Dobell, 1895. Reprint. London: Gollancz, 1967. Still a penetrating study.
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    xlink:type="simple">Sadie, Stanley, ed. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. 10. New York: Grove, 2001.
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    xlink:type="simple">_______. New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Vol. 2. New York: Grove, 1992. Multiauthor articles on Gluck and Orfeo and Euridice, each with an extensive bibliography.

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Categories: History