Biographical Sketch of Christoph Willibald Gluck

by John Miles

The life of Christoph Willibald Gluck has been enshrouded with relative obscurity. He is credited with opera reform in the early Classical period in music, and despite many inconsistencies in his works, has remained one of the great composers of opera. The following shall shed some insight into his contributions to Classical music as well as Italian and French opera.

Gluck’s father, an official of nobility, was born into a family of which the men had traditionally served as huntsmen for the local branch of the kingdom in Bohemia. Gluck himself was born in a small village called Erasbach, on 2 July 1714, located between Nuremberg and Ratisbon, Germany. As a toddler young Gluck had to move frequently because of his father’s obligations to the court. As the son of an official, Gluck received fine musical training as early as elementary school, where in Bohemia, to which the Gluck family family moved, children were taught how to sing and play instruments. Gluck supposedly was sent by his father to Komotau where he attended a Jesuit college, receiving clavier, although there is some doubt as to whether this actually happened. Gluck is said to have entered the university in Prague as a student in 1732, but there is no evidence of what his goals were or what course of study he undertook. The only evidence as to what he did in Prague was his word that he “studied as it was the custom to study there at that time”.

However, by this time, one thing is certainly clear about Gluck: music was his main attraction. In addition to his previously mentioned talents, he also played the cello and violin. At this time he supported himself by playing whatever and wherever he could find a job, working around the neighborhood fairs and singing with the Prague church choirs, including those of St. James and Tein church. It was this association with St. James that brought him into contact with Bohuslav Cernohorsky, who was chapelmaster in 1735. Cernohorsky, a Franciscan monk, personally pointed Gluck in the direction of the Italian style of training, exposing Gluck with the strict as well as the less strict church styles. It was in Prague that Gluck made his initial contact with opera in the houses of the aristocratic and royal patrons.

Gluck left Prague at age 22 and relocated to Vienna where, exposed to Italian opera, he was taken into the service of Prince Philipp Lobkowitz as a chamber musician. The following year Gluck performed before Prince Melzi, who asked him to come to Milan as a chamber musician. While in Milan, Gluck studied under G. B. Sammartini and heard many contemporary Italian operas.

In 1741 Gluck wrote his first opera Artaserse which was a success. Artaserse was based on a libretto written by Metastasio, a famous poet of the time who was patronized by royalty. This was also the first of many Gluck’s works in which he was to use the librettists’s poems, as did hundreds of other Italian opera composers. This style of opera consisted mainly of arias with the intention of featuring the star solo singers; the various arias were connected by music of no major importance. Gluck wrote many early works such as these, but the are rarely, if ever performed today, also partly due to the fact that complete scores of all the music have not been preserved. Regarding his Italian works it is apparent that Gluck faced some fierce competition from contemporaries like Hasse, Vinci and Leo as well as dozens of less known minor composers. In spite of his rivals, his success in those early days attracted attention by his aria’s use of modern melodies and energy, which was similar to instrumental music written during that time.

Lord Middlesex, director of the Italian Opera in London, invited Prince Lobkowitz, accompanied by Gluck, to London in the fall of 1745. On the way the stopped over in Paris, where Gluck became acquainted with French opera and the work of Rameau. In London, the current precarious political situation affected performance of Italian opera. However, Lord Middlesex contrived to have the Italian opera reopened for a performance of a work by Gluck that he had written for the occasion. Apparently, Gluck needed some quick cash, as the work simply consisted of several of Gluck’s previous arias rewritten to accommodate a new text. Handel, upon hearing the work, criticized the work as having poor counterpoint, but this did not discourage Gluck from visiting the composer of Messiah at his home, nor Handel from receiving him and offering a few pointers.

Not to be discouraged, the next year he again adapted old arias from three of his older works to a libretto by Bitturi. In March, Gluck and Handel gave a concert in London, in which both composers were represented by performances of their respective arias. The following month, Gluck again appeared as a performer on musical glasses, performing a concerto “upon twenty-six drinking-glasses tuned with spring water, being a new instrument of his own invention”. One wonders if this is how he survived in his earlier days in Prague. Prior to his departure for Hamburg, where he joined Pietro Mingotti’s Italian opera company as a conductor, Gluck had six trio sonatas published in November.

During Gluck’s life as a traveling conductor, he wrote new operas for the company, again borrowing from his previous works and adding new texts. Gluck was associating amongst the highest circles of Europe, and remained in the good graces of powerful and influential people. Among Gluck’s more notorious escapades during this period of his life involves an affair with the buffo singer Gaspera Becheroni; this relationship left Gluck with venereal disease, which accounts for his later childlessness. Undoubtedly, Gluck was making connections of all kinds in those days, for he was in constant demand in many houses of nobility and the wealthy.

In 1750 Gluck was married to Marianna Pergin, which is to say that he married into money, and no longer had to depend on writing music for such fiascoes as were associated with him during his years in London. Gluck now could afford to write as he pleased, and in the next few years was found working commissions for various patrons, producing several operas and traveling throughout northwestern Europe.

When Gluck returned to Vienna in the autumn of 1754, he was hired as music director to the court by Count Durazzo, who was opposed the popular operatic ideal of Metastasio. Their first collaboration was an opera entitled L’innocenza giusti ficata, and was not a mere display of music contrived to flatter the singers; it was rather, a music drama, “no longer the play of amorous intrigue, but genuine dramatic passion.” At the age of forty-two Gluck was knighted by Pope Benedict XIV and received the Order of the Golden Spur and title of Cavalier. Of the events of Gluck’s life in 1757 not much is known except it is apparent that he began conducting productions of opera comique, for by the next year he had written the first of a long series of French comic operas. In the meantime his current patron Prince Hildburghausen was defeated in the battle of Rossbach: Gluck’s orchestra was dissolved and Gluck was temporarily out of a job, but thanks to his wife’s wealth and his own recent success, he didn’t have to worry. Gluck wrote Don Juan, a dramatic ballet, in 1761, and although different from some of his later works, it showed the path on which he was embarking. ballet at this time was also going through serious reforms coinciding with developments in opera.

In those days it was impossible to publicly attack the court poet. However, it is obvious there existed a clique that included Gluck, Count Durrazo, Angiolini, the Duke of Braganza, the dancer Mlle Bodin and Count Philipp, which was secretly in opposition to Metastasio. This group of individuals did not have a librettist to achieve their aims until a man by the name of Ranieri Calzabigi, an early rival of Metastasio, came to Vienna. Calzabigi condemned the Italians for their practice of using castrati male singers. Calzabigi is described as somewhat of a derelict. Gluck and Metastasio, on the other hand, were not exactly on the best of terms, so the stage was set for he opera Orfeo ed Euridice, first performed at the court theater on 5 October 1762. The libretto was written by Calzabigi and was the reform Gluck and his partisans had been striving towards.

Surprisingly enough, the next year saw the production of a libretto by Metastasio, for many an unexpected reversion, but was a typical move for Gluck, who always knew which side of the bread on which was the butter.

Gluck’s next major work was Alceste, written in 1767 and based on a libretto by Calzabigi. Gluck dedicated the work to the Peter Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who was later to become Leopold II, thereby assuring himself a handsome tip and securing the support of the court for this reform opera. Another major reform work was Paride ed Elena, written in 1770.

By now, Gluck was starting to become advanced in age; however, he consistently produced major reform operas, despite occasional departures to his earlier style. By now Gluck felt quite comfortable borrowing material from earlier works and regarded them as sketches to be drawn from at will. After some work with the librettist Klopstock, Gluck, now in his sixties, moved to France and asserted his position as a composer of French opera after a brief controversy with the Italian composer Piccinni, who had many followers in Paris.

Ill health and a series of strokes in his early seventies greatly affected his musical output, which was still fairly prodigious for a man of his age and ill-health. Finally, on 15 November 1787, at age 73, Gluck was being visited by friends when he drank a glass of liquor “in the momentary absence of his wife” and within a few hours died of another stroke.

During his long life, Gluck wrote forty-seven operas and feste teatrali, thirteen opera comiques and vaudevilles, four ballets, seven collections of vocal works and four instrumental works, many of which are still currently being performed. The methods and ideas pioneered by Gluck were influential upon composers such as Mozart, a contemporary of his whom he had met as well as Cherubini, Beethoven and Berlioz. Gluck was of the opinion that an opera should not let the music get in the way of the drama, functioning as to serve the story and feelings of the characters.


Einstein, Alfred. Gluck.

Harper’s Dictionary of Music.