Thursday, June 21, 2007

Gluck Explained

Gluck has always puzzled me. In music history books he gets a whole chapter named after himself and is treated as some kind of big deal. He reformed opera. The only problem is that these operas are never done. If he rates a whole chapter, I thought, how come I never hear him? I learned "Che faro senza Euridice" and "O del mio dolce ardor" like everyone else, but that was the limit of my contact with him.

Christoph Willibald (von) Gluck was born in 1714 and grew up during the period of the collapse of counterpoint. By 1740 this collapse was complete. It was the complete disappearance of counterpoint that led Bach to write The Art of the Fugue. So you shouldn't be concerned that Handel said that Gluck knew as much counterpoint as his cook. Or that Metastasio called Gluck's music "barbaric." He was the younger generation.

Cecilia Bartoli recorded an album of Gluck arias, but they were entirely in the Italian style, not the later reform operas. Until the appearance of this album I was not aware that Gluck had composed so much opera seria, including libretti by Metastasio. These operas are performed even less often than the reform operas.

In 1752 Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his opera Le Devin du Village and had it performed for the king of France. He was not concerned about the fact that that he was not a composer, nor should he have been. The point of Rousseau writing an opera was to change people's attitude about opera. It's opera for ordinary people. The enormous popular success of Pergolesi’s La serva padrona in Paris occurred that same year. These are comic operas devoid of pomp and serious music. They are for fun.

I put this in an article about Gluck because these were enormously influential in their time, and their influence extended to Gluck who sponsored opéra comique in Vienna. Gluck was right in the middle of a period devoted to the dumbing down of music. They liked folk songs and extreme simplicity. The re-intellectualizing of music was done in the structural advances of Haydn and Mozart. Not Gluck.

I am trying to explain to myself the experience of seeing Iphigénie en Tauride last night at the San Francisco Opera. It simply isn't like anything I've ever heard. The opera was first performed in Paris in 1779 and is considered the ultimate expression of Gluck's reforms. He was aiming for this.

There's no ballet. The San Francisco Opera's production included a lot of ballet work, but none of it is in pieces intended to be ballet. There's no coloratura at all. Not even tiny hints of it. The men's parts are written for men's normal voices. There's no secco recitative, and you have to be really paying attention to catch the transitions from recitative to aria. Clue: the harpsichord goes in and out, in for the recitative, out for the arias and other concerted pieces. There are arias, but they could have been folk songs. If it weren't for occasional high notes, how would we know it was an opera? The orchestration is not fully classical. Nor is it Baroque. He just fools around with sonorities in a completely homophonic texture. I like more to hook my ears to than this.

The plot is unrelentingly grim. Iphegenie is required to kill two men simply because they are strangers. They turn out to be from Mycenae, her home, and she finds out from them what has happened to her parents. They talk endlessly about killing and death, but only King Troas actually dies. Eventually she finds out that one of the two men is her brother Orestes. There is a very nice deus ex machina at the end that ends the curse of Agamemnon's family.

I think the significance of Gluck derives from hind sight. German historians like anyone who has a theory to go with whatever music they are writing. We might have liked Wagner without knowing he had a theory, but would anyone care about Schoenberg if he didn't have a theory? Would anyone listen to these reform operas if we didn't think Gluck was a forerunner of through-composed style operas of the nineteenth century? The existence of the theory seems to validate the significance of the work. Actually enjoying listening to it doesn't seem to be important.

If he was so influential, who did he influence? Where is the vogue he started? Mozart is supposed to be influenced by Gluck, but I don't hear it. Mozart wrote real arias and never abandoned secco recitative. He composed Metastasio just like everyone else. Idomeneo is structurally looser than opera seria generally is. Is this the influence they are talking about? Gluck's reform operas weren't popular enough in Vienna for Mozart to want to imitate them.

I didn't mind the minimalist production--everything was black except for a few words written on the walls. EPHEGENIE. AGAMEMNON. CLYTEMNESTRA. This successfully clarified the plot for me. A bit more differentiation between characters might have helped. It was hard to tell Bo Skovhus as Orestes from Paul Groves as Pylades. Their voices were remarkably similar and occupied a remarkably similar pitch range. Susan Graham was very good. Her voice is lyrical and sweet. A heavier sound in this role would have produced a different opera. Heidi Melton stood in the auditorium while singing Diane, the deus ex machina, thus saving the expense of any actual machinery. She has a huge blasting voice in startling contrast to the mortals in the opera.

It was a lot less boring than it should have been.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1760-1780]


Anonymous said...

Did you even know how influential was for Mozart the aria "Dieux qui me poursuivez"? It was that influential that it is undeniable its similarity with some arias of Mozart's maturity, and you should know that in the eightheenth century Gluck was more famous and respected that mozart could in his life.Bytheway, how can you say that scenes like "Grands dieux soyeznous-securables" or "Vengeons et la nature" are boring? the only explanation could be that you had not understanded any word in the whole time you saw the opera; Gluck's Music is suposed to support the drama and poetry. And if you indeed know nothing about Gluck you shouldn't title this as "Gluck Explained" it should be as "Gluck for ignorants like me".

Dr.B said...

Dear Anonymous,
I am new at this Gluck thing. This was my first experience of Gluck except for the aria "Che faro." He has a bareness and simplicity that is quite shocking, but I think that's what he was going for. After all, Handel was horrified.

The content of this blog is my own education. The person it's being explained to is me.

Anonymous said...

"Shocking"! the idea was the direct expression of an emotion, a more natural opera, why would you use coloratura to say something from the bottom of your heart? you won't belive that someone is in pain if he or she takes the time to make ornaments during his/her exclamation. this was to make a more rational the opera, and indeed this idea influenced Mozart and very much composers of the time that they reduced the coloratura numbers, the arias were shorter and the plot was more appreciable (and you don't see any da capo arias in classical opera right?) as settled in Alceste's preface.

Dr.B said...

All of which still depends on why you came to the opera in the first place. I have written some subsequent posts on Gluck. I suggest you read those, too.