Christopher Willibald Gluck

by Ernest Newman

christoph gluckAn able French critic once said, in speaking of the development of opera through Gluck, Wagner, and Berlioz, the Gluck sought and found the dramatic accent, but not the dramatic form, which is a piece of perfectly just criticism as far as it goes. As a matter of fact, the true dramatic form, being a compromise between the two arts of poetry and music, must necessarily be very difficult to attain; and, to say nothing of Berlioz, it is not quite beyond dispute that even Wagner and his contemporaries was not only easier in many ways than that of Gluck, but it was easier precisely because of the example Gluck had set them. Given the essentials of dramatic speech in music, the modern composer could bestow all the more attention on the pursuit of the dramatic form, more especially as the palette of the musician had been enriched by the new colors brought to it by so many of the great immortals. But Gluck had not only to work out for himself, as best he could, the broader relations of music to poetry, but he had to invent, to a large extent, his own forms of speech; had to translate the big dramatic emotions into tone with very little assistance from the vocabulary of his contemporaries. It is scarcely to be wondered at if, under these circumstances, he spent his strength for the most part in getting veracity and poignancy of expression from moment to moment, and failed to recast the form of opera as a whole, to remold it on more homogeneous, more vital lines.

When he commenced his great reforming works, opera was everywhere regarded in Europe as a comparatively inferior medium of musical expression. The Italians had prostituted it to the vanity of the singers and the languors of the audience; the French, all the dramatic earnestness of Rameau notwithstanding, had made it the quintessence of dullness; while in Germany the opera houses were mostly run by Italian troupes and stocked with Italian music. Everywhere the opera was sinking under the burdens of cheap melody, dance libretti, vain and stupid singers, and pompous scenic display. The only department in which there could be said to be any real life was that of opera buffa, which had been vivified by the sparkling inspiration of Pergolesi, Jomelli, and others, and which escaped a lot of the absurdities that had swallowed up opera seria. Satirist after satirist had laughed the opera to scorn, but apparently with little or no effect. Serious students like Algarotti made elaborate analyses of what it was and what it ought to be, but had no influence upon the practice of composers. It is probably, too, that the system of patronage current in the eighteenth century had something to do with the flaccid condition of the opera of the day, for the musician must frequently have felt his imagination hampered by the necessity of pleasing not only the public but his patron.

This was the condition of things with which Gluck had to contend. On the intellectual side he was a man of enormous volition, a combatant who believed very firmly in himself. On the artistic side he was gifted with a poetical and dramatic sense in opera far beyond that of any of his contemporaries, and with a musical imagination comparatively limited in range and complexity, but capable of profoundly moving expression when it had to deal with a strong dramatic situation. At the time he, dissatisfied with his earlier works, he set himself to consider the problem of the reform of the opera, he had attained complete maturity of imagination and of technic. Critically minded as he was, and alive to the main esthetic forces of his day, he brought to bear upon the problem of music and the drama, as he conceived it, the theories of poetical and musical expression that had so great a vogue in the eighteenth century. The Aristotelian theory that art imitated nature was almost everywhere predominant; the respective spheres of the arts were not clearly defined; their sensuous sides were barely glanced at in considering their scopes and possibilities, the attention of the estheticians being fixed almost solely on the ideas to be expressed. If all the arts suffered from this esthetic confusion, music stood at a greater disadvantage than any of the others; for not only did the fallacy of the imitation of nature work the deadliest havoc there, but the art itself was a comparative undeveloped one, and so more likely to be set traveling along a wrong path. It is clear, for example, that so long as men held a theory like Baumgarten’s, that the faculty concerned in apprehending beauty is just a lower phase of reason, music had not much chance of development along the more emotional lines.

It was owing to this kind of esthetic that Gluck was prompted to the writing of the famous passage in his preface to Alceste:

“I sought to reduce music to its true function, that of supporting the poetry, in order to strengthen the expression of the sentiments and the interest of the situations, without interrupting the action of disfiguring it with superfluous ornament. I imagined that the music should be to the poetry just what the vivacity of color and the happy combination of light and shade are to a correct and well composed design, serving to animate the figures without altering the contours.”

Here the function of the musician in opera is clearly made subservient to that of the poet; and the reasons for this are to be sought partly in the comparatively undeveloped state of music in that day, partly in the current esthetic theory of the need for “imitating nature”, and partly in the pronounced bias of Gluck’s mind to that order of musical expression that takes its inspiration and its accent from words. Everywhere in the esthetic writings of the time the musician was exhorted to  be faithful to the guidance of the poet, and to “imitate nature” in tone as closely and as simply as possible. Rousseau argues at great length on the assumption that the aim of the musician should be to create in sound an esthetic product intrinsically the same as that created by the poet in words, or by the painter in lines and colors; the musician, in fact, was to “paint objects” in tone. Harris, in his “Discourse on Music, Painting, and Poetry” (1744), discussed the question as to which art, poetry, painting, or music, “imitates nature most effectively”. Du Bos laid it down that “music achieves its imitations by means of melody, harmony, and rhythm, just as painting makes its imitations by means of lines, chiaroscuro, and local colors”. He even went further, summing up that, “the first principles of music are the same as those of poetry and painting. Music, like the other two arts, is an imitations, and it cannot be of any value unless it conforms to the general rules of these two arts as to the choice of its subjects, its probability, and other matters”. The duet was condemned by Grimm and other writers because it is “not according to nature”, it being altogether against reason for two tragic persons to be talking at the same time without either paying any attention to the other. Saint-Evremond even objected to the characters singing at all; for “can any one imagine a master calling his valet and singing his order to him?” Beattie, one of the sanest esthetic writers of the day, contended that music was inferior to poetry just because it could not make its pictures so definite as the latter. “Poetry is the most immediate and most accurate interpreter of music. Without this auxiliary, a piece of the best music, heard for the first time, might be said to mean something, but we should not be able to say what. It might incline the heart to sensibility; but poetry, or language, would be necessary to improve that sensibility into a real emotion, by fixing the mind upon some definite and affecting idea”. Algarotti and others even held that the dance should be an “imitation of nature”.

A glance at opinions of this kind, which were freely expressed in the musical and critical circles in which Gluck moved, makes clear to us how he came to write the music he did. For the most part he would have thought it rank heresy to set up music as higher or more expressive than poetry, or even very different from poetry in its essential features. He was content top lay the part of colorist to the poet’s drawing, taking care not to let his musical imagination slip the fetters the poet had imposed on it. “The melody in my operas”, he wrote, “is merely a substitute for declamation”, not a self existing shape of beauty, finding justification in the first place in the laws of music. “The imitation of nature”, he says again, “is the end which both poet and composer should set before themselves; that is the goal after which I have striven…My music tends only to greater expressiveness and to the enforcement of the declamation of the poetry”. Once more: “I have tried to be painter and poet rather than musician”; and again, “in composing, I try to forget that I am a musician”. This faith found complete expression when he wrote: “I might perhaps have written something more beautify from a musical point of view, and varied it so as to please your ears; but in that case I would only have been a musician, and would have been untrue to nature, which I must never abandon”.

Thus it is clear that the ideal Gluck set before himself was a form of opera in which the music should be the handmaid of the poetry from first to last. It is almost unnecessary, at this time of day, to point out that he did not achieve this ideal, and that if he had done so his music would not live for the modern world as it does. His best melody is very much more than intensified declamation; it addresses itself to the musical even more than to the poetical side of our intelligence. When one finds, in our own epoch, the theory that music is an intensification of speech held by such a thinker as Herbert Spencer and by such a musician as Wagner, it is hardly surprising that this erroneous view was the prevailing on in the eighteenth century, when music, as a separate art, was not so supremely developed as now. As a matter of fact, Gluck himself, in his more encandescent moments, reached out to quite another theory of opera, that “the voices, the instruments, the tones, even the pauses, should strive after one end, expression, and the agreement between the words and the music should be such that neither the poem should seem to be made for the music nor the music for the poem”. That is quite a different theory from the other, in that it restores to the musician the right to reach brain and heart in his own way, instead of being required to do unnecessary or impossible things at the behest of the poet. But Gluck could have no more than fugitive intuitions of this; the development of music along these lines, and its consequent action upon opera, was reserved for other times and other men. Circumstanced as he was, both by temperament, by training, and in his intellectual associations, his work was necessarily east in the mold of reticent, well ordered classicism. If the painters worshipped line, the painters who might have been expected to see that life and nature had something more than line, it is not to be wondered at that the musician, with no external model to instruct him, should hesitate to trust himself on the unknown seas of color. The social structure and the salon of the eighteenth century had first to be shattered and then reconstructed before that development became possible in music.