Christoph Willibald Gluck is remembered above all for his role in revolutionizing opera at the pivotal moment when the late baroque was evolving into the early classical period.
Unlike many other great composers, Gluck was not born into a musical family. He was a native of Bavaria, and went to study mathematics in Prague. Gluck loved music, particularly opera. He left university without a degree and traveled to Milan.
Italy was the center for opera, which at that time took the form now called opera seria. The emphasis was on virtuoso vocal ornamentation, often to the exclusion of dramatic structure, story, or character. Gluck’s first opera, Artaserse, was staged in Milan in 1741. Other compositions of opera seria rapidly followed.
Gluck left Milan in 1745 and traveled extensively, becoming something of a celebrity across Europe. He spent much time in London, where he was influenced by George Frideric Handel. He wrote commissioned works that were performed in cities as varied as Dresden, Prague, Naples, and Copenhagen. He settled in Vienna in 1752.
The composer set about reforming opera as it was then known. The Italian model had become repetitive and stale. Its elaborate vocal style no longer appealed to Gluck – nor did the stock characters, meager storylines, and antiquated standards. Gluck focused instead on the dramatic qualities that opera could provide – more structure and complexity for the storyline, more emphasis on character. The music, in turn, was crafted to support the drama, to allow the story and characters to build and be revealed to the audience.
Gluck’s first “reformist” opera was Orfeo ed Euridice, staged in Vienna in 1762. He divided his time between Vienna and Paris, where he enjoyed the encouragement of Marie Antoinette, who had once been his student. Gluck’s presence in these two cultural centers did much to turn musical tastes toward his new approach and away from the older models.
By the time of his death in 1787, Gluck had set opera on a new path – one that would lead to opera as it has come to be known. Gluck influenced many who came just after him, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and numerous young French composers. That generation would influence the composers of the early 19th century – and so on to the present day.