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Timeline: Gluck And Operatic Reform

U.S. Public Domain
Christoph Willibald Gluck took opera back to its roots with his first reformed work "Orfeo ed Euridice".

The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century called into question the powers of the monarchy and religious dogma. There was an emphasis on scientific rigor and simplicity. This movement found its start in the writings of philosophers and made it ways into politics and eventually art – even the world of opera through the reforms of Christoph Willibald Gluck.

Credit U.S. Public Domain
A humorous caricature of a performance of Handel's "Flavio".

By the early 1700’s, opera composers began to tire of the conventions established in the Baroque. 

They had three major grievances that needed to be addressed.  First, the plot of every opera had become predictable and formulaic, in other words, boring. The characters of the drama were just stereotypes and you could see the same traits from one work to the next.

Second, the poetry had become strings of similes, flowery and repetitive; without the nuance of actual speech or emotion. 

Finally, the formal structure of the music served the performer much more than the drama of the story.  Soloists had taken their improvisations of arias so far that the original melodies written by the composers were almost unrecognizable.

It was time to reform the art form and bring it into the 18th Century. That’s where Christoph Willibald Gluck comes in.

Gluck took opera back to its roots with his first “reformed” work "Orfeo ed Euridice." In 1769, the German composer published a preface for his popular opera "Alceste" which condemned the prevalent conventions of his day and offered an alternative to these structures and forms. 

He sought what he called “Noble Simplicity:" The story is streamlined;  the recitatives are accompanied by the entire orchestra; even the lines between recitative and aria are blurred so that the story remains clear. The soloist’s vocal virtuosity is contained so that the performer is as much an actor as a singer. The text is set in the rhythm of actual speech with simpler flowing melodic lines.

Gluck’s reforms took hold in Germany, Italy and later France, thanks to the patronage of Marie Antoinette.  His influence can be heard in the works of Mozart, Weber and Wagner. In fact, prior to World War II, Gluck’s operas were among the earliest works in any opera repertoire.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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