For New Year, I posted some Rameau excerpts for the 250th anniversary of his death, commenting that, in general, our opera houses seemed quite indifferent to him and to that anniversary. Now there are good arguments about incessant marking of anniversaries; I have certainly tried to voice a few on occasion. Yet the arguments in favour of such acknowledgement become far stronger in terms of unjustly neglected composers. (We all know about the pallid legions of the justly neglected, for instance the Baxes, Bantocks, et al., whom a few sandal-wearing ‘British music’ enthusiasts would foist upon the Proms every year.) There are even some who claim that they would rather celebrate a birth than commemorate a death. We may even wish to restrict ourselves to centenaries, rather than come up against divisions thereof. So if, on the latter two counts, we are not to hear Rameau, whose stature seems almost to increase with every hearing, then what of one of the most significant figures in the history of opera, who was born in Erasbach in the Upper Palatinate on 2 July 1714.
Sometimes it seems as though that entire history of the form has been characterised by a struggle to reform it, to return – whether knowingly or otherwise – to the noble aspirations of the Florentine Camerata and Monteverdi. (That the Camerata’s belief that Greek tragedy was sung may have been misguided is in that sense neither here nor there; fruitful misunderstandings have long been a hallmark of musical and artistic development, as was more recently illustrated by the post-war serialists’ appropriation of Webern.) It is certainly not the case, of course, that composers have had to be operatic reformers to be great composers of opera. Stravinsky’s knowingly provocative comments on The Rake’s Progress – that wonderful instance of a masterwork founded upon the most highly problematical of æsthetics – serve as a warning in that respect:
Having chosen a period-piece subject, I decided – naturally, as it seemed to me – to assume the conventions of the period as well. The Rake’s Progress is a conventional opera, therefore, but with the difference that these particular conventions were considered by respectable circles to be long since dead. My plan of revival did not include updating or modernising, however – which would have been self-contradictory in any case – and it follows that I had no ambitions as a ‘reformer’, at least not in the line of a Gluck, a Wagner, or a Berg. In fact, these great progressives sought to abolish or transform most of the very clichés I have tried to re-establish, and my return to these clichés was not meant as a superseding of their now conventionalised reforms (such as the leitmotif systems of Wagner and Berg).
Gluck’s desire to reform opera continues to speak to us today; indeed in an era in which ‘opera’ often seems to be as much about big business, corporate entertainment, and provision of social standing to uncomprehending and, more to the important, uninterested bourgeois audiences, they seem more necessary than ever. Who could argue in principle against these words from the preface to Alceste, penned by his librettist, Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, but nevertheless very much Gluck’s own?
I have striven to restrict music to its true office of serving poetry by means of expression and by following the situations of the story, without interrupting the action or stifling it with a useless superfluity of ornaments; and I believe that it should do this in the same way as telling colours affect a correct and well-ordered drawing, by a well-assorted contrast of light and shade which serves to animate the figures without altering the contours. Thus I did not wish to arrest an actor in the greatest heat of dialogue in order to wait for a tiresome ritornello … nor to wait while the orchestra gives him time to recover his breath for a cadenza. … I have sought to abolish all the abuses against which good sense and reason have long cried out in vain.
Yet they would be in vain were it not for the greatness of the result. As the Preface continues a little later, ‘Furthermore, I believed that my greatest labour should be devoted to seeking a beautiful simplicity.’ That is a perfectly justified aspiration, though in a sense far more open to question; it perhaps holds the key, or at least a key, to the hold that Gluck’s musical drama continues to exert upon us. One can hardly help but think of Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s Classicism at the same time: his lauding of the Apollo Belvedere, for instance. Winckelmann’s ‘Noble simplicity and calm greatness’, or Gluck-Calzabigi’s ‘beautiful simplicity’, which in whatever form is anything but simplistic, and which enters into an extraordinary alchemy with the drama, serves to create something extending far beyond the sum of the parts: indeed a proper understanding of the Gesamtkunstwerk as something whose meaning lies beyond the merely agglomerative.
Rarely, then, does Gluck’s invention strike one as extraordinary simply as notes on the page; they often appear commonplace. Yet Attic tragedy seems once again to live: not as recreation, but as renewal, just indeed as in Wagner’s still more ambitious project. Iphigénie en Tauride, probably Gluck’s greatest work, stands as perhaps the greatest single opera between Purcell and Mozart; Schiller, no less, owned that he had never been moved by ‘such pure and beautiful music’. The rigour of the æsthetic is not absolute; even here, Gluck ‘borrows’ not only from earlier works of his own, but also from Bach’s Mass in B minor. (Handel’s operas, whatever the wonders of individual arias, are unsatisfactory on the basis of a far more fundamental dramatic flaw than borrowing.) Absolute purity would doubtless be undesirable. Yet it concentrates Gluck’s mind and ours – we might also say Gluck’s emotions and ours, for, once again in Wagnerian style, they become one – upon the drama: not, it must be stressed, to be understood as the libretto, then ‘set’ to music, but rather as a new whole, a new work, which yet again, thinking this time of Hans Sachs, seems also venerable in the best sense. ‘Es klang so alt und war doch so neu!’
Gluck’s radicalism, as that might suggest, is not merely recreative. Listen, for instance, to the orchestral storm at the opening of the second Iphigénie opera (following the minuet, ‘Le calme’). Both real and representative of the heroine’s inner demons, it almost beckons an age of psychoanalysis. Its orchestration born of a lavish French tradition – above all, Rameau – the tempest climaxes as Iphigénie, joined by her priestesses, implores the gods to aid them. Gluck not only sets the scene for the drama – as, in the Alceste preface, he had said it should – but plunges us right into it. Louis Petit de Bachaumount wrote, in his Mémoires secrets, of the premiere: ‘The opera was much applauded; it is a new genre. It is really a tragedy … in the Greek style.’
Might our opera houses not at least allow us the possibility to judge that success once again for ourselves? I have never spoken to anyone remotely interested in opera who did not regret Gluck’s scandalous absence. Barrie Kosky’s visceral Abu Ghraib production for Berlin’s Komische Oper proved an exemplar in this respect. So too, has Riccardo Muti’s persistent advocacy for the composer. Without Gluck’s example, Mozart would not have written Idomeneo in the way he did; but there, alas, is another work more often honoured in its lack of a hearing. If ever an anniversary celebration were needed, it might be this, for far more is at stake than Gluck’s works in themselves. A house that would stage them would show that it was once again, or even for the first time, taking musical drama seriously.
It was not for nothing that Orfeo ed Euridice featured in the projected first season of Pierre Boulez’s reformed Paris opera (which, of course, never happened). As his would-be collaborator, Jean Vilar, noted, ‘Too often, lyrical art has been limited to the art of singing, or even of simple vocal performance, and has become the victim of its own “literary drowsiness”. Lyrical art must rediscover its true identity as authentic musical theatre.’ The projected opening operatic season – 1970-1, there was also to have been a preliminary, concert seasion, including the mouthwatering idea of Boulez conducting the Monteverdi Vespers – was to have offered Les Troyens, Pelléas, Gluck’s Orfeo, Moses und Aron (its first French performance!), Don Giovanni, and a new work by Berio. The conductors were to have been Boulez, Colin Davis, and Georg Szell. Alas politics, as so often, intervened.
Nor was it for nothing that, just before those plans were tentatively drawn up with Vilar and Maurice Béjart, Boulez had condemned the existing Paris Opéra as being ‘covered in dust and merde,’ and suggested that the Red Guards be brought on scene to let some blood. Gluck might seem an unlikely candidate for such a role – but not to anyone who actually listens to either Iphigénie.