Christoph Willibald Gluck

Christoph Willibald Gluck was an opera composer who tried his hand at almost all of the operatic genres of his day.  He is probably most famous for his first two “reform operas” (Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste) and the debate that they engendered.  Debate aside, his works, especially his reform operas, continued to influence composers for several generations.  His famous student, Antonio Salieri, benefited from Gluck’s teachings in his own well-received operas, and, as Salieri mentored famous composers such as Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt, Gluck’s legacy was indeed substantial. 

Early Years and Study in Italy

Christoph Willibald Gluck, born on July 2, 1714, was the oldest of six children.  His father, Alexander Johannes, was a gamekeeper of Bohemian (Czech) origin, and Gluck apparently grew up speaking Czech as his first language.  He was born in Germany rather than Bohemia, however, because his father had taken a job in the village of Erasbach in the Upper Palatinate. In 1717, the family returned to Bohemia, thereafter moving frequently throughout the region.  There, Gluck learned to sing and play several musical instruments.

In 1731, Gluck seems to have begun studies in mathematics and logic at the University of Prague, although he never received a degree.  He probably also sang and played organ at some of the area churches.  At some point before 1737, he may have entered the service of the Lobkowitz family, who also employed his father at the time.  If so, he was soon hired away from them by Prince Antonio Maria Melzi of Milan.  Gluck arrived in Milan sometime in 1737.

Milan was a thriving center of opera and symphonic music, and it was with a well-known practitioner of the latter, Giovanni Battista Sammartini, that Gluck studied.  Nevertheless, Gluck gravitated toward opera.  His first opera, Artaserse, was premiered in Milan on December 26, 1741.  He wrote one opera for Milan in each of the next four years, while also writing operas for other cities, including Venice.  Without exception, these were opere serie, quite different from the operas that were eventually to make him famous.


In 1745, Gluck left Italy for London, where he had been asked to be house composer at the King’s Theatre.  He gave two operas there and played two concerts on the musical glasses.  He may also have met Handel, who is supposed to have said of the younger composer, “He knows no more of counterpoint than my cook.”

Gluck’s London sojourn was short, as he was in Dresden by June 1747, composing operas for and possibly singing with a traveling opera troupe run by Pietro Mingotti.  His reputation was growing, as is attested by the fact that he was summoned to Vienna to compose Empress Maria Theresa’s birthday opera in 1748.  The opera, Semiramide, was a success, even though the librettist himself, the court poet Pietro Metastasio, loathed the music. 

Gluck did not stay long in Vienna.  Rejoining Mingotti’s opera troupe, he went to Hamburg and Copenhagen.  He also contracted a venereal disease through a liason with one of the troupe’s singers, Gaspera Beccheroni.  Probably as a result, he was never able to have children.

One of the Mingotti troupe’s former members, Giovanni Battista Locatelli, had begun another opera troupe, which Gluck joined in 1749.  They were working in Prague, for which city Gluck composed two operas.  When he had time off, he traveled to Vienna and there, on September 15, 1750, married the eighteen-year-old Maria Anna Bergin.  At times when Locatelli’s opera troupe was not performing elsewhere, Gluck stayed in Vienna.

The Genesis of Gluck’s Reform Operas

In 1752, Gluck was finally able to win a position in Vienna, in the employ of Prince Joseph Friedrich von Sachsen-Hildburghausen.  This was not, of course, as prestigious as a position at the Viennese court itself, but Gluck was soon to be offered such a job.  Count Giacomo Durazzo, who coordinated all spectacles at court, including those at Vienna’s Burgtheater, hired Gluck in 1755 to compose music for concerts at the Burgtheater.  Eventually Gluck’s duties were expanded to include adapting and writing additional music for French comic operas. 

Gluck contined to write Italian serious operas, both for the Viennese court and for cities abroad.  By 1758, he was also writing his own operas-comique, and soon thereafter he began composing ballets.  As with his opere serie, these works are little known today.

The man who was to become Gluck’s most important collaborator arrived in Vienna in 1761.  He was an Italian named Ranieri Calzabigi, a somewhat unknown librettist who advocated the mixing of French and Italian serious opera to make a new genre better than either.  Since this was also an idea that interested Durazzo, he may have been the person who introduced Calzabigi to Gluck.

The two probably worked together on a ballet, Don Juan, which was premiered on October 17, 1761.  However, the first collaboration to which Calzabigi signed his name was an opera, Orfeo ed Euridice.  This work, the first of Calzabigi and Gluck’s famed “reform operas,” received its premiere on October 5, 1762.  Its revolutionary features included the incorporation of chorus and ballet, the lack of virtuosic writing for the singers, and the greater integration of individual musical numbers.

Although Orfeo ed Euridice was a success, Gluck did not stop creating works in other genres.  He wrote only one more opéra comique, La rencontre imprévue (1764), but he continued composing ballets, full-scale opere serie, and small-scale operas for festive occasions. 

On August 18, 1765, while leaving a production of a Gluck ballet, the husband of Empress Maria Theresa, Francis Stephen, died of a stroke.  His wife seemed genuinely to have loved her husband, and she closed the theaters for even longer than was customary.  This decision created difficulties for many artists, but Gluck and Calzabigi saw an opportunity.  They began working on the second of their reform operas, Alceste, which treats themes of marital devotion and grief and thus must have seemed custom-made for the Empress.  The work was premiered on October 15, 1767. 

Alceste is also significant because of the preface to the published edition, which sets out the ideas behind opera reform.  In it Gluck writes, “I endeavored to reduce music to its proper function, that of seconding poetry by enforcing the expression of the sentiment, and the interest of the situations, without interrupting the action, or weakening it by superfluous ornament.”

Gluck and Calzabigi undertook one more collaboration, Paride ed Elena (1770), but this was not well received.   Instead of working on another Italian reform opera, the composer decided to set a text recently sent to him by a French diplomat in Vienna.  The story was a French version of the classical myth of Iphigenia.  The opera Gluck created was to be performed in 1774, although not in Vienna.


Although Gluck never moved permanently to Paris, he made many extended visits there during the 1770s.  Before his first visit in 1773, he had promised the Paris Opéra six new works.  The first of these was Iphigénie en Aulide, premiered on April 19, 1774.  It launched a heated debate in Paris over the relative merits of traditional French serious opera versus Gluck’s new, Italian-influenced style. 

Gluck did not immediately write another opera but instead adapted both Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste for the Paris stage.  It was not until September 23, 1777 that his next new French work, Armide, was presented.  Only two more French operas, for a total of four instead of the promised six, were to follow: Iphigénie en Tauride (first performed May 18, 1779) and Echo et Narcisse (first performed September 24, 1779). 

Although most of the new operas and even the revivals had been successful, Gluck seems to have been fed up with the constantly raging arguments concerning the merits of his work.  He was also in poor health, having had a stroke just before the premiere of Echo et Narcisse. For these reasons, Gluck returned to Vienna for good in October 1779.

Retirement from Composition

Gluck had little interest in composing during his last years.  He turned down chances to write several operas, instead passing promising librettos on to his student, Antonio Salieri.  Nevertheless, the great composer was still at the center of Viennese operatic life.  For the visit of Russian Grand Duke Paul Petrovich and his wife in 1781-1782, no fewer than four Gluck operas were revived. 

Sadly, Gluck never recovered his health, experiencing three more strokes from 1783 onward.  The last of these came on November 17, 1787, after he had disobeyed his doctor’s orders and left the house for an excursion with his wife.  Gluck died the next day.


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Brown, Bruce Alan, and Julian Rushton:  ‘Gluck, Christoph Willibald Ritter von’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 15 March 2006), <>

Brown, Bruce Alan.  Gluck and the French Theatre in Vienna.  Oxford, England: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Ewen, David.  The Complete Book of Classical Music.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965.

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