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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 9 Enlightenment and Reform
Richard Taruskin

The comédie larmoyante was only one of many new departures in theater and theatrical music that burgeoned shortly after the middle of the eighteenth century. Another came to a head in an opera—ostensibly, an opera seria—that had its première performance in Vienna two years later than La buona figliuola, and is remembered today as the very model of “reform” opera, thanks to a deliberate propaganda campaign mounted on its behalf by the composer, the librettist, and their allies in the press. Although in many ways almost diametrically opposed to the style and the attitudes of Piccinni’s masterpiece of sentimental comedy, it embodied a similar infusion of what was known as “sensibility.” It too was in its way a quest for the “natural” and the “authentic.”

The opera was called Orfeo ed Euridice, a knowing retelling of the legend that had midwifed the very birth of opera a century and a half before. The composer was Gluck, who was famous for declaring that when composing he tried hard to forget that he was a musician. What he meant by that, of course, was that he strove to avoid the sort of decorative musicality that called attention to itself—and away from the drama. The implicit target of Gluck’s reform, like that of the comic opera in all its guises, was the Metastasian opera seria and all its dazzling artifices.

Noble Simplicity

fig. 9-1 Christoph Willibald Gluck, by Joseph Siffred Duplessis (1725–1802)

But where the buffa, as practiced by Piccinni, sought to replace those artifices with the “modern” truth of the sentimental novel, Gluck sought to replace them by returning to the most ancient, uncorrupted ways, as then understood. His was a self-consciously “neoclassical” art, stripped down and, compared with the seria, virtually denuded. In the preface to Alceste (1767), his second “reform” opera (based on a tragedy by Euripides), Gluck declared that in writing the music he had consciously aimed “to divest it entirely of all those abuses, introduced either by the mistaken vanity of singers or by the too great complaisance of composers, which have so long disfigured Italian opera and made the most splendid and most beautiful of spectacles the most ridiculous and wearisome,” just as his librettist, Ranieri Calzabigi, had sought to eliminate “the florid descriptions, unnatural paragons and sententious, cold morality” of the unnamed but obviously targeted Metastasio.4

Thus in place of the elaborate hierarchy of paired roles that Metastasio had decreed, Gluck’s Orfeo has only three characters—the title pair plus Cupid, the hero’s ally in his quest. The music they sing, despite the loftiness of the theme, is virtually devoid of the ritualized rhetoric of high passion—namely, the heroic coloratura that demanded the sort of virtuoso singing that had brought the opera seria its popular acclaim and its critical disrepute. That sort of musical “eloquence” was now deprecated as something depraved if not downright lubricious, and shed. Gluck’s “reform” was in fact a process of elimination.

Gluck’s ideals, and (even more) his rhetoric, derived from the ideals and rhetoric of what in his day was called “the true style” by its partisans. (Only later, in the nineteenth century, was it labeled “neoclassic” or “classical,” and then only to deride it). The high value of art, in this view, lay in its divine power, sadly perverted when art was used for purposes of display and luxury. The legitimate connection between this attitude and notions of classicism or antiquity came about as a result of contemporary achievements in archaeology (most spectacularly the unearthing of Herculaneum and Pompeii between 1738 and 1748) and the theories to which they gave rise.

The main theorizer was the German archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–68), Gluck’s near-exact contemporary, whose most influential work in esthetics, Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works, appeared in 1755. The phrase he used to summarize the qualities in Greek art that he wanted to see imitated—“a noble simplicity and a calm grandeur” (eine edle Einfalt und eine stille Grösse)—became a watchword of the age, echoed and re-echoed in the writings of his contemporaries, including Gluck.

(There was a characteristic irony here, since many of the features of Greek art and architecture that Winckelmann most admired—its chaste “whiteness,” for example—were the fortuitous products of time, not of the Greeks; we now know that the Athenian Parthenon, Winckelmann’s very pinnacle of white plainness and truth, was actually painted in many colors back when it functioned as a temple rather than a “ruin.” The “classicism” of the eighteenth century, a classicism of noble ruins, was in every way that very century’s tendentious creation.)

Yet the heritage of the opera seria nevertheless survives in Gluck’s Orfeo—most obviously in the language of the libretto, but also in the use of an alto castrato for the male title role, and in the high ethical tone that continues, newly purified and restored, to reign over the telling of the tale. Where Peri’s or Monteverdi’s Orpheus had looked back on Eurydice and lost her again out of sheer weakness (the inability to resist a spontaneous impulse), Gluck’s hero does so out of stoic resolution and strength of character: in response to Eurydice’s bewildered entreaties, Orpheus turns and looks to reassure her of his love, even though it means he must lose her. His act, in other words, has been turned into one of noble self-sacrifice: the classic seria culmination.

In other ways, the opera follows the conventions of the French tragédie lyrique, the majestic spectacle of the “ancient” and “divine” Lully, lately declared a classical model for imitation by French artists eager to relive the glorious achievements of the “grand siècle,” the Great Age of Louis XIV. This unique mixture of what were normally considered inimical ingredients was typical of Gluck, the ultimate cosmopolitan. He had grown up in Austrian Bohemia. According to his pupil Antonio Salieri, his native language was Czech; “he expressed himself in German only with effort, and still more so in French and Italian…. Usually he mixed several languages together during a conversation.”5 And so he did in his music, too.

Noble Simplicity

fig. 9-2 Gluck’s Il Parnasso confuso as performed at the Schönbrünn Palace, Vienna, in 1765.

His early career was practically that of a vagabond: from Prague to Vienna, from Vienna to Milan (where he worked with Giovanni Battista Sammartini, one of the lions of the operatic stage), from Milan to London (where his operas failed, but where he met Handel), thence as far north as Copenhagen and as far south as Naples. By 1752 he had resettled in Vienna, where he worked mostly as staff composer for a troupe of French actors and singers for whom he composed ballets and opéras comiques. That is where he absorbed the idioms of French musical theater.

The tragédie lyrique, the type of French musical theater Gluck chose to emulate in Orfeo, was, as we know, the courtliest of all court operas, and it might seem that Gluck’s reform was aimed in the opposite direction from Piccinni’s innovations. It was to be a reassertion of the aristocratic values that the latter-day seria had diluted with singerly excess, the values that the opera buffa owed its very existence to deriding. Here the main impetus came from Gluck’s librettist, Calzabigi, an Italian-born poet then resident in Vienna, who had boldly set himself up as rival to the lordly court poet Metastasio. Calzabigi had actually trained in Paris, where he had learned to value the “Greek” dancing-chorus manner of the French opera-ballet over “i passaggi, le cadenze, i ritornelli and all the Gothick, barbarous and extravagant things that have been introduced into our music” by the pleasure-loving, singer-pleasing Italians, as he put it in a memoir of his collaboration with Gluck, published years later in a French newspaper.6 (The English translation is by Dr. Burney.)

Thus the very first scene in the Gluck-Calzabigi Orfeo is a very formal choral elegy, sung by Orpheus’s entourage of nymphs and shepherds, that corresponds roughly with the one at the end of the second act of Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Eurydice is already dead. The horrifying news of her demise and Orpheus’s reaction to it, so central to Monteverdi’s confrontational drama, is dispensed with so far as the spectacle is concerned. This will be an opera of reflection—of moods savored and considered, not instantaneously experienced.

The aim of austerity—of striking powerfully and deep with the starkest simplicity of means—is epitomized by the role of Orpheus in this first scene. His whole part amounts to nothing more than three stony exclamations of Eurydice’s name—twelve notes in all, using only four pitches (Ex. 9-3). It would be hard to conceive of anything more elemental, more drastically “reduced to essentials.” Gluck once advised a singer to cry the name out in the tone of voice he’d use if his leg were being sawn off—Diderot’s “animal cry of passion” in the most literal terms.

Noble Simplicity

ex. 9-3 Christoph Willibald Gluck, Orfeo ed Euridice, Act I, scene 1, chorus, recitative and pantomime

Orpheus then sends his mourning friends away in a grave recitative, whereupon they take their ceremonious leave of him through another round of gravely eloquent song and dance à la française. Orpheus’s recitative is accompanied by the orchestral strings with all parts written out, not just a figured bass. “Accompanied” or “orchestrated recitative” (recitativo accompagnato or stromentato) had formerly been reserved for just the emotional highpoints of the earlier seria, to set these especially fraught moments off from the libretto’s ordinary dialogue, for which ordinary or “simple” recitative—recitativo semplice, later known as recitativo secco or “dry” recitative—would have sufficed. In Gluck’s opera, there was to be no “ordinary” dialogue, only dialogue fraught heavily with sentiment, hence no recitativo semplice, only stromentato.

As a result, Orfeo ed Euridice became the first opera that can be performed without the use of any continuo-realizing instruments. Considering that the basso continuo and the opera itself arose side by side as kindred responses to the same esthetic ferment, there could hardly be any greater “reform” of the medium than this. Paradoxically, the elimination of the continuo had the same purpose as its invention: to adapt an existing (but constantly changing) medium to ever greater, and ever more naturalistic, expressive heights.

The same combination of high pathos and avoidance of conventional histrionics characterizes both of Orpheus’s arias. The one in the third act, which takes place after Eurydice’s second death, was very aptly described by Alfred Einstein, an admiring biographer of the composer, as “the most famous and most disputed number of the whole opera,” possibly of all opera (Ex. 9-4).7 Orpheus sings in grief—but in a noble, dignified grief that is in keeping with the nobility of his deed. That nobility and resignation constitute the aria’s dominant affect, expressed through a “beautiful simplicity” (bella simplicità) of musical means, as Gluck put it (after Winckelmann, with Calzabigi’s help) in the preface to Alceste. And that meant no Metastasian similes, no roulades, no noisy exits—for such things only exemplified pride.

Noble SimplicityNoble Simplicity

ex. 9-4 Christoph Willibald Gluck, Orfeo ed Euridice, Act III, scene 1: “Che faro senza Euridice?”, refrain, mm. 7–16

The structure of the aria is French, not Italian: a rondeau with a periodic vocal refrain, not a da capo with an orchestral ritornello. The episodes between refrains are set in related keys—the dominant, the parallel minor—so that the return is always a refreshment. That and the shapely C-major melody of the refrain are what have given rise to the “dispute” to which Einstein referred—a dispute between those who have found its “beautiful simplicity” simply too beautiful (and not expressive enough), and those who have seen in it the ultimate realization of music’s power of transcendence.

The French composer Pascal Boyé, a friend of Diderot, used the aria as ammunition for a treatise entitled L’expression musicale mise au rang des chimères (“Musical expression exposed as an illusion”). Citing the aria by the opening words of the French version premièred in Paris in 1774—“J’ai perdu mon Eurydice!” (I’ve lost my Eurydice!)—Boyé commented drily that the melody would have served as well or better had the text read “I’ve found my Eurydice!”8 Nearly a century later, the critic Eduard Hanslick tried to generalize this remark of Boyé’s and apply it to all music. “Take any dramatically effective melody,” he suggested:

Form a mental image of it, separated from any association with verbal texts. In an operatic melody, for instance one that had very effectively expressed anger, you will find no other intrinsic expression than that of a rapid, impulsive motion. The same melody might just as effectively render words expressing the exact opposite, namely, passionate love.9

And so on. Gluck would surely have found this notion bizarre, and might well have attributed it to the inability of “bourgeois” ears to appreciate a noble simplicity of utterance, awaiting completion (as Boyé recognized, but not Hanslick) by the expressivity of the singer’s voice and manner. The singer for whom the aria was written, it so happens, is one whom we have already met—Gaetano Guadagni, for whom, a dozen years before, Handel had revised Messiah for showy “operatic” effect. Over that time Guadagni had transformed himself into a paragon of nobly simple and realistic acting under the influence of David Garrick, the great Shakespearean actor, with whom he had worked in London and whose then revolutionary methods of stage deportment he had learned to emulate. These, too, could be described with the phrase bella simplicità. A comparison of Handel’s revised “But who may abide” (Ex. 7-6b) and Gluck’s Che farò senza Euridice?, both written for Guadagni, makes a good index of simplicity’s ascendancy. It was resisted by many among the aristocracy, however, who associated “natural” acting and stage deportment with comedy, and therefore with a loss of high “artfulness.”


(4) Christoph Willibald Gluck, Preface to Alceste, trans. Piero Weiss in P. Weiss and R. Taruskin, Music in the Western World, 2nd ed., pp. 254–55.

(5) I. F. Edlen von Mosel, Ueber das Leben und die Werke des Anton Salieri, K. k. Hofkepellmeister (Vienna, 1827), p. 93; trans. Daniel Heartz in “Coming of Age in Bohemia: The Musical Apprenticeships of Benda and Gluck,” Journal of Musicology VI (1988): 524.

(6) Ranieri de Calzabigi, “Lettre au rédacteur du Mercure de France” (signed 25 June 1784), Mercure de France, 21 August 1784.

(7) Alfred Einstein, Gluck, trans. Eric Blom (London: Dent, 1936), p. 82.

(8) M. Boyé, L’Expression musicale, mise au rang des Chimères (Amsterdam, 1779), p. 14.

(9) Eduard Hanslick, On the Musically Beautiful (Vom Musikalisch-Schönen, 1854), trans. Geoffrey Payzant (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1986), pp. 16–17.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09002.xml