About this Recording
8.660066-68 - GLUCK: Alceste

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787): Alceste


Christoph Willibald Gluck did not set out to be a reformer. Born in Bohemia in 1714 his early years were spent eagerly absorbing current operatic style in Prague and Vienna. Largely self-taught as a composer, his musical apprenticeship came to an end in Milan in 1741 with the success of his first Italian opera Artaserse. In 1745 he visited London (where he met Handel) and for the next six years he lived as a freelance musician, taking part in opera performances in Dresden, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Munich and Naples. In 1752 he was appointed Konzertmeister to the Prince of Saxe-Hildburghausen and settled in Vienna, the city that was to became his home until his death in 1787.

Gluck complemented his mastery of Italian opera with extensive experience as an adaptor and composer of French operas comiques, the most successful being La rencontre imprevue (1764). He also wrote ballet music and in 1761 worked together with the radical choreographer Gasparo Angiolini on the influential ballet d'action, Don Juan. Gluck used his skill in all three areas, Italian and French opera styles and 'acted' ballet, in his collaboration with the poet and librettist Ranieri de' Calzabigi, on the three so-called reform operas: Orfeo, Alceste and Paride ed Elena. Gluck's artistic sensibilities fitted perfectly with Calzabigi's aesthetic ideals and their partnership is one of the most important in the history of opera.

In the preface to Alceste published in 1769, Gluck explains: "When I undertook to write the music for Alceste, I resolved to divest it entirely of all those abuses, introduced into it either by the mistaken vanity of singers or by the too great complaisance of composers, which have so long disfigured Italian opera and made of the most splendid and beautiful of spectacles the most ridiculous and wearisome. 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... 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 hold him up in the middle of a word on a vowel favourable to his voice, nor to make display of the agility of his fine voice in some long-drawn passage, nor to wait while the orchestra gives him time to recover his breath for a cadenza. I did not think it my duty to pass quickly over the second section of an aria of which the words are perhaps the most impassioned and important... and to finish the aria where its sense may perhaps not end for the convenience of the singer who wishes to show that he can capriciously vary a passage in a number of guises; in short I have sought to abolish all the abuses against which good sense and reason have long cried out in vain".

As well as restoring what he considered to be the proper attitude on the part of singer and composer to the dramatic and poetic content of the text, Gluck was also concerned about the relationship of the overture to the ensuing drama: "I have felt that the overture ought to apprise the spectators of the nature of the action that is to be represented and to form, so to speak, its argument". Furthermore his view of the role of the orchestra in the opera itself was that it should be subservient to the needs of the text: "the concerted instruments should be introduced in proportion to the interest and the intensity of the words, and not leave that sharp contrast between the aria and the recitative in the dialogue, so as not ...wantonly [to] disturb the force and heat of the action". It is here that he prefigures a view of musical continuity whose greatest exponent was to be Richard Wagner. But Gluck's summing-up leaves us in no doubt of his primary concern: "I believed that my greatest labour should be devoted to seeking a beautiful simplicity".

Alceste exists in two principal versions: the Italian original written for Vienna in 1767 and the French revision prepared for the Paris performances of 1776. It was performed sixty times in Vienna, 313 times in Paris (regularly until 1826 and then in 1861 and 1866), and entered the repertoire in many other cities including Copenhagen (1775), Padua (1777), Bologna (1778), Stockholm (1781), Hanover (1783), Naples (1785), Florence (1786), London (1795), Berlin (1796), St Petersburg (1798) and Moscow (1803). Although the two versions have much in common, Gluck and his French librettist Roullet made such significant alterations and additions, particularly to the final act, that the French Alceste became in effect a new opera. It is this version which was championed in the nineteenth century by Berlioz, who first saw it in 1825, and Liszt who conducted it at Weimar in 1857. The "beautiful simplicity" of Gluck's Italian Alceste was thus overshadowed, only now to be rediscovered.


The Swedish connection

"It has been said that poetry is music for the soul; it can also be said that music is the dramatic language of the passions. Without the support of music, the poet's language is less expressive; without the help of poetry, musical expression is ineffective".

These words, spoken by Johan Henrik Kellgren at the Utile Dulci Society in Stockholm in 1785, summarise the new opera aesthetic which Gluck had propagated in Vienna and which was being keenly echoed in the forward-looking theatrical climate of the Swedish capital. During the reign of the 'theatre king' Gustaf III (1771-1792) Stockholm embraced five Gluck operas of which there were no fewer than 250 performances between 1773 and 1806. Gustaf's ambition was to create a Swedish National Theatre based on Gluck's principles. Kellgren, one of his chief librettists, and an important poet in his own right, was partly responsible for the Swedish adaptation of Alceste, first performed in 1781. The Drottningholm theatre, built by Lovisa Ulrika, sister of Frederick the Great and mother of Gustaf III, is therefore an apt venue for this first complete recording of the original Italian version of Alceste.

Mark Tatlow


The Legend of Alcestis

In Greek legend Alcestis, daughter of Pelias, was the wife of Athnetus, King of Pherae in Thessaly. She was the only person willing to die in place of her husband, but was brought back from the Underworld by Hercules. Gluck's opera is based on the play by Euripides, with Alcestis saved by the god Apollo. The story appears in varied forms, from Chaucer to Rilke and T. S. Eliot. Among the operatic versions of the legend are the tragedie en musique by Lully and Quinault, Alceste, ou Le triomphe d'Alcide (Alcestis, or The Triumph of Hercules) and the treatment of the myth by Wieland with the composer Anton Schweitzer, staged in Weimar in 1773. Alcestis herself is generally taken as the type of female virtue and conjugal love.

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