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On Gluck’s Tercentenary: Wigs, Nightcaps, and the Infinite Varieties of Beauty and Deception

Record revArt is the most beautiful deception of all!

—Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Simplicity and truth are the sole principles of the beautiful in art.

—Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)

Debussy’s line about art and deception jumped out at me while I was searching for a quote to liven up a column on Gluck’s tercentenary. It’s one of those I-dare-you-to-dispute-this statements that gets your attention, starts you thinking, and then follows you around until you begin to distrust it. As for Gluck, Debussy has little good to say about him, far from it. The composer of Orfeo ed Euridice is “a court musician” whose music is tainted by the “pomposity of moving in such high circles.”

After bringing together art, beauty, and deception in the same brief essay for Musica (October 1902), Debussy bemoans the idea of incorporating “the everyday events of life in art,” which he hopes “will remain a deception lest it become a utilitarian thing, sad as a factory.” Yet when taking Gluck to task in a snarky February 1903 Open Letter to “Monsieur le Chevalier C.W. Gluck,” Debussy chastises him for being so far removed from the everyday events of life that “the common people participate only at a great distance,” as if Gluck’s music were a “wall behind which they know something is going on.” Debussy won’t even give the man credit for conducting the first performance of Iphigénie en Aulide in his nightcap; that spontaneous assertion of independence was only “for the sake of pleasing” his “king and queen.”

On Beethoven’s Wall

But what of Christoph Willibald Gluck? What did other composers think of his music? Beethoven kept Gluck’s portrait on the wall of his room along with Handel, Bach, Haydn, and Mozart, because “they can promote my capacity for endurance.” Mozart’s admiration is expressed throughout his letters. In Schubert’s diary, he contrasts the “pure, holy nature” of Gluck to Beethoven’s “eccentricities.” According to Johann Mayrhofer’s recollections (1829), Schubert was 15 when Gluck’s Iphegénie en Tauride left him “moved to the depths and to tears.” After that he embarked on “the keenest study of all of Gluck’s scores,” which “quite enraptured” him for years. As for Berlioz, Gluck inspired him to give up medicine for music. In his Memoirs, Berlioz writes, “The Jove of our Olympus was Gluck. The most passionate music-lover of today can have no conception how fiercely we worshipped him.”

Gluck’s Travels

Gluck was born on July 2, 1714, in what is now called Bavaria, his father a forester who became head forester in the service of Prince Philip of Bohemia and who expected his son to, as Gluck puts it, “follow in his footsteps.” But at that time music was “all the rage” and “inflamed with a passion for this art,” Gluck “soon made astounding progress and was able to play several instruments.” His “whole being became obsessed with music” and he left all thoughts of a forester’s life behind.

After studying at the University of Prague, Gluck turns up in Milan in 1737 composing operas for the Milanese Carnivals, before venturing to London in 1745, where the future mover “in high circles” decides to raises some money, according to a handbill he had printed, “By performing a Concert upon Twenty-six Drinking Glasses, tuned with Spring water … being a new Instrument of his own invention, upon which he performs whatever may be done on a Violin or Harpsichord; and therefore hopes to satisfy the Curious, as well as the Lovers of Musick. To begin at Half an hour after Six. Tickets Half a guinea each.”

From London he goes to Dresden, Prague, and finally Vienna to the Hapsburg Court where he becomes Princess Maria Antonia’s music teacher, though she’s not much good at the harpsichord. According to Stefan Zweig’s Marie Antoinette, she was “a dilettante,” but she “had a liking for this seemingly fierce man, broad in the beam and jovial” and when she went to Paris, Gluck went with her. He’d written Iphigénie en Tauride, which he wanted to present in the French capital. When court musicians called it “unpresentable,” Marie “insisted it have a fair trial.” But “the unruly and choleric Bavarian, animated with the characteristic obstinacy of the great artist,” in Zweig’s words, “did not make it easy for her to advance his cause. At the rehearsals he berated the ladies of the cast so savagely that these spoiled darlings complained bitterly to their titled lovers. He dragooned the instrumentalists, who were not used to the demand for such exactitude; and, in general, played the tyrant in the opera house. His mighty voice could be heard resounding from behind the closed doors as, time after time, he threatened to make an end of the whole business and return to Vienna. Nothing, in fact, but the dread of the Dauphiness prevented an open scandal.”

Marie was steadfast in supporting “her bon Gluck,” made his cause her own, and seeing that the opera seemed to be getting a lackluster reception at court, she “loudly applauded every aria” so that the courtiers and their ladies had to chime in. Though Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride would be remembered as a “famous event in the history of music,” it was Marie’s triumph, the first time she had “imposed her will upon the capital and the court.”

The Wig

As for the nightcap Debussy dismissed so cavalierly, Gluck kept one handy because he was prone to throw his wig at the ground whenever the singers and musicians were not performing to his expectations. His wife Maria had to go to rehearsals and performances to restrain her husband “within the limits demanded by French manners, and moderate the hostility that the orchestra and above all the women singers show him.” No wonder. According to the account included in Michael Rose’s recent book, The Birth of an Opera (Norton $35), “Gluck’s impatience with pretension was notorious.” When the “eminent soprano” Sophie Arnould complained that the music was all declamation and that she wanted to sing great arias, Gluck said “To sing great arias, you have to know how to sing.” Rose provides an account that has Gluck running “like a man possessed from one end of the orchestra to the other; sometimes it was the violins who were getting it wrong, sometimes the basses, or the horns, or the violas. He would stop them short and sing them the passage.”

In time Gluck’s eccentricities became famous, the gossip going viral in the 18th-century Parisian version of the social media network. Accompanied as ever by Mme Gluck, he would be “bathed in sweat” and “had to be revived with hot towels and a change of clothing,” and when the rehearsal was over, “one could see great noblemen, even princes, eager to present him with his overcoat and his wig, for he was accustomed to throw all these off and put on a night-cap before beginning rehearsals, just as if he were about to retire for the night at home.”

Time to Listen

Earlier in the essay celebrating deception, Debussy looks back to Bach (“the essence of all music”) and the age when “music was subject to laws of beauty inscribed in the movement of Nature herself.” Listen to Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Gluck’s arias from Orfeo, not to mention the overture to Alceste, and you’re hearing the essence of music and some of the most beautifully un-deceptive works ever composed. When a melody is close to the movement of nature, the effect is, for me, much as it was the first time I heard Orfeo’s aria lamenting the loss of Euridice. I had no idea what the words meant. I was in another room when it was playing and suddenly it was as if the music were coming from an open window on a street in another country, the prelude to a romantic adventure, a hauntingly beautiful song sung by a stranger. The effect was the same the first time I heard, really heard, Clair de Lune. The identity of the pianist was of no importance because in that moment, thanks to the “beautiful deception of art,” the music coming through an open window in some twilight dream of Paris was being played, thought out, composed by Debussy himself.

—Stuart Mitchner

Three hundred years after his birth, the glories of Gluck can be accessed on YouTube and Spotify. I found him the old-fashioned way in the form of the only secondhand record I ever purchased at the Bryn Mawr Book Sale, a very used, musty-smelling Bach Guild boxed set of Orfeo ed Euridice featuring Maureen Forrester as Orfeo and Teresa Stich-Randall as Euridice, with the Akademie Choir and Vienna State Opera Orchestra conducted by Charles Mackerras. There is an online version of the aria Che farò senza Euridice? from the 1982 production staged at The Glyndebourne Festival Opera, with Dame Janet Baker in her final operatic appearance singing as she holds Euridice (Elisabeth Baker) in her arms. The quotes from Debussy come from Debussy On Music (Knopf 1977).

As usual, I have the Princeton Public Library to thank for the numerous Gluck recordings I listened to and for Michael Rose’s excellent book.

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