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The composer who broke the rules

Imagine if Charles Dickens had left a record of some of his technical decisions—why, for example, he so often used a verbless sentence; or if Joseph Mallord William Turner had explained to his contemporaries why he chose a certain vivid pigment which he knew would fade over time. We’d regard such information as giving valuable insights into the creative mind. But explicit communication between creative artists and their public is rare before the late nineteenth century, so we are indeed lucky to have a transcription of a series of conversations between Olivier de Corancez, editor of the Journal de Paris, and the opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, in which Gluck explains with striking clarity his artistic creed, his approach to dramatic expression, and why he broke so many rules.

Olivier de Corancez was responsible for introducing Christoph Willibald Gluck to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and his account begins by reproducing Rousseau’s admiration for Gluck, whom Gluck came to regard as the perfect listener. This encouraged Corancez to raise a number of problem passages with the composer. What is surprising about the interviews is the degree of detail interrogated. Corancez queried single notes—the difference between a crotchet and a quaver—which might easily escape the notice of a casual listener, and he was remarkably daring, challenging what he saw as lack of melody, an excess of repetition, and ill-judged expression. Gluck’s replies are invariably bold and confident, and he justified his choices by appealing to psychological truth, which he calls Nature. Corancez picked out, for example, a phrase from an aria in Iphigénie en Aulide, where Gluck had set the line “Je n’obéira point à cet ordre inhumain” (I will not obey this inhuman command) in two ways, initially with a long note on the first word, and subsequently with a short note. Corancez confessed that for him, “the long note spoilt the melody”. Gluck’s reply is prompt and plausible:

I had a strong reason not only for putting a long note on the ‘je’ the first time Agamemnon sings it, but for suppressing it at every repetition. The prince is torn between strong opposing forces, Nature and religion. Nature wins in the end, but he needs must hesitate before disobeying the gods, and the long note represents his hesitation. But once he has made his decision, there is no more hesitation, and the long note would be unnecessary.

Several of Corancez’s questions involve what might seem to be a fault in Gluck’s word setting. From the same opera, he drew attention to the chorus of Greek soldiers who interrupt attempts to spare Iphigenia’s life with a short, brutal demand for her sacrifice, repeated note for note throughout the third act. Olivier de Corancez criticised both the lack of melody and the unvarying repetition. Gluck was ready with his answer:

Suppose there was famine in a country. The citizens gathered before the ruler and to his query “What do you want?” they replied “Bread”. And however much he tried to explain, they would only cry “Bread”, on the same note and with the same expression. … Here the soldiers ask for a victim. They can only utter the same words and with the same accent. … I could have composed a more beautiful chorus and made it more attractive by varying it. But then I would have been a mere musician and ignored Nature.

Christoph Willibald Gluck’s most famous explication refers to a moment in his penultimate opera Iphigénie en Tauride, where Orestes, after a frenzied outburst, throws himself onto a bench, saying that he is now at peace (“Le calme rentre dans mon coeur!”). His tranquil melody is, however, accompanied by an agitated figure played by the violas that seems to contradict the words. From the first performance of the opera, the passage attracted much criticism, and had to be explained in the press in an anonymous review, almost certainly the work of the librettist, Nicolas Guillard. Corancez picked up on the offending passage, presumably to get Gluck’s own defence of it. He queried the restless accompaniment, saying, “Surely Orestes is now at peace: he says so.” “He lies!” exclaimed Gluck, “He can never escape his madness. He has killed his mother!”

Although Gluck believed passionately and seriously in his dramatic settings, he was not without a sense of humour. When Corancez chided him over the monotone chorus of underworld gods in Alceste, Gluck responded with assumed naiveté that it was impossible accurately to represent the speech of supernatural beings “because no one has ever heard them.” Shortly before his death, however, his pupil Antonio Salieri brought him his cantata The Last Judgement, with two different settings of the voice of God, and asked Gluck’s opinion on the alternatives. “Wait a just few days,” Gluck responded, “and I’ll be able to tell you which one is right!”

How authentic is Corancez’s account of the interviews? Could he have made them up? This is unlikely. Other writers have confirmed that Gluck, particularly in his Paris years, made a highly articulate defense of his operas. He was aware that he was disconcerting his listeners, treading new ground, and breaking conventional rules of composition, but whenever challenged, he was always ready with an answer, appealing to the effect his operas produced in the theatre. “My operas,” he declared, “are not written for a single moment in time…but will please as much two hundred years hence, for they are grounded in Nature.”

Featured image credit: Portrait of Christoph Willibald Gluck by Joseph Duplessis, 1775, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Colby

    İ lives this article for the reason which you wrote it. İf only Papa Hayden could talk about his musical jokes!

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