How Gluck, 300 years old today, inspired a dying opera singer to finish the show – Telegraph Blogs

Gluck, 300 years old today

Once in a while, Greek myths have contemporary resonance. In the Times Magazine in February there was a painfully and beautifully written reminiscence by the BBC’s Business Editor Robert Preston. He wrote about meeting the love of his life, the novelist Siân Busby, as a teenager, but he failed to propose to her because he moved to Brussels for a post. Subsequently she married someone else. Realising his big mistake, Peston waited patiently, and by chance in the mid 90s learnt that Siân’s marriage had ended. He grasped this second chance and married her, only to have her tragically taken away again in 2012, this time by lung cancer.

As Mr Peston makes clear, to have lost someone not once but twice is truly heart-breaking. I hope he won’t take offence if I point out that such sadness is foreshadowed in mythology. Orpheus, who attempts to bring his dead wife Eurydice back from the underworld, charms Hades with his lyre and is given a second chance – on condition that he should lead her back to the living world without turning to look at her. He does, and loses her forever.

This potent story has been retold countless time in various forms throughout history. In fact, Orpheus was the subject of (arguably) the first opera ever written. Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo started a short-lived debate about the illogicality of conversing through song. The opera contains dance music within the story – providing early audiences with temporary relief from this perceived unreality. Opera-goers soon learnt to relax and get used to signing in place of talking.

The greatest and best-loved setting of the Orpheus story was of by Christoph Willibald Gluck, who would be 300 years old today.

It was Handel who said that Gluck “knows no more counterpoint than my cook”. What is evident right from the start is that Gluck’s opera serias (operas with “noble” story lines) were quite different in inspiration from Handel’s. It’s as if there was a conscious decision to reject what Handel stood for in this well-trodden terrain. Gluck’s operas are simpler, less layered, enjoy freer rein in musical forms and are more fluent in dramatic terms. And yes, less contrapuntal in structure too. This, in short, is his “reform” approach. For a taste of Gluck’s lovely ipquid melodic lines, let’s start with a beautiful piano arrangement from Orfeo by Wilhelm Kempff:

Orfeo ed Euridice was a watershed in operatic history. It swept away the conventions of the past – the conveyor belt of static da capo arias with their identical layout, the strict use of secco recitative, the endless coloratura that obfuscates the musical line. Suddenly there’s clarity and more varied musical expressions. The orchestra takes on a thicker texture and becomes more integral to the drama. Similarly the chorus assumes a much more important role in communicating the story. Poised between the Baroque and the Classical age, Gluck paved the way for Mozart.

Charles Rosen, in his pioneering book The Classical Style, considers Gluck’s reforms in the wider context of Neoclassical art in general. “Neoclassical art is aggressively doctrinaire,” he says. “It is art with a thesis”. This thesis is a call to return to Nature, which, to the enlightened 18th century, was embodied in the purity of Greek art (as opposed to the Roman art that inspired the Renaissance). Gluck’s operas – Alceste, Iphigenia, Orfeo – are pared down to the point that the arias leave no room for applause at their conclusion. The result are stage works that are more ‘through-composed’ than any that have gone before. And pure.

One of Gluck’s innovations is to replace the Baroque da capo aria with the rondo, and the most celebrated rondo aria he ever composed must be “Che farò senza Euridice” from Orfeo. This comes at the point after Orpheus turns around and his wife dies. For a grieving aria, “Che farò” is most unusually set in sunny C Major. How can a simple major-keyed diatonic melody express grief?

Celebrated as this aria is, musicologists and critics have been divided over the effectiveness of this treatment. Deryck Cooke, the author of The Language of Music, explains that the pathos is enhanced in this context, because it “conveys the natural joy of life which is undermined by the pathetic suspension”. Other critics argue that Gluck just didn’t have Mozart’s or Wagner’s gift to convey precise feeling musically. It’s worth noting, for comparison, that the Countess’s aria “Porgi amor” in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro is also in a major key, but conveys desperate pathos nonetheless.

Of course the written music is only half the story. Pathos can be injected through inspired interpretation, which is what Kathleen Ferrier did in her famous interpretation. The role of Orfeo was central in her repertoire, and it was her last appearance on the operatic stage before her death at the age of 41 in 1953.

She was terribly ill with cancer already when she arrived for rehearsals. Knowing that she was dying, Kathleen Ferrier sang “Che farò” with tears in her eyes. In the second performance she fractured the bones in her legs. Unable to move she stood in the same spot until a fellow cast member came to her rescue and carried her off stage. An ambulance was called for. She must have been in huge pain but she finished the performance. That is a tribute above all to her courage – but also to Gluck, whose music sustained her in her agony.

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