Music Christoph Willibald Ritter Von Gluck
Patricia Howard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0090


Christoph Willibald Gluck (b. 1714–d. 1787) has a secure place in history as the reformer of 18th-century opera. Blending forms and styles from across the whole field of European opera, he replaced the established, popular, but formulaic genre of Italian opera seria with music dramas that have a less predictable structure and more spontaneous modes of expression. The first truly international opera composer, Gluck was born in Germany, raised in Bohemia, learned his trade in Milan, absorbed lessons in simplicity from Handel in London, collaborated with like-minded reformers in Vienna, and created his finest works for Paris. He was a conscious synthesizer of diverse influences, declaring that his aim was to produce a music fit for all nations. At the heart of his reforms was a new approach to word setting that valued a natural declamation of the text above lyricism; he also sought to raise the importance of the chorus and orchestra, and to limit singers’ customary freedom to improvise ornamentation. His enduring influence can be detected in the operas of Mozart, Berlioz, and Wagner. Gluck scholarship is focused almost exclusively on his role as reformer. In successive phases, attention has moved from identifying the nature of Gluck’s innovations to putting his achievements in context, and to pointing up the contributions of his contemporaries, both in reshaping opera (Traetta and Jommelli) and in the parallel reforms of singing (Guadagni), acting (Garrick), dance (Angiolini and Noverre), costume (Diderot), and stage design (the brothers Galliari). Despite determined efforts to detect signs of his reforming tendencies in his earliest works, there is little evidence of these before his ground-breaking opera Orfeo ed Euridice (Vienna, 1762), perhaps because until that work, Gluck did not have the opportunity of collaborating with a librettist who shared his vision: Orfeo was as much the creation of the poet Ranieri de’ Calzabigi as it was Gluck’s. Subsequent reform landmarks resulted from equally stimulating partnerships, notably Iphigénie en Aulide (Paris, 1774) with François-Louis Gand Leblanc du Roullet and Iphigénie en Tauride (Paris, 1779) with Nicolas-François Guillard. Gluck’s output includes some fifty operas, at least a dozen ballets, and a small number of sacred and secular vocal works.

Reference Works

Although articles on Gluck feature in all dictionaries of music and musicians, two sources are outstanding: Brown and Rushton 2001 and Croll, et al. 2002 both provide full and accurate coverage of biographical issues, together with assessments of Gluck’s place in history. Howard 2003 contains additional detail on published, manuscript, and autograph scores, and provides the most complete bibliography of Gluck literature up to 2003. Despite its early date, Wortsmann 1914 is worth consulting for its detail on 19th-century bibliography, for the light it sheds on the reception of the operas, and for its analysis of the dissemination of the anecdotal literature.

  • Brown, Bruce Alan, and Julian Rushton. “Gluck, Christoph Willibald Ritter von.” In Grove Music Online. 2001.

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    Reliable biography. The worklist is the most complete available, though it lacks the latest additions to the Bärenreiter collected edition (Abert, et al. 1951–, cited under Scores and Librettos). The bibliography has not been updated since 1997. Accessible online by subscription. Also available in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2d ed., edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan, 2001).

  • Croll, Gerhard, Renata Croll, Irene Brandenburg and Elisabeth Richter. “Gluck, Christoph Willibald.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Personenteil. Vol. 7. 2d ed. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 1099–1159. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 2002.

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    The only serious competitor to Brown and Rushton 2001. The coverage is broadly similar, with more emphasis on German scholarship, especially in the bibliography.

  • Howard, Patricia. Christoph Willibald Gluck: A Guide to Research. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2003.

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    Contains a worklist of Gluck’s compositions, together with library sources for printed and manuscript material, including a list of autograph scores and fragments. The annotated bibliography contains nearly six hundred items, including studies on individual works, Gluck’s collaborators, and the reforms in opera, ballet, acting, singing, and stage design.

  • Wortsmann, Stephan. Die deutsche Gluck-Literatur. Nuremberg, Germany: Koch, 1914.

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    Useful overview of 19th-century Gluck studies in Germany. Shrewdly assesses earlier dictionary entries, specialized studies, and bibliographies. Where facts diverge, compares the evidential base, tracing some common errors to their source.

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