Composers Inspiration
At the Center of the Musical Universe
Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)

Christoph Willibald Gluck

Christoph Willibald Gluck

Christoph Willibald Gluck was a true visionary! Working at the Habsburg court in Vienna and at the Parisian stage, he completely reformed operatic traditions. Basically, he was sick and tired of singers dominating the operatic stage. Vocal acrobatics were the toast of the town, and performers embellished and decorated vocal lines in such a way that audiences could no longer recognize the original melody or understand the text. Gluck set out to return opera to its origins by focusing on human drama and passions, and by giving equal importance to words and music.

Antoine Reicha

Antoine Reicha

That meant, denying singers the opportunity for vocal improvisation and virtuosic displays, getting rid of melismas, and favoring syllabic settings of the text to make the words intelligible. It goes without saying that Gluck made some powerful enemies along the way. However, his stand against artistic superficiality gained him the deep respect of a number of composers, among them Antoine Reicha. Active at the Paris Conservatoire and the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Reicha fashioned a set of fourteen variations on the “Musette” from Act 4 of Gluck’s celebrated opera Armide.

Antoine Reicha: Variations on a theme by Gluck, Op. 87 (excerpts)
Nepomuk Hummel

Nepomuk Hummel

In 1575 Torquato Tasso wrote his epic poem Gerusalemme liberate (Jerusalem Delivered). Set during the first crusade, the sorceress Armida ensnares the Christian knight Rinaldo and holds him captive on an island. When she raises her dagger to kill him, she falls in love with him, and casts a spell to make him love her in return. Unable to come to terms with the idea that Rinaldo’s love is merely the work of enchantment, she calls upon the goddess of hate to restore her original revulsion. However, Armida cannot escape from her feelings of love, and the goddess condemns Armida to eternal love. In the meantime, his fellow soldiers free Rinaldo, and Armida’s spell is broken. Armida is left enraged, despairing, and hopeless. A powerful story indeed, and 50 composers including Handel, Cimarosa, Salieri, Haydn, Rossini, Dvořák, and Gluck all wrote operas on that very subject. Armide was Gluck’s fifth production for the Parisian stage, premiered in 1777, and the composer considered it his favorite work. Johann Nepomuk Hummel particularly liked the “Musette” and he devoted ten variations to that theme in 1815.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel: Variations on a Theme from Gluck’s Armide, Op. 57
Sir Donald Francis Tovey

Sir Donald Francis Tovey

Gluck’s Armide also served as the musical inspiration for a set of variations for flute and string quartet by Sir Donald Francis Tovey. Premiered in 1913 with Louis Fleury, the sicilienne theme is taken from Act 5, scene 2. For the premiere Tovey wrote a detailed analysis of the work. “The most important thing in a set of variations is the theme; and, according to the classical theory of the variation form, if the variations are not to be mere embroidery (which, however, may have high aesthetic value in its place), the tune is rather less important than the bass, and the general shape of its phrases and periods far more important than the mere sum total of tune, bass, and harmonic details. In other words, the theme is conceived as a whole object, of definite size and shape; not as a tune that may be broken up into melodic figures, which the variations may develop in any order and at any length they choose. On the contrary, where the deeper structure of the theme is preserved, there is no inherent necessity for a variation to resemble the original melody at all.”

Donald Francis Tovey: Variations on a Theme by Gluck, Op. 28
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Gluck met Mozart a couple of times; first in Paris, and towards the end of Gluck’s life in Vienna. Their paths crossed on a number of occasions, but no close personal relationship developed between them. However, we do know that after a special performance of Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail, Gluck entertained Wolfgang and Constanze at his house for dinner. One week later, on 23 March 1783, Mozart invited Gluck to one of his concerts at the Burgtheater, and he writes to his father Leopold. “I played variations on an air from an opera called Die Philosophen by Paisiello, and six variations in F on “Salve tu, Domine,” which were encored. So I played variations on the air “Unser dummer Pöbel meint” from Gluck’s Pilgrimme von Mekka.” Renowned for his solo improvisations, Mozart doubtlessly extemporized this set of variations as a special thank you to his famous colleague in the audience.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: 10 Variations in G major on the aria “Unser dummer Pöbel meint” from La rencontre imprévue, ou Les pèlerins de la Mecque, K. 455

Related Posts

More Inspiration

Leave a Comment

All fields are required. Your email address will not be published.