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A Touch of Gluck

The Class of 1714

by DAVID YEARSLEY

C. P. E. Bach was the towering German composer of the generation that succeeded the titans of the first half of the eighteenth century, J. S. Bach and Handel; it was a generation long demeaned by later music historians as merely “pre-Classical,” an inconsequential run-up to the works of Haydn and Mozart. In spite of the exalted status he enjoyed during his own life time, C. P. E. Bach seems to have learned from his father, Johann Sebastian, the art of modesty, that crucial attribute of the musician in an era when the term “virtuoso” had much more to do with ethical bearing than with the seductive flash of high-speed arpeggios. Bach’s vast collection of portraits of musicians reflected that collegial sensibility, the desire both to honor the deeds of forbearers and to recognize the contributions of contemporaries. His pictures gave a face to music history extending back to mythic Apollo, while the collector also obsessively sought out the images of close colleagues and distant peers. C. P. E. Bach’s Hamburg become kind of Hall of Fame of musicians. A request for a likeness by Bach was a sought after accolade, induction into his collection not trumpeted in the press, but known to a circle of connoisseurs and admirers.

Among the nearly four hundred images collected by Bach over many decades were vibrant images of his exact contemporaries Niccoló Jommelli and Christoph Willibald Gluck. All three composers were born in 1714. Only Bach came from a musical family. Born in Bavaria, Gluck’s father hoped he would follow in the paternal footsteps and become a forester. But Gluck’s own love for music led him—in his own suspect telling of events—to escape the family home abetted by his lovely singing voice.

Jommelli’s father was a wealthy cloth merchant near Naples, whose conservatories churned out musicians of international standing like the Dominican Republic now produces baseball players. It was in this fertile chaos that Jommelli’s musical talents were molded.  Such was the European-wide demand for Neapolitan music and musicians that productivity was paramount, and Jommelli cranked out operas, and for a time sacred music, at a ferocious rate.  After youthful successes in Naples he was by the late 1740s promoted to director of music at St. Peter’s in Rome, and it was here that he met the peripatetic Gluck, who travelled widely across Europe as his operas were performed in London, Dresden, Copenhagen and Venice.

C. P. E. Bach’s print of the Neapolitan master portrays him at his full girth sporting a sword and wielding his manuscripts, his enormous belly straining the fancy buttons of his lavish waistcoat. The inscription below the picture proudly names Jommelli’s position atop the Roman Catholic musical establishment. St. Peter’s and leading opera venues of the Italian peninsula were major attractions on the Grand Tour, and by 1753 Jommelli had been poached by one of the most ambitious—and at the same time pettiest—of the German princely patrons of music, Karl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg.

After fifteen years of loyal service Jommelli was accused by his autocratic employer of plotting to abscond with his scores and seek his fortunes elsewhere. Jommelli objected to these accusations in a series of heartfelt, angry letters but eventually returned to Italy in 1769 where, after an intense period of renewed compositional productivity, he died in 1774, honored by poets and musicians as one of Naples greatest masters, Duke Karl Eugen never having paid him a cent of his promised pension.

Many musical visitors to the Stuttgart court and the Duke’s nearby pleasure palace, the Ludwigsburg, came to enjoy the spectacle and drive of Jommelli’s music. One such observer was the lavishly dissolute poet and organist, C. F. D. Schubart, who would spend ten years in the Württemberg prison for supposedly insulting the Duke’s mistress. Recalling a 1768 performance of Jommelli’s Fetonte composed for the Duke’s birthday Schubart wrote that “Jommelli still presided over the best trained orchestra in the world … The spirit of the music was great and heaven storming, and was expressed as if every musician were one of Jommelli’s nerves.”

Performed from St. Petersburg to Lisbon during his lifetime, Jommelli’s music will receive only a cursory glance from the moderns this year. All I could find is what looks like a promising, if modest, London production of his 1746 Didone in April. Hailed in the eighteenth-century as the New Orpheus, Jommelli doesn’t even rate a condescending tricentennial nod from his native Naples.

At the helm of his renowned Württemberg band, Jommelli pushed the dynamic capacity of the eighteenth-century orchestra to unprecedented realms of expression. One gets an impression of these extreme effects of color and volume in the famous Ciaccona, op. 5, no. 13, a hugely popular and oft-anthologized piece in Jommelli’s own time and in the years after his death. It reemerged as a favorite among Italian orchestras in the twentieth century, but in a soporific guise more reminiscent of Barber’s Adagio than the daring chiaroscuro of Jommelli’s own vision. Such unprecedented contrasts can be heard in the Hanover Band’s bracing reading of the piece from its venerable recording from the 1980s, Beethoven and the Philharmonic, a 2-CD  set that shows with just this one Jommelli offering how important the great Neapolitan’s flair was to the sonorities of nineteenth-century Romanticism.

Another captivating performance of the Ciaccona, one that ranges from the refined to the unbounded, comes from the Neapolitan ensemble Cappella de’ Turchini—the Turchini being the very conservatory where Jommelli had studied. On this ensemble’s Festa Napoletana disc from 2001 the celebrated Ciaccona  is paired with a recitative and aria by Jommelli that show his exuberant approach to declamation, his talent for harmonic surprise and buoyant melody.

However much Schubart praised Jommelli, the poet claimed that Gluck’s “genius soared far above.” On the negative side of the scorecard, Handel dismissed Gluck during his London sojourn for knowing less about counterpoint than his cook.  Handel’s remark notwithstanding, Gluck was lionized across Europe and his works remained in the repertory after his death, a posthumous reputation attested to by E. T. A. Hoffmann’s story “Ritter Gluck,” where the composer returns as a ghostly genius to nineteenth-century Berlin.

Like Jommelli, Gluck had a penchant for expressive outbursts, and worked for the gripping integration of chorus and dance into the drama. C. P. E. Bach’s lovely portrait of Gluck has him gazing upward as if towards lofty, distant peaks; he appears a visionary, the reformer intent on making opera serve drama rather than the egos of overpaid singers.

Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice is oft-produced, achieving the highpoint of its twentieth-century popularity in Kathleen Ferrer’s championing of the opera’s radiant lament, Che faro senza Euridice. Yet while Gluck’s operas have reentered the repertoire, their lack of vocal pyrotechnics and volcanic emotions have made shock-loving moderns wary of bringing them to the stage. In contrast to the bicentennial giants of last year, Verdi and Wagner, Gluck’s birthday will not be celebrated with the honor due it.

Some contemporary artists have bucked the general neglect. The stark, effecting imagery of director Robert Wilson’s production of Alceste, with John Eliot Gardiner conducting and Annie Sofie von Otter in the title role, is an essential DVD for any opera fan’s collection. Equally as gripping and imaginative are the dance-operas that the late German choreographer Pina Bausch made of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice  and Iphigénie en Tauride. To see the first of these in 2014 you’ll have to make your way to Hong Kong: this important part of the European patrimony has been outsourced to Asia. Long roaming opera’s underworld, with occasional appearances above, Gluck’s ghost will perhaps be happy for a bit of Hong Kong’s swelter far from an arid Europe scornful of his tricentenary year. Bach’s spirit will be back in Germany acknowledging the posthumous honor accorded him there with requisite reserve. While Jommelli’s genius will have to wait another hundred years for a summons back to the land of the living.

This is the second article in a two-part series. Click here to read part one: The Other Bach.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com