Jul 022015


Today is the birthday (1714) of Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck, a German composer of Italian and French opera in the late Baroque/early Classical period. After many years at the Habsburg court at Vienna, Gluck brought about the practical reform of opera’s dramaturgical practices that many intellectuals had been campaigning for over the years. With a series of radical new works in the 1760s, among them Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste, he broke the stranglehold that opera seria (“serious opera” as opposed to comic opera) had enjoyed for much of the century. The old operas were an aristocratic indulgence that trumpeted the lavish lifestyles of the emperor and his court, with no real plots, but were instead vehicles for virtuosic arias by the principals.

The strong influence of French opera on Gluck in Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste, encouraged him to move to Paris in November 1773. Fusing the traditions of Italian and French opera into a new synthesis, Gluck wrote eight operas for the Parisian stages. One of the last of these, Iphigénie en Tauride, was a great success and is undoubtedly one of his finest works (though now rarely performed), being a sort of summing up of his operatic career via the use of borrowings from previous works, as well as a certain amount of plagiarism (conscious or unconscious) from Bach. Though he was extremely popular and widely credited with bringing about a revolution in French opera, Gluck’s mastery of the Parisian operatic scene was never absolute, and after the poor reception of his Echo et Narcisse he left Paris in disgust and returned to Vienna to live out the remainder of his life.

Nowadays Gluck is largely forgotten by general audiences, which is a great shame. Rupert Christiansen in the Daily Telegraph noted that British opera houses shied away from celebrating his works in 2014, his 300th anniversary year:

Apart from Orfeo ed Euridice – or rather its Housewives’ Choice favourite “Che faro?”, as sung by Kathleen Ferrier – nothing by Gluck has ever been widely popular and he will doubtless always remain a specialist taste.


One can immediately hear why: his greatest music is marked by a measured dignity that doesn’t offer easy entertainment or sensual charm for audiences craving instant gratification. A reformer by nature and a neo-classicist at heart, he deplored the florid excesses and amorous intrigues of conventional 18th-century opera and aspired in works such as Iphigénie en Tauride and Alceste to return to something redolent of the moral and spiritual grandeur of Greek tragedy.

Rather than showy arias designed to show off prima donnas’ techniques framed by fanciful plots, Gluck cultivated a purified style shaped by expressive declamation, dramatic dialogues and solemn choruses, underpinned by simple orchestration and unchromatic harmonies.

Gluck himself remarked, “Simplicity and truth are the sole principles of the beautiful in art.”

Francesco Algarotti’s Essay on the Opera (1755) was a major influence in the development of Gluck’s reformist ideology. Algarotti proposed a heavily simplified model of opera seria, with the drama pre-eminent, instead of the music or ballet or staging. The drama itself should “delight the eyes and ears, to rouse up and to affect the hearts of an audience, without the risk of sinning against reason or common sense.” Algarotti’s ideas influenced both Gluck and his librettist, Calzabigi. Calzabigi was himself a prominent advocate of reform, and he stated: “If Mr Gluck was the creator of dramatic music, he did not create it from nothing. I provided him with the material or the chaos, if you like. We therefore share the honour of that creation.” You won’t go broke overestimating the egos of Italian librettists.


What amazes me is how much Gluck’s operas were changed over the years by Gluck and others to adapt to changing musical tastes as well as of necessity. Take Orfeo, for example. The opera was first performed in Vienna at the Burgtheater on 5 October 1762, for the name-day celebrations of the Emperor Francis I. The first singer to play Orpheus was the famous castrato Gaetano Guadagni. Orfeo was revived in Vienna during the following year, but then not performed until 1769. For the performances that took place in London in 1770, Guadagni sang the role of Orpheus, but little of the music bore any relation to Gluck’s original, with J. C. Bach – “the English Bach” – providing most of the new music. Haydn conducted a performance of the Italian version at Eszterháza in 1776. During the early 19th century, Adolphe Nourrit became particularly well known for his performances of Orpheus at the Paris Opera. In 1854 Franz Liszt conducted the work at Weimar, composing a symphonic poem of his own to replace Gluck’s original overture.

Typically during the 19th century and for most of the 20th century, the role of Orpheus was sung by a female contralto, and noted interpreters of the role from this time include Dame Clara Butt and Kathleen Ferrier, and the mezzo-sopranos Rita Gorr, Marilyn Horne, Dame Janet Baker, Susanne Marsee, and Risë Stevens (at the Metropolitan Opera). Butt’s rendition of “Che faro?” is my favorite of all time:


Gluck revised the score again for a production by the Paris Opera, which premiered on 2 August 1774 at the second Salle du Palais-Royal. This version, named Orphée et Eurydice, had a French libretto by Pierre-Louis Moline, which was both a translation of and an expansion upon Calzabigi’s original text. Gluck expanded and rewrote parts of the opera, and changed the role of Orpheus from a part for a castrato to one for high tenor or the so-called haute-contre – the usual voice in French opera for heroic characters – as the French almost never used castrati. This version of the work also had additional ballet sequences, conforming to the tastes that were prevalent at the time in Paris, and included the long “Dance of the Furies”, originally from Gluck’s ballet Don Juan, and the famous “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” for flute and strings. By 1825 operatic castrati themselves had virtually vanished, and performances of the original version for castrato became increasingly rare. The modern practice of approximating castrati by using counter=tenors as replacements only dates to 1950.


From 1784 to 1859 the Parisian diapason (concert pitch) rose steadily from 820 to 896 cycles per second, thus Gluck’s French version for haute-contre became increasingly impractical. When Adolphe Nourrit sang the role at the Opéra in 1824 his music was altered. Giacomo Meyerbeer suggested to the French contralto Pauline Viardot that she should perform the role of Orpheus. The composer Hector Berlioz was a close friend of Viardot and the leading expert in France on the music of Gluck. He knew the score of “the largely forgotten Italian original as thoroughly as he knew the French”, and agreed to prepare a version of the opera – in four acts – with Viardot’s voice in mind, adapting the role of Orphée for a female alto. In his adaptation, Berlioz used the key scheme of the 1762 Vienna score while incorporating much of the additional music of the 1774 Paris score. He returned to the Italian version only when he considered it to be superior either in terms of music or in terms of the drama. He also restored some of the more subtle orchestration from the Italian version and resisted proposals by Viardot and the theatre’s director Léon Carvalho to modernize the orchestration. In the end Camille Saint-Saëns, who was acting as Berlioz’s assistant on the project, did some of the minor rewriting which Berlioz had declined to do. The Berlioz version was first presented at the Théâtre Lyrique on 18 November 1859 with Viardot as Orphée. The production was a popular and critical success, filling the house every night, and was given a total of 138 times by the company.

By 1860 most theaters in Paris had lowered concert pitch to diapason normal. This was not as low as in Gluck’s time: “a Commission had lately recommended that the pitch in France should be lowered from an A of 896 to 870 vibrations.” Still this was apparently enough that later in the 19th century the role of Orpheus came to be sung almost as frequently by a tenor as by a contralto.


Berlioz’s version is one of many which combine the Italian and French scores, although it is the most influential and well regarded. Since about 1870 three-act adaptations of the Berlioz score, translating it back into Italian and restoring much of the music from the 1774 French version which Berlioz had left out, were common. An 1889 edition for contralto, published by Ricordi, became the most popular. On occasion the role of Orpheus has even been transposed down an octave for a baritone to sing. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Hermann Prey are two notable baritones who have performed the role in Germany.

All of this changing of the role, and other roles, by Gluck and later composers is fascinating to me, although I cannot elaborate here. Is there a central core to Orfeo or are there many Orfeos? Can there be said to be an “original” to which we can return? What differences are brought to the role by a castrato, counter-tenor, mezzo, contralto, tenor, or baritone? And so on.

Gluck deserves to be heard and written about more, but instead I will turn my attention to 18th century Viennese cuisine which Gluck must have known well. Viennese cuisine is often treated as equivalent to Austrian cuisine, but while elements of Viennese cuisine have spread throughout Austria, other Austrian regions have their own unique variations. Viennese cuisine is best known for its pastries, but it includes a wide range of other dishes. In fact, dishes heavily dependent on meat make up typical Viennese cuisine: Wiener schnitzel (veal coated in breadcrumbs and fried), Tafelspitz (boiled beef), Beuschel (a ragout containing veal lungs and heart), and Selchfleisch (smoked meat) with sauerkraut and dumplings are typical of its cooking.

The best known sweet Viennese dishes include Apfelstrudel (strudel pastry filled with apples), Millirahmstrudel (milk-cream strudel), Kaiserschmarrn (shredded pancakes served with fruit compotes), and Sachertorte (cake of two layers of chocolate cake with apricot jam in the middle). These and many other desserts are available at the many Konditorei of Vienna, where they are generally eaten with coffee in the afternoon.


Apfelstrudel is an absolute favorite of mine. I first watched it made as a teenager by a friend of the family and was flabbergasted. I also adored the eating part too. The oldest known strudel recipe is from 1696, a handwritten recipe housed at the Wienbibliothek im Rathaus. Whether as a type of sweet or savory layered pastry with a filling inside, the strudel gained popularity in the 18th century through the Habsburg Empire (1278–1780). Strudel is related to the Ottoman Empire’s pastry baklava, and came to Austria via Turkish to Hungarian and then Hungarian to Austrian cuisines. Apple strudel is considered to be the national dish of Austria along with Wiener Schnitzel and sometimes Tafelspitz.

Apple strudel consists of an oblong-ish strudel pastry jacket with an apple filling inside The filling is made of grated cooking apples (usually of a tart, crisp and aromatic variety, such as Winesap apples), sugar, cinnamon,raisins, and bread crumbs. Strudel uses an unleavened dough. The basic dough consists of flour, oil (or butter), egg, and salt although as a household recipe, many variations exist.

Apple strudel dough is a thin, elastic dough, the traditional preparation of which is a difficult process. The dough is kneaded by flogging, often against a table top. Dough that appears thick or lumpy after flogging is generally discarded and a new batch is started. After kneading, the dough is rested, then rolled out on a wide surface, and stretched until the dough reaches a thickness similar to phyllo. Cooks say that a single layer should be so thin that one can read a newspaper through it.

Filling is arranged in a line on a comparatively small section of dough, after which the dough is folded over the filling, and the remaining dough is wrapped around until all the dough has been used. The strudel is then oven baked, and served warm. Apple strudel is traditionally served in slices, sprinkled with powdered sugar.

There is no quick and easy way to make apfelstrudel, and since I am not a baker here’s a good video from someone who is.