Born in Bohemia, Gluck was one of nine children
of a forester. The family's itinerant existence was not to Gluck's
liking, and at the age of 13, denied parental support for his
musical ambitions, he ran away to Prague, earning his keep by
playing at rural dances and singing in churches. In time his
father recognized Gluck's love of music and gave him some support.
At the age of 21 he was employed as a musician to Prince Melzi in
Vienna. Following the Prince's marriage in 1737 the household,
including Gluck, moved to Milan.
This was a wonderful opportunity for the young
composer, who had been spellbound by Italian opera in Prague. He
became a pupil of the composer Giovanni Battista Sammartini, and
after four years of study wrote his first opera, Artaserse,
to a libretto by Pietro Mctastasio. It opened the season at the
Teatro Regio Ducal in Milan and was an instant success.
Commissions for operas flooded in.
After three hectic years Gluck left Italy for
England in 1745. The second of the Jacobite revolts had left
London subdued, but Gluck was nonetheless commissioned by the
Italian Opera of London to create two operas — in direct
projects by Handel. Gluck's operas were
relatively successful, though Handel commented that Gluck knew no
more about counterpoint than his cook. Before Gluck left London he
took part in two concerts playing the glass harmonica, a popular
fairground instrument. Tapping 20 or more partly filled water
glasses, he captivated his audience with the delicacy of sound.
In 1746 he took up an appointment to conduct
Pietro Mingotti's Italian opera
company, and travelled with them in Austria and
Denmark over the next few years. He settled in Vienna in 1750 and
married a successful merchant's daughter, Maria Anna Bergin. The
Empress Maria Theresa appointed him Kapellmeister in 1754, a post
he held for more than 15 years. During this time Gluck developed
his ideas for the reform of opera. Orfeo ed Euridice (first
performed, in Italian, in 1762) exemplifies these ideas, chief
among them that music should be subjugated to the demands of the
text. In addition, Gluck gave a more central role to the chorus.
In the introduction to Akeste, another "reform" opera,
Gluck made explicit his revolutionary theories. First performed in
an Italian version in Vienna in 1767, Akeste, like Orfeo,
has a classical theme. The chorus plays a particularly
significant part and is given a character of its own, representing
the people of Thessaly. Greatly revised, the opera was presented
in Paris in a French version in 1776: both versions were hugely
Gluck moved to Paris in 1773. It was here that
he composed Iphigenie en Aulide in 1774, Armide in
Mil, and Iphigenie en Tauride in 1778, all of which
show his increasing mastery of dramatic form. He eventually
retired to Vienna, -where he lived in some luxury until his death.