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Things That Have Interested Me

Left Hand Gluck

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
22 September 2007

The opening production of the new Royal Opera House season, Iphigénie en Tauride, may have had mixed reviews, but for those of us who had never seen Gluck on stage before, it was a transfixing experience. Gluck is valued for his way of getting swiftly to the emotional point. All experiences are intense and no time is wasted. The libretto of Iphigénie is exemplary, a distillation of classicism. The orchestra is used throughout the recitatives, and keeps up a commentary on events.

A story is told about Gluck in Paris, giving private renditions of famous scenes from his works. One day he played what has become a celebrated moment in this opera, when Orestes (the part taken at Covent Garden by Simon Keenlyside) is in prison and sings that the calm has returned to his heart. Apart from being in mortal danger from the Scythians, he is pursued by the Furies for the murder of Clytemnestra. But now he sings as if he is almost ready to fall asleep.

When Gluck was singing this passage, accompanying himself on the keyboard, it was noticed that his left hand "did not cease from playing a shuddering figure, thereby prolonging the previous agitation. [The listener] remarked to Gluck that he thought he perceived a contradiction in the left hand, involving not only the melody but the situation, and the words, 'Orestes is at peace.'" Gluck explained that Orestes is lying: "He mistakes weakness for calm, but the madness is always there." Then he struck his chest and said: "He has killed his mother."

Berlioz came across this story well before he had heard an opera or a symphony, or had seen an orchestral score, but when he was already convinced he was going to be a composer. He read a version of it in an encyclopedia. "Gluck was asked, 'Why, then, these muttering cellos, these snapping violins?' 'He's lying,' the great man answered; he murdered his mother." A couple of years later, Berlioz saw Iphigénie en Tauride for the first time, and in a letter dated 1821 he described the opera to his sister.

When he comes to the moment Orestes falls to the ground with the words "Le calme rentre dans mon coeur", Berlioz tells his sister: "He's in a reverie and you see the ghost of the mother he has murdered prowling around him with various spectral figures, holding two infernal torches in their hands and waving them about his head." Actually, the libretto does not say his mother appears to him - only the Eumenides, the Furies, who surround him. But the impact of that moment is overwhelming.

Berlioz went on: "And the orchestra! All that was in the orchestra. If you could only have heard how it describes every situation, especially when Orestes appears to be calm; the violins have a very quiet held note, a symbol of tranquillity; but underneath you can hear the basses murmuring like the remorse which, despite his apparent calm, still lurks in the heart of the parricide."

A year later, after another performance of Iphigénie, Berlioz came out of the theatre, as David Cairns relates in his biography, with his mind made up: "Music was his vocation, there was no longer any possibility of hiding the fact, he knew it, it was stronger than him."

Just as the 19th century had to grow out of the 18th, so Romanticism had to grow out of something. Byron's poetry has its origins in a strong admiration for Pope. Berlioz loved Gluck. Ten years later, he was in Rome, bored with its lack of theatres and music and literary meetings, repelled by its dirty, dark cafes with poor service and no newspapers, disgusted with Italy in general and thinking it would be much better if populated by the English. One evening at the Academy, four or five of his colleagues were sitting in the moonlight by the fountain. Berlioz's guitar was fetched, and he began singing an aria from Iphigénie en Tauride. One of the artists began to weep. He ran to the room of his son, the painter Horace Vernet. "Horace! Horace! Come here."

"What is it?"

"We're all in tears!"

"Why, what's happened?"

"It's Monsieur Berlioz singing Gluck. Yes, monsieur," he said to Berlioz, "it's enough to lay one flat ..."

Another of the Romantics who was laid flat by Gluck was the writer and composer ETA Hoffmann. There is a story by Hoffmann called "Ritter Gluck" (as in the Chevalier Gluck), in which the narrator tells of an encounter with Gluck's ghost in Berlin in 1809. Gluck is envisaged wandering the streets of Berlin, pained by what he hears being done to his music, but still keeping faith with his own achievement.

He tells how he found inspiration in the kingdom of dreams, which is portrayed like something in a drug trance. "It was night and I was terrified by the grinning larvae of the monsters who dashed out at me and sometimes dragged me into the ocean's abyss, sometimes carried me high into the sky. Rays of light shot through the night and these rays of light were tones which encircled me with delightful clarity. I awoke from my pains and saw a large bright eye that was looking into an organ; and as it looked, tones sounded forth and shimmered and entwined themselves in marvellous chords that had never before been conceived. Melodies streamed back and forth, and I swam in this stream and was about to drown."

This ghostly revenant, in his outmoded clothes, is here expounding Hoffmann's own experience of synaesthesia. Elsewhere, Hoffmann writes of discovering a congruity between colours, sounds and fragrances, which he believes are all produced in the same manner: "The fragrance of deep-red carnations exercises a strangely magical power over me; unawares I sink into a dreamlike state in which I hear, as though from far away, the dark, alternately swelling and subsiding tones of the basset-horn."

What the Romantics heard in Gluck's orchestration must have been something like this mixture of colours, sound and fragrance. And how many composers before Gluck depicted, not somebody lying to his fellows, but somebody lying to himself, as Orestes tells himself he is calm, while the orchestra speaks of unrest and remorse?

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