|Left Hand Gluck
copyright © 2007
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
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?