Orfeo ed Euridice (Orpheus and Eurydice) is the first of Gluck's so-called 'reform operas', and is, therefore, one of the most important operas in the genre's history. Abandoning the excesses of the Baroque in favour of a balance betwen music and drama, and a greater freedom of expression, Orfeo is very much a product of the age of reason.
It was composed in 1762 to a libretto by Calzabigi, a poet also sympathetic to the composer's classical intentions, and premiered on 5 October at Vienna's Burgtheater. The work's great success was at least partly due to the wonderful interpretation by the great castrato Gaetano Guadagni in the role of Orpheus.
Popular extracts include the delightful and contrasting Dance of the Furies and Dance of the Blessed Spirits, and Orpheus' heartfelt lament Che faro senza Eurdice (What am I to do without Eurydice).
Born in Erasbach, Christoph Willibald Gluck's family moved to Reichstad and then Kreibitz, where he received his first musical tuition. His father wanted him to follow him into forestry, but Gluck wished to become a musician and ran away to Prague. There he studied philosophy at the university, possibly with financial assistance from Prince Lobkowitz. Largely self taught, the operas of Vivaldi and Albinoni were likely formative influences. Travelling to Vienna and then Milan, it is possible he received tuition from Sammartini. His first opera, Artaserse, was put on in Milan in 1741 to great success; Gluck included an aria in the local style to ameliorate the local audiences. After several further Milan operas, Gluck travelled to England in 1745 where he was performed and published to scant acclaim, although he received plaudits for his playing of the musical glasses. He also met Handel , who although less than complimentary about his counterpoint helped to get his works performed.
Leaving England the following year he travelled around Europe wherever commissions were forthcoming. Marrying in 1750, he settled in Vienna in 1752 in the household of the Prince of Saxe-Hildburghausen. He was also involved in composing and adapting the works of other composers for the Burgtheater. A long string of opéras-comiques was interrupted by Gluck's most famous work, Orfeo ed Eurydice (1762). Its innovative unity of dramatic structure and intent led to it being the first of Gluck's works to be labelled "reform operas". Using orchestra instead of continuo to accompany the recitatives gave it greater continuity than previous works, and Gluck began the trend of allotting a single setting to each libretto - previously libretti by poets such as Metastasio were set in as many as 50 different versions, diminishing the relative status of the music.
Acceptance at court of Gluck's ideas led to further reform operas such as Alceste (1767), the score of which included a lengthy preface outlining his new aesthetic. In 1770 he gave work and instruction to Mozart's rival Salieri, already a promising operatic composer. In 1773 he travelled to Paris, seeking the patronage of Marie Antoinette. There he gave Iphigénie en Aulide (1774) and Orfée, a French version of his earlier success. Gluck's controversial works won over the Parisian audiences only sporadically, and he returned to Vienna in 1779 to retire. After several strokes, he died in 1787.
MIDI file -Dance of the blessed spirits (2'05'')
MIDI file -Addio, addio o miei sospiri (4'19'')