In 1761, a year before his masterpiece Orpheus and Eurydice, Gluck was already largely renewing another musical genre, the ballet, in his adaptation of a work by Molière for Viennese audiences: Don Juan. A year later, this would be followed by another, Semiramis. These two works are innovative in that they offer for the first time a coherent narrative in which all the resources of the orchestra are placed at the service of expressiveness. Jordi Savall and Le Concert des Nations recover all the nuances of these scores, reminding us that, a quarter of a century before Mozart, the stages of Europe were being regaled with all the evocative power of music by another outstanding figure: C. W. Gluck.
CHRISTOPH W. GLUCK
Don Juan · Sémiramis
1-32. DON JUAN OU LE FESTIN DE PIERRE 42’48
33-49. SÉMIRAMIS 22’19
LE CONCERT DES NATIONS
Manfredo Kraemer premier violon
Direction : Jordi Savall
Recording made from 28 to 31 January 2022
at the Collegiate Church of Cardona Castle (Catalonia) by Manuel Mohino
Editing and SACD mastering: Manuel Mohino ARS ALTIS
Stage dance as an experiment:
Gluck’s Viennese ballet music for Don Juan and Sémiramis
The second half of the 18th century is one of the most remarkable periods in the history of music in terms of change and innovation, the broadening of existing forms, genres and styles and the search for new possibilities of expression. The American musicologist Daniel Heartz rightly considers this phase, which emerged against the cultural backdrop of the European Enlightenment, to be “critical years in European Musical History”. This is especially true of musical theatre: almost simultaneously, bold experiments in opera and stage dance occurred in various cultural centres in Europe, including Vienna. In the case of the Austrian capital, it was Christoph Willibald Gluck who, together with his collaborators Ranieri de’ Calzabigi and Gasparo Angiolini, tried out new ways of fusing music and drama in opera and dance.
After a number of successful years as a composer of operas in Italy, Gluck joined Pietro Mingotti’s opera company as music director before finally settling in Vienna in 1750. In Italy he had earned a reputation as a talented musician as promising as he was idiosyncratic: he was already considered “a young man of outstanding ability and fiery temperament” (Saverio Mattei, 1756), and even then his rather unconventional musical style gave rise to controversy, as in 1752 at Naples, when the bold harmonic progressions and expressive dissonances of the famous aria “Se mai senti spirarti sul volto” from his opera La clemenza di Tito were criticised by some as a violation of the rules of music theory, whilst praised by others as forward-looking stylistic innovations.
The necessary conditions in cultural policy and theatrical practice that paved the way for Gluck to become a “reformer” in Vienna were created in 1760 by the then general director of the Viennese theatres, Giacomo Conte Durazzo, who succeeded in bringing together a group of artists who were eager to experiment. The group included not only Gluck himself, but also his future opera librettist, Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, as mastermind and “director”, as well as the dancer, choreographer and dance reformer Gasparo Angiolini. They all shared a wish to break new ground in the field of musical theatre and dance, and to explore the desire for renewal that was in the air at the time, not only on a theoretical level, but also to put them into practice on the stage.
Stage dance in transition: Don Juan
Significantly, the first genre to be chosen was ballet. As the first product of the Viennese reform group, the ballet Le Festin de pierre (Don Juan), conceived and choreographed by Angiolini with music by Gluck, was staged on 17th October, 1761, at the Burgtheater in Vienna – a landmark work which not only influenced the subsequent evolution of ballet, but was also to provide essential impulses for other stage genres. The authors had high hopes for it. As we can see from the programmatic preface to the premiere’s libretto, or scenario, the dramatic action was to be portrayed exclusively by means of pantomime, dance movements, mime and gestures, together with a dance-specific “talking” instrumental music, for which Angiolini had found in Gluck a congenial partner. “Mr Gluck has composed the music”, wrote Angiolini. “He has perfectly grasped the enormity of the action. He has endeavoured to express the play of passions and the horror pervading the catastrophe.”
The subject-matter chosen was one with an impressive history of interpretations in literature, music and drama since Tirso de Molina’s Burlador de Sevilla y combidado de piedra (1630): the legend of Don Juan, the unscrupulous seducer who remorselessly exploits his erotic power over women to satisfy his own needs, and for which he is finally held accountable. Viennese theatre-goers were familiar with this subject, mainly thanks to Molière’s successful play Dom Juan ou Le Festin de pierre, which also served as the basis for Angiolini’s ballet version.
Musical tradition and structural form
Musical tradition and the structural form of Gluck’s ballet music in Don Juan are closely related to the stage practice of 18th century ballet. According to the general view at that time, music, action on stage and choreography formed a fluid and variable structure, depending on the context of each performance. In contrast to ballets of later periods, such works did not yet constitute a structurally fixed unit of music and choreography, in the sense of a binding and definitive “work”. The same can also be said of Gluck’s ballet Don Juan, staged in 1761 in a dramatic and musical form pared down to the essence of the drama, which explicitly reflects the reforming ideas of its authors. As an experimental work in progress, the version performed at the premiere continued to undergo modifications during the first season of Viennese performances in 1761-1762, as well as in subsequent productions, with regard to length, dramaturgy, number of roles and choreography, with the corresponding consequences for the music, which has survived in two versions: a short version, consisting of 16 numbers, which coincides with the plot outlined in the 1761 libretto and may therefore be considered as the music of the Viennese premiere, and an extended version consisting of 32 movements, which found its way into the concert repertory around 1800 and can be heard in the present recording by Jordi Savall and his ensemble. It contains all the movements found in the shorter version, as well as additional dance or pantomime numbers, above all for the musical background to the banquet at Don Juan’s house in Act II, but also for the fight with the Commander in Act I, as well as for the characterisation of the servant.
In both versions, the ballet consists of a short one-movement sinfonia, which energetically introduces the action on stage with harmonic, dynamic and expressive contrasts, as well as a sequence of movements of varying instrumental scoring, length and musical characteristics. In keeping with the genre, these are, on the one hand, dance movements based on the usual formal schemes and structures of 18th century instrumental music, such as the gavotte, contredanse and minuet. On the other hand, Gluck’s ballet music also contains pieces directly related to the plot, the dramatic action and the choreography, which is determined by the pantomimic action. No. 2 (andante), for example, is a serenade with which Don Juan courts the favour of the Commander’s daughter, Doña Elvira, at the beginning of the ballet. The solo oboe, played in a lyrical vocal style, represents the protagonist’s singing, while the pizzicato strings suggest a plucked string instrument accompanying the evening serenade. The stage action reaches its first dramatic climax at the end of Act I, combined with an intensification of the pantomime action, in the confrontation between Don Juan and the Commander in the form of a duel. The music of No. 5, significantly entitled “Allegro forte risoluto”, is full of contrasts with changing tempos, dynamics and expression, as well as irregular periodisation. It reflects the dramatic events on stage: the exchange of blows between the duelists and the failing strength of the defeated Commander, who is finally dealt a fatal wound. At this point, there is a pause in the action which is marked in the music by a fermata, before Don Juan flees from the scene of the crime to the rapid sound of the thirty-second note figurations of the final bars.
“Movements of unrivalled sensuality”
In Act II, Don Juan organizes a lavish feast at his house, accompanied by music and dance, which in the long version of the ballet is represented by means of a sequence of mostly dance movements appropriate to the scenography (Nos. 6-18), before the lively festivities reach a striking climax: No.19, the famous fandango, which in the 18th century became the epitome of Spanish dance and, thanks to this connotation, could easily and effectively be used to evoke a Spanish atmosphere on stage. The fandango was also considered a sensual, erotically charged dance, which Giacomo Casanova described as the “most seductive and voluptuous dance in the world” due to its “movements of unrivalled sensuality”: perfect, therefore, for the plot of the ballet Don Juan, which is set in Seville, and especially for the musical characterisation of its protagonist, the Spanish libertine and seducer of women, Don Juan.
His appearance in the fandango, appropriately entitled “Chaconne espagnole” and accompanied by castanets, is followed by Minuets Nos. 20 and 21 and Contredanse No. 22, danced by the guests at the banquet, which are abruptly and unexpectedly interrupted by what follows in No. 23: the ghost of the Commander appears in an effective coup de théâtre, the exuberant worldly festivities giving way to the metaphysical. The scenario, which can be precisely matched to the music, describes how the events surrounding the appearance of the ghost unfold: at the beginning of No. 23, the accentuated fortissimo strings in unison signal the ghost’s loud knocking at the door (“Der geist klopfet an” / “on entend frapper fortement à la porte”); the music then illustrates the servant’s terror as he goes to the door and the disarray of the guests as they flee from the ghost (presto). In the following Numbers 24 to 26, Gluck’s music is also closely aligned to the action on stage. Thus, in No. 24 (risoluto e moderato), a hammering fortissimo sounds once again, conveying the loud knocking of the ghost, which finally gains entry, while No. 25 conveys the return of the guests still trembling with fear (“entrée des trembleurs”) in the haunting, dynamically accentuated figurations of the violins, and No. 26 illustrates the servant’s terror in sequences of descending scales.
Towards the end of the ballet, Don Juan and the ghost, now in the form of a statue, confront each other in the cemetery at the Commander’s tomb. In Larghetto No. 30, the statue exhorts Don Juan in vain to repent and change his debauched way of life. This is followed by Don Juan’s descent into Hell in the scene of the furies, which concludes the ballet: the earth opens, furies and demons emerge from the flames of Hell to torment Don Juan and finally cast him down into Hell. This spectacular finale to the ballet was danced at the Viennese premiere by Angiolini in the role of Don Juan and a group of 24 Furies, with impressive staging and lighting effects, and accompanied by Gluck’s highly dramatic and expressive music with its striking accents on the trumpets and trombones, as well as the urgent, insistent playing of the violins’ dominant sixteenth-note figurations, partly as repetitions, partly as mostly descending scales, which seem to point the way to Hell.
“Too pathetic and sad”: Sémiramis
With Don Juan, Gluck and his team had taken the first step towards autonomous danced drama in accordance with the aspirations for renewal in the musical theatre of their time. As innovative as the conception and music seem in retrospect, it is clear that Don Juan, especially in its long version, still leaves plenty of scope for decorative, entertaining dance scenes in rather conventional musical form, particularly in the scene of the banquet at Don Juan’s house. Despite its tragic ending, the ballet, which Angiolini himself defined as a “Comédie Héroïque”, was not seen by contemporary audiences as a true tragedy, since Don Juan’s descent into Hell could, in the context of 18th century morals and values, be understood as a just punishment for a guilty protagonist who was incapable of repenting or recognizing his own faults.
In contrast, Sémiramis turns out to be exactly what the name of the genre promises: a “tragedy in ballet pantomime”. Created to mark the future Emperor Joseph II’s second marriage to Princess Maria Josepha of Bavaria, the ballet formed part of a festive programme including various musical and theatrical performances to celebrate the occasion. Once again a joint work by Angiolini, Gluck and Calzabigi, the ballet’s first performance took place on 31st January, 1765, following Racine’s tragedy Bajazet at the Burgtheater in Vienna. Again, they chose a well-known theme with a long stage tradition in the field of opera dating back to the middle of the 17th century. The plot centres on the Assyrian queen Semiramis, a heroine from Antiquity, whom Gluck had already visited in 1748 in his opera seria Semiramide riconosciuta. With the ballet, he now embarked on an experiment in danced drama at a time when his standing and fame as a composer in pursuit of new horizons and renewal in musical and danced theatre had already been consolidated with Orfeo ed Euridice in 1762.
The extent of the ambitions that the creators of Sémiramis had vested in their ballet is reflected in the programme published to accompany the 1765 performance. The authorship of the pamphlet, entitled Dissertation sur les ballets pantomimes des anciens, pour servir de programme au ballet pantomime tragique de Sémiramis, was later claimed by Calzabigi, although its ideas and concepts, particularly in those fragments related specifically to dance, can be attributed to Angiolini. The text underlines the requirement that ballet should be governed by the rules of spoken drama, in particular Aristotle’s dramatic poetics: a simplification of the action by dispensing with secondary episodes and characters, a strictly straightforward plot, and an expressive style of dance and equally expressive music, to which Angiolini and Calzabigi ascribed a central role as the “Poésie des Ballets Pantomimes”.
Angiolini found the direct model for Sémiramis in Voltaire’s tragedy of the same name, staged to great acclaim in 1748, from which he developed the plot for a ballet that is as disturbing and harrowing as it is effective: Semiramis, guilty of the murder of her husband Ninus, seeks a new husband and selects a suitor who, in fact, turns out to be her own son Ninias. At Ninus’s tomb, his ghost appears and demands revenge on the person responsible for his death, which Ninias carries out by killing his own mother.
“Pantomime sans danse”
Sémiramis proves to be the most consistent implementation of the idea of pantomimic action in ballet, not only in its conception of dramaturgy and choreography, which aims for the utmost compression and intensity, but above all in its musical composition. In contrast to his other ballet music (including Don Juan), in this “pantomime sans danse” (Jean-Georges Noverre) Gluck foregoes conventional divertissement-like dance movements in favour of individually crafted character pieces in a “modern” musical idiom: with bold, unconventional and sometimes abrupt harmonies, pronounced dynamic differentiations even in the microstructure of individual bars and bar sequences, with changes in tempo and rhythm and deliberately irregular periodisation, sophisticated instrumentation, a musical style that is action-packed and insistent over long stretches with fermata pauses at points of stagnation in the action and the use of memory motifs. In other words, stylistic features that are ahead of their own time.
Although the opening sinfonia is reminiscent of the formal model of the French overture, as the work unfolds it foreshadows the tragic action to follow by means of abrupt harmonic turns, sudden and strongly accentuated and dynamically contrasting chords, and an open, dominant finale. It therefore fulfils Gluck (the “opera reformer”)’s requirement that the overture of a stage work should prepare the audience for the action to come. In a style that is partly archaic and lament-like, partly dramatically accentuated and interspersed with chromatic turns, dissonances and dynamic contrasts, the succeeding movements reveal Queen Semiramis’s state of mind, tormented as she is by horrible dreams which culminate in the shadowy vision of Ninus’s ghost and the inscription traced by an invisible hand: “My son, avenge me! Tremble, perfidious wife!”
The music of Act II introduces the scene of the temple of the royal palace, described in detail in the ballet libretto, or scenario, where those who are to choose a new husband for Semiramis have gathered. In contrast to the dramatically charged music of Act I, a stately minuet-like Moderato (No. 3) is heard, to which the magicians and satraps perform a “danse grave et majestueuse”. An expressive Moderato, Grazioso (No. 4) with delightfully alternating wind instruments (solo oboe and bassoon) accompanies the appearance of Semiramis before her suitor Ninias is announced following the transitional Moderato No. 5 in a full-voiced, march-like maestoso in D major. When, after some initial hesitation, Semiramis chooses him as her husband and leads him to the altar, a storm breaks out with lightning and thunder claps which are onomatopoeically illustrated in the music.
In Act III, the setting changes to a sacred grove with the tombs of the Assyrian kings, where the final catastrophe of the drama is announced. In short, contrasting motifs, the music in Adagio No. 10 underscores both the ominous mood and the sudden appearance of Ninus’s ghost, who drags the terror-stricken Semiramis into his tomb. No. 12 is, again, an adagio, which begins with an energetic forte chord and is characterised by dynamically accentuated, partly dissonant eighth note repetitions on the strings, interspersed with plot-related fermatas and short dotted motifs, finally fading into a perdendosi expressing Ninias’s fateful realisation that he is standing before the tomb of his father, effectively linked with the words “Come, make haste, avenge your father” which mysteriously appear on the pedestal of the mausoleum. Events rapidly unfold. To the dramatically accentuated music of the Allegro maestoso (No. 13), Ninias emerges from the tomb holding a bloody dagger, followed by the fatally wounded Semiramis (No. 14), whom he recognises to be his mother. This leads Ninias to attempt to take his own life (No. 15), but he is prevented from doing so by the magicians.
Murder, incest, blood, guilt and atonement; a husband murdered by his own wife, who in the form of a ghost determines the fate of his family from beyond the grave, the protagonist stabbed to death by her own son in the final scene… Notwithstanding these powerful motifs, images and highly dramatic music on stage, the extreme, uncompromising drama and music created by the group of artists around Gluck prompted, at best, respectful recognition, but above all uneasy surprise and irritation in the audience at the Viennese premiere. Prince Khevenhüller-Metsch, for example, echoed the general view that the ballet’s sombre subject matter was unsuitable for the joyous occasion of the performance, considering that “the ballet composed by Signor Angiolini […] did not meet with approval, and in fact was too pathetic and sad for a wedding feast”. Although Gluck’s Sémiramis was not a success with the public either during or after the composer’s lifetime, the words of Angiolini and Calzabigi concerning Gluck’s music in their Dissertation continue to be relevant today: “Such music is as difficult to compose as it is to set a tragedy in verse: everything in this music must speak: it must help us to convey our meaning and it is one of our chief means of stirring the passions. By this sketch his [Gluck’s] merit may be judged.”
Paris Lodron University Salzburg
Translation: Jacqueline Minett