If there is one occasion when you hear me sigh: “Sounded like a good idea at the time”, it’s usually when I’ve accepted a conference invitation for mid-semester. Going to a European capital, catching up with old friends and meeting new colleagues are wonderful prospects – six months before the actual event. Back in April, there was optimism a-plenty that I would not just find the time to jet to Vienna and back again, but also to write a fairly original paper on a topic only marginally related to my established research interests in opera and German national identity. Four weeks before the event the flights were duly booked, but the confidence about the presentation had largely evaporated. How did I ever think that I could contribute something meaningful to Christoph Willibald Gluck – Mythen, Bilder, Diskurse, when the line-up featured specialists from the critical Gluck editions at Frankfurt and Salzburg? How would my paper on Gluck and German national opera slot into a programme which also featured presentations on Gluck’s 19th-century biographies, the concept of operatic reform or the image of Gluck as a classicist? I vividly saw myself playing “quotation bingo”: erasing from my paper one quotation after the other as the preceding speakers bagged all the juicy soundbites from Herder, Brendel, Marx et al. So it was with some apprehension that I set out on 22 October for Vienna, my paper completed (or at least written) for better or worse, largely thanks to a kind colleague who had taken on my first-year lecture.
And then it all turned out completely different. The conference itself was impeccably organised by Profs Michele Calella (Vienna), Klaus Pietschmann (Mainz) and Thomas Betzwieser (Frankfurt) and took place in the cosy new rooms of the Österreichische Gesellschaft für Musik (Austrian Society for Music), nestled between the State Opera and the art gallery “Albertina”. As it is customary for symposia on the continent, participation was free, which meant that the conference was attended by a good crowd of students, opera lovers and members of the general public, so conspicuously absent from many conferences in this country because of forbidding fees for bad coffee and limp biscuits. (Actually Michele Calella’s conference assistants spoiled us with home-made muffins.) Discussions were lively, vigorous and well-informed, and we made full use of the 45-minute slots allocated to each presentation. As the topic of Gluck reception was quite new to me, I learned a lot about performances of Gluck in Sweden during the reign of Gustav III (Jens Duffner), Russian culture wars over Gluck (Yuliya Shein), or Debussy’s attempts to erase Gluck’s pernicious Teutonic influence from the annals of French music (William Gibbons).
The highlights for me, however, were two presentations with quite dry-sounding titles: Melanie Unseld’s paper on the Gluck master-narratives in 19th-century biographies of the composer, and Arnold Jacobshagen’s musings on operatic reform and reform opera in 19th-century music historiography. Both speakers took their departure from a special branch of the German intellectual tradition that plays a small role in Anglophone musicology: Begriffsgeschichte, i.e. the history of technical terms and concepts, and Gattungsgeschichte, the history of musical genres. Both historiographical tools have been side-lined in recent years because they seem to sit badly with the myth-busting, hegemony-exposing impetus of the New Musicology, and because in the wrong hands they guarantee hours of unalleviated boredom. (I vividly remember a university seminar presentation I attended as a student where the unfortunate speaker started his analysis of theological messages of a specific Bach cantata by explaining the etymology of “cantata” in the early 17th century, working his way towards the 1720s with excruciating slowness.) The Gluck presentations by my senior colleagues from Oldenburg and Cologne, however, superbly demonstrated how a careful dissection of historiographical concepts illuminates our understanding of music’s place within the wider intellectual tradition of an era.
Melanie Unseld, who has wrote her Habilitation on music history and life writings, investigated a selection of early Gluck biographies, distilling a catalogue of narrative stereotypes (in academic German parlance now called a “Narrativ”, with a long final syllable) such as the humble origins of the artist in a Bohemian village, the misunderstood genius in philistine Vienna, the triumph against adversity in the Parisian querelles. Such narratives sound familiar enough, but Gluck’s “real” life story, as far as it can be reconstructed today, is singularly unsuited to the familiar fairy-tale of the musical genius à la Beethoven. With the help of the narrative tropes, however, the non-Beethovenian aspects of Gluck’s career simply vanish from the storyline: his shrewd business sense (Gluck died a very wealthy man indeed), his uneventful private life (no “immortal beloved” but a marriage that appears to have been as happy as anybody’s), or the fact that he continued writing traditional operas and even ballets after he had allegedly invented reform opera. Melanie Unseld then exemplified her theoretical reflections with a two-page anonymous biography of Gluck written sometime in the 1850s or 1860s, where Gluck is hailed as Wagner’s predecessor but, strangely, his short stay in Copenhagen receives much more attention than decades of Habsburg service in Vienna, playing to the interests of a North-German and progressivist readership.
The title of Arnold Jacobshagen’s paper sounded similar to Unseld’s, but he tackled the operatic reformer from quite a different angle: by tracing the very term “reform” to its origin in late-15th-century theology and church politics. As Jacobshagen argued, thanks to the historiography of the Reformation the term “reform” was understood as a genuinely German form of improving things with gradual and careful steps. In Enlightenment writings, the term was often still used in its French spelling – réforme – but towards the end of the century increasingly construed in opposition – or even as an antidote – to the dangerous French revolutionary tendencies which threatened to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Whereas French music historians customarily hailed Gluck as a revolutionary of French opera, German music historians celebrated Gluck as the master of operatic reform. The dialogue between these seemingly straightforward terms – reform and revolution – suddenly opened up a whole vista of historiographical configurations where not only Gluck, but all 19th-century attempts to push ahead with new artistic development appeared in a new light.
My paper came straight after Unseld’s and Jacobshagen’s, and I have to admit feeling rather self-conscious that my paper lacked a comparable theoretical or methodological foundation, as I placed Gluck in the development of German national opera before and after Wagner. Although no German writer of the 19th century seriously doubted Gluck’s essentially German nationality and national character (see also Eric Schneeman’s inspired blog post about this issue), there was no denying that he had never written a German opera (or even just an opera in German), but concentrated his creative efforts on Italian opere serie and French tragédies. Nevertheless Gluck’s name was often invoked to ward off the dangerous enthusiasm for contemporary Italian opera, playing as it were the bible and garlic to the Rossinian vampires. But that does not mean that his music was a pivotal or even permanent presence on the German stages, nor that young composers invariably looked towards Gluck for guidance and inspiration; Wagner was not the only one for whom Gluck was comfortably dead and buried. Whatever the academic merits of my paper (it can be read in full on academia.edu), at least most of the jokes came off and I introduced a running gag to the conference: Gluck and the German forest. For the published version in the conference proceedings – the organisers will make us work a bit more for the comfortable hotel and the opera tickets – I feel sorely tempted to replace my rather misguided conference title “Zurück in die Zukunftsmusik” with the snappier “Gluck im deutschen Wald”. Side-lining Wagner in a discussion of German national opera is, after all, sometimes not a bad idea.