Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Watching Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride Live in HD with Hector Berlioz

Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (1714-1787) is a name associated with operatic reforms that many of us learned about in music history classes while safely tucked into large, airy lecture halls.

But for composer Hector Berlioz the music of Gluck represented a world of "infinite passion." Several times in his writings Berlioz describes performances of Iphigénie en Tauride in detailed and electrifying prose.

"Short of fainting," wrote Berlioz as a student back home to his sister, "I could not have been more moved than when I saw a performance of Gluck’s masterpiece Iphigénie en Tauride." This early euphoria was captured in a fictional transformation in a book he wrote years later.

His book "Evenings with the Orchestra" is centered on discussions and storytelling among members of an orchestra while dull modern operas are being performed. No one talked during masterpieces.

On the twenty-second evening described in the book, Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride was performed. Corsino figured prominently in Evenings with the Orchestra. He was the concertmaster of the orchestra and was himself a composer. This passage, from the famous translation by Jacques Barzun, articulates the overpowering emotional impact that Berlioz found in Gluck. He takes us into the scene as it unfolds in present tense. Present tense was the 19th century version of Live in HD:

"The entire orchestra is filled with a religious respect for this immortal work and seems afraid of not being able to rise to the occasion. I notice the deep, sustained attention of the musicians as they keep their eyes on the conductor, the precision of their attack, their keen sense of expressive accent, the delicacy of their accompaniment, their ability to produce a wide range of nuances."

"The chorus also is impeccable. The Scythians’ scene in the first act rouses the enthusiasm of the select public that fills the house. Orestes is inadequate and almost ridiculous; Pylades bleats like a lamb. Iphigenia alone is equal to her role. When she comes to her aria “Unhappy Iphigenia!” whose color of antiquity, solemnity of accent, and desolate dignity of expression in melody and accompaniment recall the sublimities of Homer and the simple grandeur of the heroic ages, while filling the heart with the unfathomable sadness inseparable from the memory of a glorious but vanished past, Corsino turns pale and stops playing. He puts both elbows on his knees and buries his face in his hands, as if overwrought by inexpressible emotion."

"I can see his breathing become more and more rapid and the blood rushing to his reddened temples. At the entrance of the women’s chorus on the words 'To her lament we join our plaintive cries,' at that instant when the prolonged outcry of the priestesses blends with the voice of the royal orphan and swells with a heart-rending tumult in the orchestra, two streams of tears force their way from his eyes and he sobs so vehemently that I am compelled to lead him out of the house."

"We go outside . . . I see him home. Seated in his modest room, lit up by the moon alone, we stay a long time motionless. Corsino raises his eyes for an instant to the bust of Gluck that stands on his piano. We gaze at it. . . . The moon disappears. He sighs painfully, flings himself on his bed, and I leave. We have not uttered a single word."

Iphigénie en Tauride will be transmitted to theaters worldwide as part of the Met Live in HD Series this Saturday. See it and swoon.


  1. You've convinced me to read "Evenings with the Orchestra." I read his autobiography last year, and this sounds just as interesting.

  2. You will love it! Berlioz was wrote words with the same fluency as he wrote music. I think Evenings has the same kind of intense musical creativity as Hoffmann's writings...like "The Life And Opinions Of the Tomcat Murr."


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