Music and Narrative in the Eighteenth Century: Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide as Dramatic Tableau
Kieran Fenby-Hulse, 'Music and Narrative in the Eighteenth
Century: Gluck's Iphig?nie en Aulide as Dramatic Tableau'
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0 Coventry University , UK
This article has been peer reviewed through the double-blind process of Open Library of Humanities, which is a journal published by the Open Library of Humanities.
Music and Narrative in the Eighteenth
Century: Gluck?s Iphig?nie en Aulide as
This article puts forward a new theory for discussing eighteenth-century
music as narrative by combining literary theories of narrative with an
analytical and historical exploration of the eighteenth-century opera
overture. Through a consideration of how the overture to Iphig?nie en Aulide
prepares spectators for the ensuing drama and through a reconsideration
of the role of (often ignored) devices such as musical repetition, this
article shows how theories of theatre, drama, and narrative can inform
our understanding of how music can be thought of in narrative terms and
how eighteenth-century music was able to express a dramatic argument
akin to that of a literary narrative. A hermeneutic approach is taken
throughout that combines a (structuralist) analysis of the overture with
a (poststructuralist) investigation into the overture?s reception history
and of eighteenth-century literary and dramatic theory. By proposing that
music has a narrative potential, rather than an explicit structural narrative,
the article seeks to provide a theoretical bedrock for future studies that
place the ?reader? or listener as participant.
Studies of music as narrative have tended to focus on nineteenth-century works
and, in particular, those that playfully engage with formal musical expectations
and toy with the idea of thematic transformation. Anthony
Newcomb?s theory of
; 1987) as narrative is based on the notion that a listener follows the
main musical theme through a linear and temporal sequence of musical events and
actions, as if it were the main character in a novel. Susan
music can foster a narrative through the manipulation of harmonic expectations
and the listener?s desire for tonal closure and resolution. And Carolyn
suggests that music narrates temporarily, at moments of rupture and noncongruence.
Although each scholar takes a different stance, Newcomb, McClary, and Abbate all
associate music?s narrative ability with compositional techniques such as thematic
transformation and formal and harmonic manipulation, techniques typically
associated with nineteenth-century symphonic and operatic composition. This
connection is most explicit in an article by musicologist and narrative scholar Vera
, who compares the narrative of Beethoven?s Sixth Symphony to that
of Mahler?s Ninth Symphony. Micznik asserts in her article that Mahler?s symphony
has a greater degree of narrative than Beethoven?s because Mahler employed more
complex musical structures and procedures. As she states: ?the more the sequence of
events in the discourse relies on predictable, purely musical syntactical procedures
(such as traditional tonal and formal sequence of events), the less narrative the result
(Micznik, 2001: 246)
. As such, studies of music as narrative have focused
almost exclusively on large-scale and teleologically driven works. This has resulted
in the sidelining of musical works with conventional, cyclical, and/or repetitive
structures, meaning that a large proportion of eighteenth-century music has been
omitted from narrative studies of music.1
To study eighteenth-century musical works from a narrative perspective is not
necessarily a simple task, especially since the music of this period has often been
regarded as highly stylised and based upon so-called purely musical structures, such
as dance and sonata forms. As McClary observes:
1 A notable exception is the work of Susan McClary, who has attempted to tackle the issue head on
by analysing the narrative merits of instrumental works by the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach and
, 1987, 1991, 2000).
many ?cultivated? people (even ? perhaps especially ? humanities scholars)
by and large regard the eighteenth century as a kind of rationalist?s Garden of
Eden before the fall into subjectivity, and that music of that time (particularly
that of Mozart) is considered to be the articulation of perfect order ? abstract,
universal, free from the stain of human interests (1986: 130).
According to McClary, there is an underlying resistance to understanding the works
of composers such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven as historically and culturally
informed products. Thought to have little or no bearing on either the form or
content of the work, extra-musical elements to these works are frequently ignored
by scholars and narrative readings are deemed irrelevant or unnecessary glosses on
these purely musical (read: formal) works. In effect, eighteenth-century music is
understood as the centrepiece to Lydia
) imaginary museum of musical
works. Detached from their cultural and social context, these pieces are understood
in isolation, as works of ?pure? genius.
This article attempts to dispense with some of that mythology by taking an
interdisciplinary approach that brings together literary theories of narrative with
an analytical and historical exploration of the eighteenth-century opera overture.
Building on James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy?s work, that asserts that ?the sense of
drama within eighteenth-century sonata practice is ingrained in the genre?s striving
to articulate cadences in a spotlighted, quasi-theatrical, or narrative way? (2006: 281),
this article seeks to put forward a new theory for discussing eighteenth-century
music as narrative. Taking as my starting point the comments in the dedicatory
preface to Gluck?s Alceste (1767) that state that a musical overture ?should inform
the spectators of the subject that is to be enacted, and constitute, as it were, the
(Howard 1995: 85)
, this article examines how music might function as
narrative, using the opera overture in particular as a crucible in which to investigate
the overture?s ?narrative potential?, a term I will discuss later in this article.2
2 Although it is Gluck?s name that is attached to the preface, it was most probably written by his
librettist Ranieri de? Calzabigi. Gluck, however, would certainly have been consulted.
The Emergence of the ?Dramatic? Overture
Although the preface to Alceste seems to demarcate a caesura in the history of
the overture, this is not actually the case; the preface is only one of a number of
theoretical writings written during the eighteenth century that suggested the
overture should take on a more dramatic function
(Ta?eb, 2007; Stollberg, 2014)
Johann Adolph Scheibe was possibly the first to put forward the idea of a ?dramatic?
overture. In an article published some 30 years before Gluck?s Preface, Scheibe wrote:
All symphonies that are composed for a play should concern themselves
primarily with its content and nature. Necessarily therefore, different types of
symphony are appropriate for tragedies than as for light-hearted or comedic
pieces. The music which is appropriate for tragedy must be different to that
appropriate for comedy as the two genres are from each other. In particular,
one must ensure that each section of the music fits each individual section
of the play. The opening symphony must complement the first scene of
the play, therefore, but by the same token, the symphonies which occur in
between the various scenes must complement both the end of the preceding
scene and the beginning of the following (1970: 614, translation mine).
Although Scheibe uses the term ?symphony? to refer to any instrumental music
used within a play, he does note there is a difference between symphonies that
open a drama and those that occur between the acts. On the opening symphony,
in particular, he states that it should prepare the spectator for the drama of the
opening scene. Scheibe?s most intriguing remark, though, concerns a composer?s
understanding of the literary drama for which the accompanying music is intended:
Concerning the dramas, a composer must fundamentally understand
not only how they are constructed but also how each drama differs from
another. He must also know exactly the individual and innate character
of each type of play, so that he can differentiate between them, each by
its own characteristics, by its own content, by its sections and all the other
contributory factors (1970: 614?615, translation mine).
He argues that composers should have an understanding of the literary work and
that the nature and design of that work should inform, and perhaps even determine,
the character and structure of the overture and entr?acte. In short, Scheibe draws a
direct connection between the narrative of the literary drama and the structure and
content of the musical work.
Scheibe?s comments on the overture were echoed throughout the eighteenth
century by a variety of theorists from all over Europe. (The preface to Alceste is, in
a way, an extension of Scheibe?s original theory.) Johann Joachim Quantz?s Essay on
a Method for Playing the Traverse Flute (Versuch einer Anweisung die Fl?te traversiere
zu spielen, 1752/1966) is one such example, in which Quantz claims that ?a sinfonia
should have some connection with the content of the opera, or at least with its
first scene, and should not always conclude with a gay minuet, as it usually does?
(1966: 316). Although adding a caveat that drama is too various to provide a definitive
model for the dramatic overture, Quantz goes on to explore how a composer might
achieve this effect. Questioning whether an opening sinfonia necessarily requires
three movements, he considers whether, in some cases, it would be more suitable for
the sinfonia to end with the first or second movement. He writes:
For example, if the first scene were to contain heroic or other fiery passions,
the sinfonia could conclude after the first movement. If melancholy or
amorous sentiments occur in the scene, the composer could stop with the
second movement. And if the first scene contains no marked sentiments, or
if these appear only in the course of the opera or at its end, he could conclude
with the third movement of the sinfonia. In this fashion the composer could
adjust each movement to the situation, and the sinfonia would still retain its
usefulness for other purposes (1966: 316).
For Quantz, the traditional three-part structure of the opening sinfonia should be
adapted to suit the nature of the drama it introduces and, in particular, the dramatic
action of the opening scene.
Francesco Algarotti?s comments on the overture take the ideas of Scheibe
and Quantz a step further and his theory can be said to directly anticipate Gluck?s
statement about the overture in the preface to Alceste. In his Essay on Opera
sopra l?opera in musica, 1755/2005)
, Algarotti states that ?the main drift of an
overture should be to announce in a certain manner the action of the drama, and
consequently prepare the audience to receive those affecting impressions that are
to result from the whole of the performance? (2005: 20). Algarotti, while suggesting
that the overture should focus upon the drama?s affecting impressions, also suggests
that it should prepare the listener for the action of the drama, implying that, like the
preface, it is possible for the overture to host a kind of dramatic argument. Unlike
Quantz, though, Algarotti does not go into any detail as to how a composer might
achieve this effect.
Perhaps the most informative commentator on the dramatic potential of the
overture is Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. In his review of Voltaire?s Semiramis, which
followed a performance of the play at the Hamburg Theatre in 1767, Lessing discusses
the incidental music that was provided by Johann Friedrich Agricola. Lessing states
overture must only indicate the general tendency of the play and not more
strongly or decidedly than the title does. We may show the spectator the
goal which he is to attain, but the various paths by which he is to attain it,
must be entirely hidden from him (1962: 74).
Lessing was familiar with Scheibe?s writings and, in fact, quotes several extensive
passages from Scheibe?s essay in his review. While agreeing with Scheibe that the
overture should hint at the nature of the drama, he stresses that the overture should
avoid revealing to the spectator how the drama is to unravel. Lessing argues that the
overture should be limited to providing an outline of the general mood of the play or
opera, so as not to weaken the effect of the drama to follow. What is significant about
this review is that Lessing then goes on to provide a description of Agricola?s overture
and highlight what he thought the overture sought to express. Lessing writes:
The opening symphony consists of three movements. The first movement
is a largo with oboes and flutes beside violins; the bass part is strengthened
by bassoons. The expression is serious, sometimes wild and agitated; the
listener is to expect a drama of this nature. But not of this nature only;
tenderness, remorse, conscience, humility play their parts also, and the
second movement an andante with muted violins and bassoons, is occupied
with mysterious and plaintive tones. In the third movement the emotional
and the stately tones are mingled, for the scene opens with unusual
splendour; Semiramis is approaching the term of her glory and as this glory
strikes the eye, so the ear must also perceive it (1963: 73?74).
For Lessing, Agricola?s multi-movement overture conveys an array of moods
and sentiments, each of which he claims corresponds to a different emotional
aspect of Voltaire?s play. Interestingly, his reading of Agricola?s overture seems to
overstep his own theoretical assessment of what an overture should or should not
do. According to Lessing, the overture not only outlines the general tendency of
the play, but also provides a musical exploration of the different and contrasting
moods that are to appear later in Voltaire?s play. As Agricola?s incidental music
is lost, we cannot probe Lessing?s comments any further and assess whether the
overture?s series of musical images can be said to constitute an argument that
parallels that of the play it introduces. His review, though, remains important as it
provides an insight into how overtures were perceived to function in the second
half of the eighteenth century.
The musicologist Reinhard
has suggested that the term
?argomento? employed in Gluck?s preface denoted, during the eighteenth century, a
type of printed introduction that was commonly handed out before the performance
of a play or opera. As Strohm states:
The term ?argument? was, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,
familiar to theatregoers as a printed introduction to the subject matter of
a drama or opera libretto. It was not a preface, nor necessarily a synopsis
of the plot; more often the author concentrated on the prehistory of the
action in order to prepare the spectator for basic conflicts and constellations
between characters. Rarely did an argomento give away the turning points
of the dramatic intrigue (1997: 239).
Strohm?s reading of this term, and of Gluck?s preface, suggests that he understands
the overture (and in particular the overture to Alceste) to familiarise the listener with
the prehistory of the drama and with the basic ?conflicts and constellations? that
exist between the main characters. Strohm?s theory is supported to some extent
by Bernard Germain Lac?p?de near-contemporary treatise The Poetics of Music (La
Po?tique de la musique, 1785). In his discussion of the overture, Lac?p?de claims
that the best type of overture is one that reveals to the spectator the prehistory of
. While Strohm?s definition of ?argument? is convincing from a
linguistic perspective, his reading of the preface seems to jar with the aforementioned
theoretical writings, which all refer to the overture preparing the listener for what
is to follow and not what has happened. In fact, the preface is the only theoretical
writing to use the term argomento. And while Lac?p?de does state that there are
overtures that present the listener with a prehistory of the opera, he also discusses
several other types of overture: those that offer a condensed portrait of the entire
piece (although these detract from the impact of the opera); those which prepare the
listener for the main sentiments of the opera (although not necessarily in all their
detail); and those that anticipate the drama?s overall mood.3
Despite the differences in their approach and terminology, the writings of
Algarotti, Lac?p?de, Lessing, and Quantz all agree on one point: that the overture
has the capacity to prepare listeners for the drama of the opera, implying, therefore,
that music has the potential to communicate a literary idea. To propose that an
eighteenth-century overture takes on a dramatic function that, in a way, parallels
literary poetic modes may seem like a large claim ? especially in view of the fact
that dramatic instrumental music is more often associated with the music of the
nineteenth century. However, it is important to note that Gluck?s preface does not
state that the overture constitutes the argument of the opera, but that it should
constitute ?as it were? the argument of the opera
(Howard 1995: 85)
. Gluck?s turn of
3 One other alternative suggested by Lac?p?de is that the overture can be dispensed with altogether.
Interestingly, in Iphig?nie en Tauride Gluck chooses not to begin with an overture in the traditional
manner but with a musical storm that flows directly into the troubled events of the opening scene.
On Gluck?s Iphig?nie en Tauride overture see
phrase here directly acknowledges the disparity between the communicative ability
of a literary text and that of instrumental music. Indeed, unlike an opera aria, the
overture is not accompanied by spoken word and, therefore, is limited in what it can
tell a listener. As composer Hector Berlioz states in his assessment of Gluck?s Alceste:
the overture to Alceste may foreshadow scenes of sorrow and of love, but it
can indicate neither the object of this love nor the cause of this sorrow. It
can never inform the listener that Alceste?s husband is King of Thessaly and
condemned by the gods to die unless someone undertakes to die for him
Berlioz asserts that the argument of an overture cannot replicate exactly the dramatic
argument of the opera as music cannot communicate the details and specificities of
the narrative. If this is the case, what is an overture able to communicate to a listener
and to what extent is music able to communicate a narrative?
Navigating Though Theories of Narrative
To assess effectively the narrative merits of the eighteenth-century opera overture
and its possible relationship to the dramatic work it introduces requires not only a
study of the musical structure and attributes of the overture ? or even of the overture
and the opera ? but also an exploration of contemporary writings on drama and on
narrative. The terms ?dramatic? and ?narrative? need to be used with caution here, as
they have undergone various redefinitions. Within the field of literary criticism alone
much ink has been spilt on defining these two words and their relationship to one
another and it is, therefore, worth mapping briefly the theoretical terrain and the
terminology I will employ before continuing with my inquiry.
My understanding of music as narrative develops out of the work of Seymour
Chatman, who argues that narrative discourse is not solely concerned with structure,
but also how that structure is manifested and expressed. According to Chatman, a
narrative can be made ?real? (1978: 26) through a range of different media and it is
up to the reader to ?unearth the virtual narrative by penetrating its medial surface?
(1978: 27). For Chatman, the narrative of a literary musical or dramatic work resides
deep within a work and can only be uncovered by the reader through a careful,
almost archaeological approach. It is on this point that my theory of narrative
diverges from that of Chatman. While I share the understanding that narrative is an
umbrella term that covers a range of presentational manifestations or modes, I do
not perceive the reader as an external agent, but a core component in the formation
of the narrative. To my mind, the reader does not simply unearth the narrative, but is
directly responsible for piecing it together from a series of culturally and historically
specific signs, codes, conventions and devices that prompt the reader to interpret the
work in a particular way. As such, I understand narratives to be fluid, dynamic, and
transactional in nature, and it is for this reason that I prefer to say that a work has a
narrative potential rather than a realised narrative. The notion of narrative potential
is, perhaps, more pertinent when considering music, rather than, say, the novel,
because as Berlioz notes music cannot communicate all the details and specificities
of a story, only a series of evocative musical images. In this article, my aim is not
to reconsider the much-debated question of whether music can communicate a
narrative in same way as a literary text can, but to understand how music has latent
Gluck?s overture to Iphig?nie en Aulide
Gluck?s experimental overture to Iphig?nie en Aulide (1774) has a fervent reception
history with commentators frequently discussing the overture in programmatic
terms. As such, this overture makes for an interesting point of study as it allows for
a hermeneutic approach that combines a (structuralist) analysis of the overture with
a (poststructuralist) investigation into the overture?s reception history. Drawing on
theories of drama expounded in Denis Diderot?s theory of the dramatic tableaux
(Entretiens sur ?Le fils naturel?, 1757) and through a detailed investigation into Richard
Wagner?s writings on Gluck?s Iphig?nie en Aulide overture
(De l?ouverture, 1841;
Gluck?s Ouvert?re zu ?Iphigenia in Aulis?, 1851)
, I argue that 1) the Iphig?nie en Aulide
overture presents the spectator with a series of musical images that are indicative of
the main characters and situations in the opera and that 2) the arrangement of these
images side by side furnishes the overture with a pictorial narrative potential that
depicts the opera?s most ?pregnant moment?, in Lessing?s words.
Shortly after the first performance of Gluck?s Iphig?nie en Aulide, the music critic
Fran?ois Arnaud wrote (1776):
The overtures which in your [Italian] Operas do not have any relationship
with the drama, this skilful [sic] Artiste [Gluck] always relates to the action:
thus the overture of his Iphig?nie announces a religious action, a great
action, a warlike action, a pathetic action, and all the characters are expressed
in a fashion that I dare to characterize as a divine one
(Lesure, 1984: 246)
Arnaud?s comments on Gluck?s overture raise two important points: firstly, that
the overture to Gluck?s opera forms part of the dramatic action of the opera; and
secondly, that the overture consists of a series of musical passages that anticipate
some of the dramatic situations and characters in the opera.
Later writers have rearticulated Arnaud?s programmatic description of the
overture. Wagner perceives the overture to be ?Gluck?s most perfect masterpiece
of this description? because of the way in which ?the master draws the main ideas
of the drama in powerful outline, and with almost visual distinctness? (volume
7, 1898: 155).4 Frederick Niecks argues that the overture ?is modern in form and
more especially in spirit, namely in the striving to be truly introductory to and
premonitory of a particular drama? (1906: 389). And Patricia Howard has written
more recently that in the Iphig?nie en Aulide overture all the ?tendencies that had
begun to appear in [Gluck?s] Alceste and Paride here assert themselves as part of
the whole dramatic plan of the opera? (1963: 93). Wagner?s writings, in particular,
warrant further consideration as he wrote two detailed essays that explore the
overture?s musical and dramatic structure.5 For Wagner, the dramatic power of the
overture was a result of the clear depiction of the main characters and conflicts
presented in the opera:
4 The essay ?De l?ouverture? was originally published in the Revue et gazette musicale de Paris (1841). Vol.
8, 10?17 January: 7?19, 28?29 and 33?35.
5 See Wagner?s article in the Revue et gazette musicale de Paris (1841). Vol. 8, 10?17 January: 7?19,
28?29 and 33?35; and his article ?Gluck?s Ouvert?re zu Iphigenia in Aulis? in Zeitschrift f?r Musik
(1854): 1?6. See
for a discussion of Wagner?s writings on the overture.
It is a contest, or at least an opposition of two hostile elements, that gives
the piece its movement. The plot of Iphigenia itself includes this pair of
elements. The army of Greek heroes is assembled for a great enterprise in
common: under the inspiring thought of its execution, each separate human
interest pales before this one great interest of the gathered mass. Now this
is confronted with the special interest of preserving human life, the rescue
of a tender maiden. With what truth and distinctness of characterisation
has Gluck as though personified these opposites in music! In what sublime
proportion has he measured out the two and set them face to face in such
a mode as of itself to give the conflict, and accordingly the motion. In the
ponderous unison of the iron principal motive we recognise at once the
mass united by a single interest, whilst in the subsequent theme that other
interest, that interest of the tender, suffering individual, forthwith arrests
our sympathy (volume 7, 1898: 161?162).
In this essay, published in 1841, Wagner argues that ?a solitary contrast is pursued
throughout the piece? that ?gives into our hands the broad idea of old Greek Tragedy,
for it fills us with terror and pity in turn? (volume 7, 1898: 162).
Following his 1847 adaptation of Gluck?s opera, Wagner published a follow-up
essay on Gluck?s overture in which he amended his view of the overture. He now
argues that the overture is not constructed from the opposition of two musical ideas,
but a number of different motifs:
the whole content of Gluck?s overture, then, appeared to me as follows: (1)
a motive of Appeal, from out a gnawing anguish of the heart; (2) a motive
of Power, of imperious, overbearing demand; (3) a motive of Grace, of
maidenly tenderness; (4) a motive of sorrowing, of agonising Pity. The whole
compass of the overture is filled by nothing but the constant interchange of
these (last three) chief-motives, linked together by a few subsidiary motives
derived from them (volume 3, 1898: 162).
As a result of editing and adapting Gluck?s opera, Wagner?s view of the overture
changes. Moving away from his view of the overture as expressing a binary conflict,
Wagner now perceives the overture to consist of a number of different musical and
dramatic ideas, ideas that bear a marked similarity to Arnaud?s aforementioned
interpretation of the overture.6 Table 1 provides a structural overview of the overture,
identifying the passages of music to which I think Arnaud and Wagner refer.
The musical structure of the Iphig?nie en Aulide overture is unusual for the
time, consisting of five sections: an opening statement, a preliminary presentation
of four musical ideas, a modified presentation of three of these ideas and a slightly
altered presentation of the original four ideas, followed by a brief closing passage.
I have numbered each of the main sections and given each musical idea a letter.
The dashes added to each letter denote a modification in the presentation of the
material. The following discussion will consider each of these sections in relation
to Wagner?s writings and, where appropriate, draw on eighteenth-century theories
and understandings of music and drama to situate the findings in a broader context.
Agamemnon?s Melancholy: an Emotional Opening (Idea A)
The overture to Iphig?nie en Aulide begins with a contrapuntal melancholic theme
for strings and woodwind in C minor. Peppered with sighing figures (pianto), the
overture makes reference to musical devices typical of a Baroque lament, a musical
topic with which the audience would likely have been familiar.7 As Raymond Monelle
states, the pianto has been used to signify a lament since the sixteenth century:
?at first it always accompanied the textual idea of weeping ? words like ?pianto? or
?lagrime? ? but it soon began to signify merely grief, pain, regret, loss ? in other
words, the indexicality of its immediate object? (2000: 17). In his discussion of the
6 On the Iphig?nie en Aulide overture see
, who identifies some of moments in the
overture that draw on music or musical ideas from the opera.
7 Eighteenth-century musical topic theory has been much discussed and my intent is not to go over
debates here, but to focus upon how musical topics help to foster a sense of narrative. On musical
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overture, Wagner refers to the opening passage as a ?motif of Appeal? and notes that
the music is derived from Agamemnon?s arioso that opens the first act of the opera.8
In the arioso, a distraught Agamemnon invokes the goddess Diana, who has asked for
this sacrifice of Agamemnon?s daughter in exchange for the necessary winds to send
Agamemnon?s army to Troy. Exposing Agamemnon?s tragic dilemma that puts his
love for his daughter in conflict with his duty towards his soldiers and his people, this
opening arioso plunges us immediately into the opera?s tragic narrative. By drawing
on musical material from the opera, Gluck connects the music of the overture to the
tragic drama of the opera.9 Although on a first hearing the listener would be unaware
of the explicit connection (unaware that the opening bars of the overture will later
accompany Agamemnon?s grief), the musical references to the lament topic help to
establish a sense of grief and, perhaps, also of tragedy.
The opening passage, therefore, has three functions: 1) to suggest to the listener
that the ensuing opera is concerned with death and sorrow; 2) to create a foreboding
atmosphere, the opera suggesting a potentially tragic situation or outcome; and 3)
to familiarise the listener with the music of the opera, imbuing the opening passage
with a sense of history, so that when it returns it has a potent effect on the listener.10
Gluck?s use of quotation also blurs the boundary between the overture and the opera
and, perhaps more significantly, between music with and music without words. The
overture is used here not simply to quieten the audience, but to signal the beginning
of the dramatic action. It is used to establish a tragic atmosphere, placing the listener
in a state of dramatic expectation.
8 The quotation is not exact. As the overture presents a purely instrumental version of the arioso, it is
orchestrated differently. In addition, the opening passage of the overture is in C minor, whereas in the
opera it is in G minor. The melodic and harmonic contrapuntal construction in both cases is the same.
9 Although we do not know whether the overture was composed, before, after, or alongside the opera,
the connection between the two remains explicit.
10 It is worth noting that this motif also has a history outside of the overture and opera, the music for
Agamemnon?s arioso taken from Gluck?s opera Telemaco (Vienna, 1765). In its previous incarnation
the music had been used to accompany Telemaco?s fears for the safety of his father. Although this
reference to Telemaco would not have been known to the Parisian audience for which Iphig?nie en
Aulide was written, the fact that Gluck uses this musical fragment to accompany a similar dramatic
moment in both operas suggests that he felt the music was particularly well suited to the depiction
of familial pain and suffering.
A Portentous Passage: the Barbaric Greek Chorus (Idea B)
Bar 19 of the overture introduces its next main musical idea. This passage provides
a stark musical contrast to the tragic and melancholic music associated with
Agamemnon?s arioso. For Wagner, this passage consists of ?a motive of Power,
of imperious, overbearing demand?.11 The passage?s march-like staccato quaver
movement, its unified homophonic texture, and its major key are indicative of
the eighteenth-century military musical topic.12 The fact that this passage bears
a remarkable similarity to music that accompanies the Greek army in the opera
corroborates this military musical association, which would likely have been
recognised by eighteenth-century listeners.
Although the overture does not quote music from the opera exactly, the musical
passages of the overture are similar in terms of textures, timbres, and rhythmic ideas.
For example, the chorus that opens Act 1 Scene 2 and the choruses of Act 3 all share
a marked resemblance. Interestingly, in terms of the dramatic action, these choruses
are exclusively concerned with the Greek army?s need for sacrifice. The Act 1 Scene
2 chorus, for instance, demands that Calchas reveals the name of the person that is
to be sacrificed so that they can continue their journey to Troy. In the Act 3 chorus,
the army repeatedly calls out for Iphig?nie?s sacrifice. With respect to these choruses,
Olivier de Corancez recollects a conversation with Gluck in which he discusses the
use of musical repetition and how it serves to intensify the dramatic action:
I also complained to M. Gluck that, in the same opera Iphig?nie, the chorus
of soldiers, who come forward so many times to demand loudly that the
victim must be given to them, not only offers nothing outstanding from the
point of view of melody, but is also constantly repeated, note for note, even
though variety is so desirable a quality. ?These soldiers?, he told me, ?have left
all they hold most dear, their country, their wives, and their children, in the
11 The military passage is repeated several times during the overture, although with some modifications.
The first repetition, for example, adds a tremolando figure in the upper strings (bars 50?57) and
the second presents the theme in free imitation with the upper strings continuing the tremolando
accompaniment (bars 86?94).
12 On military musical topics see, in particular,
sole hope of attacking Troy. They are becalmed in the middle of their journey,
and forced to remain in the port of Aulis. A contrary wind would be less
disastrous for them, because at least it would enable them to return home.
Suppose?, he added, ?that a large province experienced a terrible famine?.
The citizens assembled in large numbers, and went in search of a ruler of
the province, who addressed them from his balcony: ?My children, what do
you want?? All would reply together, ?Bread.? ?But is this how?? ?Bread.? ?My
friends, we?re going to provide?? ?Bread, bread!? To every speech, they reply
?bread?; not only do they pronounce nothing but one laconic word, but they
say it always on the same note, because great emotions have but one accent.
Here the soldiers ask for the victim; all the circumstances are as nothing to
their eyes; they see only Troy, or a return home. They can only utter the same
words and always with the same accent. I could have doubtless composed
a musically more beautiful chorus, and gratified the ears by varying it. But
then I would have been only a musician, and I would have departed from
Nature, which I never must do
(Howard, 1995: 246)
According to Corancez, Gluck?s use of repetition in the third act of his opera was an
attempt to musically depict the increasingly tense dramatic situation. Representative
of a force that stands in direct conflict with Agamemnon?s love for his daughter,
the choruses of Act 1 and 3 intensify the tragic narrative of the opera, repeatedly
reminding the listener of the altar that awaits Iphig?nie.
As with Agemenon?s arioso, the militaristic ?motive of Power? in the overture
anticipates the narrative role the music associated with the Greek army is to play in
the opera. Repeated six times in the overture, with each statement (except the last)
intensified through the addition of tremolandi and imitation, this passage captures
musically Susanne Langer?s idea of tragedy as a ?form in suspense?. As she states:
intensification is necessary to achieve and sustain the ?form in suspense?
that is even more important in tragic drama than in comic, because the
comic denouement, not making an absolute close, needs only to restore
balance, but the tragic ending must recapitulate the whole action to be a
visible fulfilment of a destiny that was implicit in the beginning
This passage is used throughout the overture, not simply to announce the
opera?s military topic, but to create a sense of dynamism, an increasing intensity
that musically mirrors the repeated calls for Iphig?nie?s sacrifice later in the
opera. If tragedy is, indeed, a ?form in suspense?, then the overture is crucial in
preparing the listener for the opera?s narrative by placing the listener in a state of
Achilles and his Heroic Vision: the source of hope (Idea C)
The next musical idea presented in the overture bears a marked similarity to the
music that is associated with Iphig?nie?s beloved, Achilles, in the opera. The passage
again invokes the military musical topic, although this is the only moment in the
overture to employ the full orchestra and, in particular, the brass and the timpani.
In the opera there are only a few occasions where this texture is also employed: the
celebratory music of Act 2 Scene 3 (Chantez, c?l?brez votre reine), the chorus that
follows shortly after (Ami sensible, ennemi redoubtable), and Achilles?s aria of Act
3 Scene 3 (Calchas, d?un trait mortel perc?). The orchestration of all these musical
numbers is remarkably similar: they each host a near-identical rhythmic figure
played on the timpani and brass and, most importantly, all have texts of a similar
dramatic nature. Specifically, the musical numbers are associated with Achilles?s
love for Iphig?nie, his heroic nature and strength, and his vow to rescue Iphig?nie
from the altar.
There is no mention of this passage in Wagner?s discussion of the overture,
whereas Arnaud?s refers to a passage with a ?warlike action?. Wagner?s omission
is perhaps not surprising given that in his adaptation and revision of the opera,
The Cry of Nature: Iphig?nie and the Oboe (Ideas D and E)
Two musical ideas from the overture remain to be discussed, although both I believe
are representative of the same character: Iphig?nie. The first of these passages is
found at bars 40?49 and has a lyrical quality that is quite unlike the rest of the
overture. According to Wagner, this motif has a graceful quality and is representative
of ?maidenly tenderness?. Like the examples above, this passage draws on a familiar
eighteenth-century musical topic, in this case the pastoral.16 The passage is for
flute, predominantly stepwise and songlike in nature, and has a relatively simple
harmonic framework. As with the other passages discussed here, a musical parallel
can be found in the opera. The chorus that opens Act 1 Scene 5 shares a similar
musical texture and also provides a moment of contrast and calm. It is light and
simple, thinly orchestrated, and has a pastoral-like character that is reminiscent of
the passage for flute and violins in the overture. Removing the listener from the
dense tragic soundworld that has, up until this point, subsumed the opera, this
14 For a discussion of
adaptation of Gluck?s Iphig?nie en Aulide see Whittaker (1940).
15 On the trumpet and chivalry see, in particular,
16 On pastoral musical topics see, in particular,
chorus announces the arrival of Iphig?nie and her mother, Clytemnestra, to Aulide
and describes their majesty and beauty. As Monelle suggests, the pastoral topic was
usually used to depict a natural simplicity (2006).
Gluck?s use of the pastoral topic to depict Iphig?nie as innocent and
closeto-nature in both the opera and the overture aligns with the way in which many
eighteenth-century writers, philosophers, and artists perceived ancient Greece and
its art. For example, in his widely-disseminated essay Thoughts on the Imitation
of the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks
(Gedanken ?ber die Nachahmung der
griechischen Werke in der Malerey und Bildhauerkunst, 1755)
, Johann Joachim
Winckelmann states that artists should follow the Greek examples and represent
emotion in a restrained and stoic manner. For Winckelmann, ?the calmer the state
of a body, the fitter it is to express the true character of the soul?
(Nisbet, 1985: 43)
The Lydian fourth at bar 39 of the overture could be an attempt to give the passage
a Grecian quality. Indeed, the eighteenth-century theorists Johann Mattheson and
Johann Philipp Kirnberger both understood the modal system to have its roots in
ancient Greek music.17 And, as suggested more recently by James O. Young, the
Lydian mode was, in particular, connected to ideas of ?ease and soft pleasure? and
often associated with ?high pitch and best sung by women? (1991: 235?36). Perhaps
the reference to the Lydian mode in this passage alludes to both Iphig?nie?s Grecian
heritage and her feminine nature. In his opera, Gluck appears to have carved the
character of Iphig?nie in Grecian fashion. The simple and restrained style in this aria
is an attempt to depict musically beauty and emotion in its purest form; the artifices
of music in Iphig?nie?s aria, and indeed in the passage in the overture, recede into
The second passage in the overture associated with Iphig?nie is of a completely
different nature and stands in stark contrast to the light and airy texture of the
aforementioned pastoral passage. As Wagner says, it is ?a motif of sorrowing, of
17 Although the newer, tonal system predominated in the eighteenth century, compositions based upon
modal scales and modal theory persisted. On the use of modes in eighteenth century see
agonising Pity?. The motif to which Wagner refers is found in the final part of the
second section of the overture and is almost twice as long as some of its other
passages. I believe the passage to anticipate the troubled situation that awaits
Iphig?nie later in the opera, the plaintive oboe melody serving as a musical symbol
for her pending sacrifice.
The oboe is an instrument employed to represent Iphig?nie?s plight several times
in the opera and is featured prominently in Clytemnestra?s Act 2 Scene 4 aria, which
follows the revelation that her daughter is to be sacrificed. The oboe reappears again in
an Act 2 duet in which Achilles confronts Agamemnon about the decision to sacrifice
Iphig?nie. Perhaps intended to represent Agamemnon?s guilt, the oboe?s melodic line
here corresponds closely to oboe?s melodic line in the overture. The most cited example
of Gluck?s symbolic use of the oboe, though, is found in Agamemnon?s Act 1 Scene 3
aria. In this aria, Agamemnon questions Diana?s request for sacrifice and refuses to
obey their commands. The oboe appears as Agamemnon sings of the ?plaintive cry of
nature? and how nature?s ?voice rings more true than the oracles of destiny?. For Alfred
Einstein, the oboe melody has an almost metaphysical resonance in this aria:
That lamentation of the oboe, which cuts Agamemnon to the soul, is not only
an innovation in opera, but in the whole dramatic art. For the first time opera
demonstrates its superiority over the spoken drama; for the first time the
orchestra recognizes its function of saying things and evoking conceptions
not to be expressed in words and stirring only in the subconsciousness of
the soul (1964: 141).
While Einstein?s statement may seem a little grand, it does touch upon an important
point. As he notes, the oboe does not just reinforce the meaning of the text, but adds
an extra narrative layer that presents the listener with a musical vision of Iphig?nie
at the altar. For Geoffrey Burgess, ?resembling a disembodied voice, the oboe is not
unlike the ?cry? of a singer?s ecstatic high note when text dissolves into pure sound?
(2004: 234). The connection Burgess makes between the sound of the oboe and
the cry of a singer?s high note is interesting. Is it possible that the oboe passage in
the overture was intended to represent Iphig?nie?s desperate cry at the altar? When
evaluated against a background of eighteenth-century aesthetic ideas concerning
music and the depiction of primal emotions, this reading of the oboe passage is,
perhaps, more compelling.
During the eighteenth century a number of writings appeared that made a
direct connection between music and the language of primitive man. Jean-Jacques
Rousseau?s Essay on the Origin of Languages and Writings Related to Music (Essai sur
l?origine des langues, o? il est parl? de la m?lodie et de l?imitation musicale, 1753/1998)
and Johann Gottfried Herder?s Excerpt from a Correspondence about Ossian and the
Songs of the Ancient People (Auszug aus einem Briefwechsel ?ber Ossian und die Lieder
alter V?lker, 1773) are two well-known examples. For Rousseau, language originated
as a series of sounds and gestures. He claimed that ?in all languages the most lively
exclamations are unarticulated; cries and groans are simple voices?
. Johann Gottfried Herder?s essay makes a similar point, although Herder draws
the reader?s attention specifically to the emotional power of primitive song. For
Herder, the more primitive a song, the more potent effect it has on the senses. As
he states: ?know then, that the more barbarous a people is ? that is, the more alive,
the more freely acting (for that is what the word means) ? the more barbarous, that
is the more free, the closer to the sense, the more lyrically dynamic its songs will be,
if songs it has?
(Nisbet, 1985: 155?56)
. This idea that music?s origins lay with the
powerful and emotive language of primitive man was something that also keenly
interested Gluck.18 At the time Gluck was composing Iphig?nie en Aulide, he was also
engaged with setting Klopstock?s Hermannsschlacht (1769), a tragedy based upon a
series of bardic songs that attempted to depict a more primitive and natural vision of
man. Although the music never reached written form, Johann Friedrich Reichardt?s
autobiography does provides us with a description of Gluck?s work: ?Several times
during the songs from Hermannsschlacht Gluck imitated the sounds of horns and
the cries of swordsmen from behind their shields; once he interrupted himself
saying that he must invent his own instrument for the work?
(Howard 1995: 235)
18 Gluck was probably familiar with Herder and his writings. In fact, Herder sent Gluck a letter (dated 5
November 1774, B?ckeburg) asking him to consider setting his libretto, Brutus. Sadly, Gluck?s reply is
lost. See Howard (1995:128?29).
From Reichardt?s observations it seems that Gluck used Klopstock?s bardic odes to
help forge a new, primitive musical style that was intended to present the listener
with a series of powerful and raw human emotions. A parallel can certainly be made
between what Reichardt has to say about Gluck?s Hermannsschlacht and the oboe
section of his Iphig?nie en Aulide overture in which Gluck attempts to portray pain at
its most raw and primordial level.
The depiction of pain (and death), it seems, was aesthetically problematic during
the eighteenth century, which may seem strange given that Greek tragic drama that
had preoccupied playwrights, librettists, artists, and composers since the beginning
of the century.19 Although many artists wished to portray emotion in its most intense
and natural form ? as Lessing says, ?to cry out is the natural expression of bodily pain?
(quoted in Steel, 1930: 13)
? they did not wish to present the horrific and the ugly.
For Lessing, the artist needed to balance beauty with real emotion. As he states in
his Laoco?n (1767):
Let one only, in imagination, open wide the mouth in Laoco?n, and judge!
Let him shriek, and see! It was a form that inspired pity because it showed
beauty and pain together; now it has become ugly, a loathsome form,
from which one gladly turns away one?s face, because the aspect of pain
excited discomfort without the beauty of the suffering subject changing this
discomfort into the sweet feeling of compassion
(Steel, 1930: 13)
According to Lessing, an element of beauty should be retained when depicting pain
and the depiction of suffering left to the imagination. As Matthew Schneider notes:
the need to avoid explicit depiction of violence re-creates the double,
even paradoxical character of sacrificial ritual [?] The painter?s sacrifice of
mimetic faithfulness to the Law of Beauty thus conceals. It spares the viewer
a potentially disturbing glimpse (1999: 280?81).
19 On the depiction of pain and suffering eighteenth-century art see
It appears that the problem that faced the eighteenth-century artist was in finding a
balance between faithfully representing the tragic moment and creating a beautiful
and pleasant work of art.20 Carle van Loo?s painting of Iphigenia?s sacrifice, which was
exhibited at the Parisian Salons of 1757, presents an interesting case in this respect.
His rendering of the scene caused much debate at the time as he had chosen to
depict Agamemnon?s pained expression at the altar, an expression that many critics
thought could not be captured without offending the eye.21
The way in which Gluck (and librettist Du Roullet) tackled the problem of
portraying the tragic suffering of Iphig?nie was, in a way, ingenious. In both versions
of their opera, Iphig?nie?s sacrifice never actually takes place, Diana intervening in
the 1775 version and Achilles saving her from her fate in the 1774 version. George
has written extensively on how tragic drama and tragic events are
perceived and understood. According to Harris, tragedy is defined by suffering and
loss, the climatic moment of the tragic action occurring at the point when it becomes
vividly clear to both the on-stage characters and the spectators that there is to be
no satisfactory solution to the situation; suffering and loss are absolutely necessary.
While the decision to replace the expected tragic close with a happy ending might
seem to negate this effect, Gluck creates the sense that all will not end well through
an intense portrayal, both musical and dramatic, of suffering and loss. The oboe
passages are particularly important in this respect as they direct the listener?s
attention to the moment of sacrifice, allowing them to imagine (and perhaps
experience musically) Agamemnon?s loss. In a sense, Gluck and Du Roullet paint a
dramatic picture that parallels the effect created by the Greek painter Timanthes in
his much-discussed painting of Iphigenia?s sacrifice (c. 406 BC). Timanthes? painting
concealed Agamemnon?s face with a veil so that his intense, emotional torment was
20 It is interesting to note that, given Lessing?s comments above, in his Emilia Galotti Emilia is sacrificed
on stage. However, there were different attitudes towards what was expected of stage drama and what
was expected of opera.
21 For a discussion of this painting and several other paintings that depict the sacrifice of Iphigenia,
. An image of the painting can be found here: http://sites.univ-provence.fr/
not portrayed directly to the spectator. By presenting the spectator with a musical
portrayal of Iphig?nie?s sacrifice and by averting the sacrifice at the end of the opera,
Gluck and Du Roullet allow the spectator a glimpse of the tragic altar scene at a ?safe?
and aesthetically pleasing distance.
Pictorial Narratives: Dramatic Tableaux and the Idea of Absorption
Through an examination of the connections between the overture and the opera
in relation to the writings of Arnaud and Wagner, the above discussion has shown
how the overture alludes to particular characters and emotional situations within
the drama. This, however, doesn?t answer the question of how the overture enables
listeners to read a narrative into the work. Wagner?s writings offer some further
insight on this matter, his second essay discussing in detail the way in which the
various musical passages are arranged and how this helps to create, in his terms, a
For Wagner, the overture?s narrative does not arise from the sequential, linear
development of musical motifs, but from the presentation of contrasting ideas side
by side. As he states: ?I say: side by side; for one can scarcely call them evolved from
out of each other, saving insofar as each unit drives its impression home by having its
antithesis placed close beside it? (volume 3, 1898: 162, italics original). The notion that
the overture presents a series of ideas side by side, when taken alongside Wagner?s
earlier assertion that the overture has ?an almost visual distinctness?, leads me to
question whether the music, in the case of Gluck?s overture, is better understood as
functioning in a spatial and pictorial manner, rather than in a linear or temporal one.
While this view of music may seem to go against music?s innate temporal nature, it
does align with eighteenth-century theories of drama, particularly those of Diderot
Written in 1757 to accompany the publication of his play Le Fils Naturel, Diderot?s
Conversations on ?The Natural Son? (Les Entretiens sur ?Le Fils Naturel?, 1757) puts
forward a new theory for stage drama. Arguing that theatre could learn much from
painting, Diderot contrasts the effect of the pictorial tableau with that of the coup de
th??tre: ?an unforeseen incident which takes place in the action and abruptly changes
the situation is a coup de th??tre. An arrangement of these characters on stage, so
natural and so true that, faithfully rendered by a painter, it would please me on a
canvas, is a tableau? (1994: 12). For Diderot, ?if a dramatic work were well made and
well performed the stage would offer the spectator as many real tableaux as the action
would contain moments suitable for painting? (1994: 13). Using painting as a way in
which to rethink stage drama, he puts forward a theory of drama that is not based
upon a series of abrupt actions and events, but a series of tableaux that focus the
spectator?s attention on the emotional states of the characters. Drawing on Euripides?
Iphigenia in Aulis as a model example for the dramatic tableau, Diderot asks:
can there be anything more passionate than the behaviour of a mother
whose daughter is being sacrificed? Let her rush on to the stage like a woman
possessed or deranged; let her fill the place with cries; let even her clothes
reveal her disorder: all these things are appropriate to her despair (1994: 13).
In his description of this scene, Diderot expands the dramatic moment by focusing
on the emotional aspects of the situation and portraying Clytemnestra as a mother,
rather than a queen.22 The intricate verses of playwrights such as Jean Racine are
replaced here with inarticulate cries and gestures. Diderot?s Clytemnestra becomes
enveloped entirely by her situation and by her maternal instincts. In short, Diderot
turns Greek tragedy into domestic drama through a process of emotional absorption.
has argued that absorptive situations are frequently found
in eighteenth-century French painting. He posits that from around the middle of
the century there is growing interest in depicting subjects involved in absorptive
actions, such as reading, writing, and thinking. According to Fried, the subject of the
painting is so engaged in their activity and mental process that they are unaware
they are the object of someone?s gaze, whether that be the viewer outside the frame
or another character within the frame. Fried understands the focus on absorptive
states to contrast with previous approaches to painting that, more often than not,
feature characters that look outside the frame and towards the viewer, or that consist
has noted that the focus on emotion is a trait of much of Diderot?s literary works.
of a number of characters unaware of the action that is taking place elsewhere in the
frame. In Fried?s opinion, paintings that depict absorptive activities are paradoxical
in nature; while the viewer is drawn into the painting, seized by the character?s
intense state of absorption, they are also excluded, the character being unaware that
they are the object of someone?s gaze.
In his famous review of the Jean-Baptiste Greuze?s Young Girl Weeping for Her
Dead Bird, written for the Salons of 1765, Diderot engages with the idea of absorption
in painting. Exploring the narrative potential of Greuze?s absorptive painting,
Diderot?s review seeks to bridge the gap between object and viewer identified by
Fried. Diderot takes the girl?s dreamlike expression as a stimulus for his reading, her
absorptive state enabling him to participate in the painting?s narrative as if he were
another character standing next to the girl in the room. As he states:
But, little one, your grief is very profound, and very thoughtful! Why this
dreamy, melancholy air? What, all for this bird? You?re not crying, but you?re
distressed, and there?s a thought behind your distress[?] That morning, alas,
your mother was out; he came, you were alone; he was so handsome, so
passionate, so tender, so charming, there was such love in his eyes, such
truth in his expression! He said things which went straight to your heart!
(Diderot: 1994: 236?37)
The girl?s intense mental state, begging more questions than it answers, furnishes the
image with a narrative potential that affords Diderot the opportunity to enter into
the picture and fill out the narrative. Indeed, his narrative does not just refer to the
present, but speaks of events outside the temporal frame of the painting, of emotions
past and present. Had the painting lacked the apparent introspection, the emotional
space in which Diderot aimlessly wanders would perhaps have been limited.23
23 In his writings, Diderot refers to the painting he saw at 1765 Salon as Greuze?s Young Girl Weeping for
Her Dead Bird. From the description given, the image to which he refers is known today as Greuze?s
A Girl with a Dead Canary, which is held at National Galleries Scotland. An image can be found here:
Diderot?s theory of the dramatic tableau is, as Fried notes, closely connected to
(and perhaps derived from) the pictorial depictions of absorption by painters such as
Greuze. In his new theory of drama, Diderot suggests that playwrights should focus
their attention upon powerful and emotive situations that overwhelm, envelop,
and absorb the characters on stage. According to Langer, tragedy is fundamentally a
genre of hyper-involvement; it is a genre that is ultimately absorptive, the emotional
intensity of the situation enveloping all the characters on stage and, indeed, the
spectators. In my opinion, Gluck?s overture to Iphig?nie en Aulide engenders
Diderot?s notion of the dramatic tableaux and Langer?s idea of hyper-involvement,
the overture presenting the listener with a repeated series of intense emotional
images that envelop the listener and present the opera?s most ?pregnant moment?.24
The term ?pregnant moment? was devised by Lessing to describe the moment
in a painting that embodies the greatest dramatic potential. As he states, ?painting,
in her co-existing compositions, can only use one single moment of the action, and
must therefore choose the most pregnant, from which what precedes and follows
will most easily be apprehended?
(Lessing, 1962: 55)
. Perhaps the Iphig?nie en Aulide
overture is intended depict musically the opera?s most pregnant moment, thus
functioning in a narrative manner similar to that of Carle van Loo?s painting? I like
to think of the overture is this manner, the overture depicting the scene in which
Iphig?nie approaches the altar; I hear the violent cries from the army calling out for
sacrifice, I hear the emotional torment of Agamemnon, and I hear Achilles? heroism
as he attempts to save his beloved.
The pronoun ?I? is important here. As noted earlier, the overture does not
present a self-contained narrative, but one that requires the listener to participate,
through both the interpretation of the musical material and through their personal
knowledge of the opera?s subject matter. In this sense, the overture can be understood
24 Although there is no hard evidence that acknowledges their debt to Diderot, we do know that Gluck?s
librettists Calzabigi and Du Roullet were both actively engaged in the debates concerning opera in
France and Italy and would have been familiar with many of the theoretical writings on both spoken
and sung drama. For a discussion of Gluck, Calzabigi, and Du Roullet?s involvement in these debates
as having a latent narrative potential. In Gluck?s overture, a series of musical images
are structured in a particular way to encourage the listener to read a narrative into
the work. The images act as if narrative signposts and the way in which they are
understood and processed by the listener can be refined and redefined through
knowledge of the opera and its subject matter, as well as through an understanding
of conventional eighteenth-century musical devices and theories of drama.
Through a consideration of how the overture to Iphig?nie en Aulide potentially
prepares spectators for the ensuing drama and through a reconsideration of the role
of (often ignored) devices such as musical repetition, this article has shown how
theories of eighteenth-century drama and narrative can inform our understanding of
how music can be thought of in narrative terms and how music was able to express
a dramatic argument that was, as it were, akin to that of a literary narrative. By
sidestepping the claim that Gluck?s overture communicates a specific narrative, there
is hopefully still plenty of theoretical space to consider and discuss multiple, and
perhaps conflicting, interpretations of this work. I hope that this article also provides
a bedrock for future thinking about the ?reader? as participant, the possibility of
conceiving of narrative in more fluid and dynamic terms, and the further explorations
of the ?as it were?, the uttered, and perhaps the unsaid.
The author has no competing interests to declare.
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