Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Music I Like: Gluck's Overture to Iphigenia in Aulis

I first became acquainted with this piece when I was in youth orchestra. I think it may be some sort of standard piece for youth orchestras to play -- it's not too complicated, the first violins never have to go higher than third position, and there are a whole bunch of youth orchestras playing it on YouTube. The video I picked is not bad, but a little rough along the edges.

But I was smitten from Day One. And it has many of my favorite elements in it -- a minor key, surprises, contrasting themes that get combined in ways that you would not expect. It's no wonder I still love this piece even today.

This piece has some surprisingly advanced harmonies for its era -- Christoph Willibald Gluck was a contemporary of Mozart, and you won't hear anything this dark or despairing in Mozart, with the possible exception of Don Giovanni (composed after Gluck's death).

Before I get started describing the music, it might help to know what Gluck was trying to depict. Iphigenia in Aulis is a Greek tragedy by Euripides. Basically, poor Iphigenia gets sent to Aulis to be sacrificed so her father (Agamemnon) can sail his ships to Troy. This piece opens Gluck's opera of the same name, so it has to set the mood for such a sad and somber tale.

The overture begins with a very tragic and slow primary theme, a fifth echoed as an augmented fifth, followed by a descending scale that goes one note below the starting point. At first it's just the upper strings that are playing, but then the rest of the string section gets involved.

At the 1:09 mark we hear the first sign of the second theme. It's markedly different -- we have nearly the entire orchestra playing in unison. Then it breaks off into a fast paced, cheerful melody, leading you to wonder what this has to do with anything?!?! There's a sweet, interlude-like melody we first hear at the 2:08 mark, led by the first violins, too, which leads into a modulation of the second theme into a minor key. This interlude melody reappears at 4:58 and leads to a recapitulation of the second theme back in its original key. Then it's back to the interlude melody before another series of modulations of the second theme, which works its way through several different keys until at 8:47 after ascending two half steps we're dropped off back at the opening theme. At the 9:20 mark the first theme modulates in some interesting ways (augmented chords, minor sixth chords, and the like), as if to further illustrate the tragedy of the situation.

How is this all going to come together at the end, you may be asking yourself. Well, when the original theme takes on some new harmonies (augmented chords and minor sixth chords and the like), those harmonies take the rhythm of the first sign of the second theme (you can hear this in particular beginning at 9:46). This ending was written by Richard Strauss, because in the actual opera, the overture just segues straight into the action (and in fact, the last occurrence of the first theme is the beginning of the singing part of the opera). I actually have a recording of the opera, and the different themes in the overture all occur later in the arias, so Gluck didn't necessarily feel the need to tie it all together so beautifully in the overture. But Strauss definitely put a bow on it at the end.

In stark contrast to my ability to put a bow on the end of this post... just let me end by saying that I hope you enjoy this music as much as I do, some twenty-plus years after I first played in it.

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