The music of Christoph Willibald von Gluck was a revolution for Paris operagoers when his work premiered there in 1774. In a setting known for its restive and often rowdy spectators, Alceste, Iphigénie en Aulide, and Orpheé et Eurydice seized audiences with unprecedented force. They shed silent tears or sobbed openly, and some cried out in sympathy with the sufferers onstage. “Oh Mama! This is too painful!” three girls called out as Charon led Alcestis to the underworld, and a boy pleaded with his father to take him home. A woman who watched the same performance described falling on her knees in her opera-box as the march of the priests of Apollo began, staying in this position “suppliant and with my hands clasped until the end of the piece.”

Gluck's streamlined musical language was one reason for these emotional responses. He and his librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi simplified...

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