Giacomo Meyerbeer

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Born: 5 September 1791, Berlin, Germany.

Died: 2 May 1864, Paris, France.

The most celebrated opera composer of the mid-19th century.  A German-born Jew whose mature operas, first performed in Paris, were smash hits worldwide, performed as far afield as Melbourne, Mexico, Calcutta, Manila, and Mauritius, as well as in provincial theatres without lavish orchestra or staging.  Seldom performed these days, for various reasons, although there have been signs of a renaissance since the 1990s.

His cosmopolitan style unites Italian bel canto, French rhythm and declamation, and German orchestration, and is capable both of great delicacy and tremendous power. This is a dramatist whose operas are simultaneously exciting entertainments in the grand manner, with strong situations and an eye for the spectacular (shipwrecks in the Indian Ocean, exploding castles and ballets of undead nuns), and humane operas of ideas.


OPERAS

  1. Jephtas Gelübde (1812)
  2. Wirth und Gast / Alimelek (1813)
  3. Das Brandenburger Tor (1814)
  4. Romilda e Costanza (1817)
  5. Semiramide riconosciuta (1819)
  6. Emma di Resburgo (1819)
  7. Margherita d’Anjou (1820)
  8. L’esule di Granata (1822)
  9. Il crociato in Egitto (1824)
  10. Robert le Diable (1831)
  11. Les Huguenots (1836)
  12. Le prophète (1849)
  13. L´étoile du nord (1854)
  14. Le pardon de Ploërmel (Dinorah) (1859)
  15. Vasco da Gama (L’Africaine) (1866)

 


LIFE

Jakob Liebmann Beer was born to a wealthy Reformed Jewish family in Berlin.  (He adopted the name Meyer in 1796, after his grandfather.)  He was a child prodigy; and performed in public as a virtuoso pianist at the age of 9.  From 1810–12, he studied music with the Abbé Vogler in Darmstadt; C.M. Weber (composer of the Freischütz) was a fellow student.  After composing three unsuccessful German operas, he went on Salieri’s advice to Italy to learn to write for the voice.  There he Italianised his name to Giacomo Meyerbeer.  Six Italian operas made him the leading composer in Italy after Rossini.  In 1826, moved to Paris.  The six operas he wrote for the city made him the most important opera composer in Europe between Rossini and Wagner. In the 1830s and 1840s, he moved between Paris and Berlin.  From 1832, he was Prussian Court Kapellmeister; under Wilhelm IV (1840–61), he was Prussian Generalmusikedirektor and director of music for the Royal Court.

WHAT DID MEYERBEER ACHIEVE?

  • He turned opera from “a vehicle of emotions into a vehicle of ideas” (Döhring).
  • “Opera became a platform for the expression of metaphysical and philosophical ideas” (Brzoska).
  • Meyerbeer’s approach became “the recognized international model for music drama for almost the next century” (Brzoska).
    • An intellectual collaboration between composer and librettist, which could last decades
    • New technical methods of composition were devised anew for each work and tailored to each opera’s individual dramatic concept
    • In through-composed scenic complexes, musical forms became individualized to a very high degree
    • Premières were staged after intensive historical and technical research by a whole staff of specialists, and the results of their labours were documented in a livret de mise en scène
  • “He joined to the flowing melody of the Italians, the solid harmony of the Germans, the poignant declamation and varied, piquant rhythm of the French” (Herman Mendel). This “fusion of the musical vocabularies of three nations into a single personal style” (Scherer) became “the universal language of music drama” (Döhring).

 

WHAT ARE MEYERBEER’S OPERAS ABOUT?

  • “His operas are tremendous rebuttals against ethnic, religious and racial bigotry. They champion history over myth, cosmopolitanism over nationalism, tolerance over bigotry, and balance individuality with community…” (Pencak)
  • Faith, exile and integration, partisanship and universality, hatred and sacrificial love (Letellier: Introduction)
  • Brzoska: “His historical operas are not operas on historical subjects, but operas taking the historical process itself as their subject.”

 

WHAT DID THEY SAY ABOUT HIM?

  • Verdi thought him a better musical dramatist than Mozart
  • Tchaikovsky: “An artist of genius…”
  • Bizet: “I place Beethoven above the greatest, the most renowned… Neither Mozart, with his divine form, nor Weber, with his powerful, colossal originality, nor Meyerbeer, with his overwhelming, dramatic genius, can, in my opinion, contend for the crown of the ‘Titan’, the ‘Prometheus’ of music.”
  • Ravel preferred him to Wagner
  • Mazzini: “Meyerbeer moralized the drama, making it an echo of the world and its eternal vital problem. He is not a votary of the l’art pour l’art music; he is a prophet of the music with a mission, the music standing immediately below religion.” He also compared Meyerbeer to Michelangelo, Beethoven and Shakespeare.
  • Eduard Hanslick: “An extraordinary musical imagination and an equally extraordinary artistic understanding…”
  • Camille Bellaigue: “One of the greatest of all the musicians of the theatre, and the chief of the musicians of history…”
  • More recently, Barrymore Laurence Scherer called him “the most revolutionary dramatic composer of the nineteenth century before Richard Wagner”

 

FURTHER READING

The Meyerbeer Fan Club website (www.meyerbeer.com) has been down since the end of last year.

I’ve written two articles on Meyerbeer for MusicWeb International:

Robert Ignatius Letellier is the Meyerbeer expert in English.

  • Meyerbeer Studies: A Series of Lectures, Essays, and Articles on the Life and Work of Giacomo Meyerbeer. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005.
  • The Operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006.
  • An Introduction to the Dramatic Works of Giacomo Meyerbeer: Operas, Ballets, Cantatas, Plays. Ashgate, 2008.
  • (As editor) Giacomo Meyerbeer: A Reader. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. Particularly:
    • Camille Bellaigue, “Meyerbeer” (1896)
    • Hermann Klein, “The Treasures of Meyerbeer” (1925, 1932)
    • Cecil Gray, “From A History of Music” (1928), “A Note on Meyerbeer” (1947)
    • Bernard van Dieren, “Meyerbeer” from Down Among the Dead Men (1936)
    • Heinz Becker, “Giacomo Meyerbeer On the Occasion of the Centenary of his Death”(1964)
    • Max Brod, “Some Comments on the Relationship between Wagner and Meyerbeer” (1964)
    • Barrymore Laurence Scherer, “Meyerbeer: the Man and his Music” (1978, 2007)
    • Sieghard Döhring, “Giacomo Meyerbeer and the Opera of the Nineteenth Century” (1983, 1999)
    • Robert Ignatius Letellier, “The Nexus of Faith, Power, Love and Death in the Operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer” (1991, 2005)
    • William Pencak, “Why We Must Listen to Meyerbeer” (1999)
    • Tom Kaufman, “Wagner vs. Meyerbeer” (2002, 2007)
    • Matthias Brzoska, “Remarks about Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète” (2004)

Writing this guide would have been impossible without his books!

Pour les francophones parmi nous :

Meyerbeer in his own words:

  • Heinz and Gudrun Becker (eds.). Giacomo Meyerbeer: A Life in Letters. Daedalus Books, 1989.
  • Letellier (ed.) The Diaries of Giacomo Meyerbeer (4 vols.) Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999.