Meyerbeer, Giacomo



"The idol of the Parisian public, the Monarch of the Grand Opera," as Hervey calls him, did more to advance the opera of the Nineteenth Century than any other composer except Wagner. He was born at Berlin, and was of Jewish extraction, his name being properly Jakob Liebmann Beer. The prefix Meyer was added on the death of a rich relative who left Jakob his fortune on that condition. The Jakob became Giacomo after Meyerbeer's sojourn in Italy. His father, Herz Beer, was a wealthy banker, his mother, Amalie Wulf, was a refined and well-educated woman, and two of his brothers became famous like himself, Wilhelm as an astronomer, and Michael as a poet. When a very young child Meyerbeer showed a remarkable talent for music, which was encouraged by his parents, and when he was only seven years old, he made his debut as a pianist, playing one of Mozart's concertos. He studied first under Lauska. At the age of nine he had made wonderful progress. He studied composition for some time under Zelter, whom he thoroughly disliked, and finally gave up in favor of Bernard Anselm Weber, who was then directing the Berlin Opera. Weber proved to be a devoted teacher to the young Meyerbeer, and at one time sent a fugue of his pupil's, which he thought admirable work, to Vogler. The Abbe, far from commending it, finally returned it with a treatise of the fugue, and a fugue by himself on the same theme, showing the numerous errors which he thought the young composer's work contained. Meyerbeer then wrote another fugue, using the Abbe's suggestions, and this so pleased the old man that he invited Meyerbeer to spend two years with him at Darmstadt as a pupil and member of his household. There the young man worked with unlimited diligence, wrote a fugue or other sacred composition every day for the instructor's criticism, and formed his life-long friendship with Carl Marie von Weber. His first published works were Sacred Songs of Klopstock, and an oratorio, God and Nature, which was played before the Grand Duke, and won for the writer the position of composer to the court.


His first opera, Jephthah's Vow, which appeared at Munich in 1813, was not a success, owing probably to its oratorio form and biblical subject. A comic opera, Alimelek, or The Two Caliphs, given at Stuttgart the same year, was received a little better. Meyerbeer then went to Vienna as a concert pianist and produced The Two Caliphs there, but it failed again. The young musician was by this time becoming thoroughly discouraged, and was on the point of giving up music entirely when he was advised by Salieri to go to Italy and make a thorough study of the voice before writing any more operas. In 1815 he went to Venice and there he soon abandoned the scholasticism of Abbe Vogler and adapted himself to the flowing extravagant style of Rossini, who then held supreme power over Italian Opera. Meyerbeer actually succeeded in rivaling him and gained at once the public admiration and immediate success which was his aim throughout his life. Among his Italian works were Romilda e Costanza, given at Padua in 1818 with Pisarom in the leading part; Semiramide riconosciuta; Eduardo e Cristina; Emma di Resburgo, played in Germany as Emma von Leicester; Margherita d' Anjou, written for Scala, which was the best example of his work of this period; L'esule di Granata; Almansor; and the beginning of Crociato.


This borrowed success so easily attained, did not content the composer long, however. His German friends had become dissatisfied with him, among them Carl yon Weber, who did everything in his power to induce him to return to his native land and to devote himself to her musical advancement. Meyerbeer then tried to produce a three-act opera, Das Brandenburger Thor, at Berlin, but failed, and having finished Crociato, which he had begun in Italy, he brought it out at Vienna, where it caused such a sensation that the composer was crowned on the stage. It was the last of his Italian triumphs and has been called the link between his period of " wild oats " as he considered his Italian writings, and his period of the great works which have made him known as a master today.


In 1826 he went to Paris to see a performance of Crociato there, and this resulted in his almost constant residence in that city from that time until his death and in the development of his genius to its fullest extent. It was a time when Paris typified the chaotic condition of all Europe. Everything was in a state of unrest. The old order of things had been abandoned for new, untried systems of government, society, learning and art. It was a time of experiment, where nothing was established and where the bold or unique held sway and dominated the public rather than the artistic or refined. The years from 1824 to 1831 were so taken up with other interests, such as the death of his father, his marriage and the death of two children, that he put no works before the public. Nevertheless, they were valuable as a preparation for his great works to follow, for it was during this time that he made his exhaustive study of the French as a people, and of the French Opera from the works of Lully down to his own time. During this time also his connection with Eugene Scribe, who became his librettist, began.


Robert le Diable, produced in 1831 at the Academy of Music, was as great an event in the operatic world as Victor Hugo's Hernani in that of the drama. The fantastic story with its weird, supernatural vein made a deep impression everywhere. The music gave wonderful emphasis to the words, and the instrumentation of the piece was clever in the extreme. It  is thought by many to be the most original and ingenious of all Meyerbeer's works. When Les Huguenots appeared in 1836 the public was at first disappointed, for it had expected a repetition of Robert, but the latter opera, with its sober grandeur in which the supernatural had no part, was wholly unlike the first great work of the composer. However, it was soon universally conceded that Les Huguenots surpassed Robert. In this opera the composer sometimes, as in the last duet, reaches a dramatic intensity unparalleled in any of his other works. The coloring of the whole is as rich and beautiful as that of Robert. In 1838 Meyerbeer began to work upon Scribe's libretto of L'Africaine, but his dissatisfaction and constant changing finally angered Scribe, and in order to pacify him Meyerbeer produced another one of his works, Le Prophete, in 1849. Like Les Huguenots it took time for this to succeed and it never became as popular as the two operas preceding it. Gounod thought it Meyerbeer's masterpiece. Meyerbeer had been made general musical director by the King in 1842, so from that date he spent much of his time at Berlin. He brought out a German opera in 1844, Ein Feldlager, in Schlesien, introducing Jenny Lind in Germany. He produced Weber's Euryanthe and Wagner's first work, Rienzi, at Berlin, but afterwards conducted only his own works. In 1846 he wrote a very creditable overture and incidental music to his brother Michael's drama, Struensee, which was his most important instrumental work. His next work in Paris was the production of two comic operas, L'fitoile du Nord, dealing with some adventures of Peter the Great, in 1854, and Le Pardon de Ploermel, or Dinorah, a Breton story of buried treasure, in 1859. Both were quite well received by the public and created much excitement among the French composers, who considered them an invasion into their own private territory. The composer's health was beginning to fail by this time, Scribe had died, and he was still working on L'Africaine, with which he was never satisfied. He brought out two cantatas, a march for the Schiller Centenary Festival, and a march-overture for the London International Exhibition in 1862. In 1863 he returned to Paris for the last time and died there, before having accomplished the production of L'Africaine. This last of his works, the composition of which had occupied part of his time during twenty-six years, was given at the Academy in Paris and also in London, in 1865. In this work there is less striving for effect than in his earlier ones, more polish, and perhaps some signs of return to the Italian influence. However, it was injured by the composer's constant changes, and while it has many wonderfully beautiful passages it lacks unity.


No composer has had more widely differing criticisms than Meyerbeer, and the severest fault with which he has been charged is that of surrendering to the public, and of striving for effect and immediate popularity. It is true that he adapted himself without effort to any school, that he seized the opportunities of his time and became its representative, but he introduced enough that was new to lyric drama in his time to pave the way for the modern music-drama. As Berlioz said of him, " He had the good fortune to have talent and the talent to have good fortune." His intense dramatic moments have made his musical reputation, and the only drag upon his powers was his fear of his own originality, probably inspired by the rigid instructions of his youth. He has been compared to Scott, painting men and women of the past as they appeared to each other. Heryey says, The Meyerbeer opera was just as characteristic an expression of the artistic spirit of 1830 as Victor Hugo's and Dumas's dramas; Alfred de Musset's poetry; Delacroix's canvases; Berlioz's symphonies; or Chopin's piano-music."