1902 Encyclopedia > Giacomo Meyerbeer

Giacomo Meyerbeer
German-born opera composer and first great exponent of Grand Opera

GIACOMO MEYERBEER (1791-1863), first known in Germany as Jakob Meyer Beer, was born at Berlin on September 5, 1791, of a wealthy and talented Jewish family. His father, Herz Beer, was a banker; his mother, Amalie (nee Wulf), was a woman of high intellectual culture; and two of his brothers distinguished themselves in astronomy and literature. He studied the pianoforte, first under Lauska, and afterwards under Lauska's master, Clementi. When seven years old he played Mozart's Con-certo in D Minor in public, and at nine he was pronounced the best pianist in Berlin. For composition he was placed under Zelter, whose lessons were soon exchanged for those of Bernard Weber, then director of the Berlin opera, by whom he was introduced to the Abbe Vogler. Struck by his brilliant talent, Vogler invited him to Darmstadt, and in 1810 received him into his house, where he formed an intimate friendship with Karl Maria von Weber, who, though his senior by eight years, shared the daily lessons he received from the abbt5 in counterpoint, fugue, and extempore organ-playing. At the end of two years the grand-duke appointed Meyerbeer composer to the court. His early works, however, were far from successful,—his first opera, Jephtha's Gelübde, failing lamentably at Darmstadt in 1811, and his second, Wirih und Gast (Alimeleh), at Vienna in 1814. These checks discouraged him so cruelly that he feared he had mistaken his vocation. Nevertheless, by advice of Salieri, he determined to study vocalization in Italy, and then to form a new style. But at Venice he was so captivated by the style of Rossini that, renouncing all thought of originality, he produced a suc-cession of seven Italian operas—Romilda e Costanza, Semiramide riconosciuta, Edouardo e Cristina, Emma di Rosburgo, Margherita d'Anjou, L'Esule di Granata, and II Crociato in Egitto—which all achieved a success as brilliant as it was unexpected. Against this act of treason to Ger-man art Weber protested most earnestly; and before long Meyerbeer himself grew tired of his defection, though the success of II Crociato was so great that he was crowned upon the stage. An invitation to Paris in 1826 led him to review his position fairly and dispassionately, and he could not conceal from himself the fact that he was wast-ing in imitation powers which, rightly used, might make his name immortal. For several years after this he pro-duced nothing in public; but, in concert with Scribe, he planned the work which first made known the reality of his transcendent genius—his first French opera, Robert le Diable. This gorgeous drama was produced at the Grand Opera in 1831, and received with acclamation. It was the first of its race, a grand romantic opera, abounding with scenes of startling interest, with situations more powerfully dramatic than any that had been attempted either by Cherubini or Rossini, with mysterious horrors and chivalric pomp, and with ballet music such as had never yet been heard, even in Paris. Its popularity exceeded all previous expectation; yet for five years after this signal triumph Meyerbeer appeared b^ore the public no more. We cannot doubt that his motive for this retirement was the determination to produce something greater still; and in some respects his next opera, Les Huguenots, really was greater, though it fell short of the deep romance which ren-dered Robert le Diable so incomparably captivating.

The first performance of Les Huguenots took place in 1836. In gorgeous colouring, in depth of passion, in con-sistency of dramatic treatment, and in careful delineation of individual character, it is at least the equal of Robert le Diable. In two points only did its interest fall short of that inspired by the earlier work. Meyerbeer had shown himself so great a master in his treatment of the super-natural that one regretted the unavoidable omission of that powerful element in his second grand opera; and, more important still, the fifth act of Les Huguenots was so arranged by the librettist as to render effective musical treatment impossible. The substitution of a noisy fusillade for a legitimate dramatic situation was fatal to the antici-pated climax. The music which accompanies this division of the work is necessarily inferior to all that precedes it. The true interest of the drama culminates at the close of the fourth act, when Raoul, leaping from the window, leaves Valentine fainting upon the ground. The spectator needs not to be told that the former will be shot down the moment he arrives in the street, or that the latter will mourn for him to the end of her days. Neither musically nor dramatically does anything more remain to be said; and therefore it is that those who quit the theatre when the curtain falls for the fourth time carry away with them a far more perfect ideal than those who remain to the end.

After the production of Les Huguenots Meyerbeer again retired from public view, and spent many years in the pre-paration of two of his greatest works—the greatest of all except the two we have already mentioned—L'Africaine and Le Prophete. The libretti of both these operas were furnished by Scribe; and both were subjected to countless changes of detail before they satisfied the composer's fastidious taste; in fact, the story of L'Africaine was more than once entirely rewritten.

Meanwhile Meyerbeer accepted the appointment of kapellmeister to the king of Prussia, and spent some years at Berlin, where he produced Ein Feldlager in Schlesien, a German opera, in which the matchless cantatrice Jenny Lind made her first appearance in Prussia, with unprecedented success. Here also he com-posed, in 1846, the overture to his brother Michael's drama, Struensee. But his chief care at this period was bestowed upon the worthy presentation of the works of others. He began by producing his dead friend Weber's Euryanthe, with scrupulous attention to the composer's original idea. With equal unselfishness he procured the acceptance of Rienzi and Der Fliegende Holländer, the first two operas of Richard Wagner, who, then languishing in poverty and exile, would, but for him, have found it impossible to obtain a hearing in Berlin. With Jenny Lind as prima donna and Meyerbeer as conductor, the opera flourished brilliantly in the Prussian capital; but the anxieties of this thankless period materially shortened the composer's life.

Meyerbeer produced Le Prophete at Paris in 1849 ; and, if it did not at first create so great a sensation as Les Huguenots, this was simply because it needed to be better known. In 1851 he brought out L'Etoile du Nord at the Opéra Comique, and in 1859 Le Pardon de Ploermel (Dinorah). His last great work, L'Africaine, was in active preparation at the Académie when, on the 23d of April 1863, he was seized with a sudden illness, of which he died on the 2d of May. L'Africaine was produced with pious attention to the composer's minutest wishes, on April 28, 1865, and fully justified the expectation which had been raised by his long and painstaking consideration of its details. Upon this, in conjunction with Robert le Diable, Lies Huguenots, and Le Prophète, his fame now almost entirely rests.

Meyerbeer's genius has been criticized with widely different results. Mendelssohn thought his style exaggerated ; Fétis thought him one of the most original geniuses of the age ; Wagner calls him "a miserable music-maker," and "a Jewish banker to whom it occurred to compose operas." But the reality of his talent has been recognized throughout all Europe ; and, in spite of the acknowledged crudity of his system of phrasing, and the inequality of merit too plainly observable even in his greatest works, his name will live so long as intensity of passion and power of dramatic treatment are regarded as indispensable characteristics of dramatic music. (W. S. B.)

The above article was written by: W. S. Rockstro, author of Life of Handel.

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