When will we hear again the glorious music of Giacomo Meyerbeer?
From 1830 until the end of the 19th century no composer of opera was more famous, more successful or more sought after throughout Europe than Giacomo Meyerbeer. It wasn't until the 1850s when Verdi wrote his masterpieces that anyone challenged his supremacy, but Meyerbeer remained a firm favorite until the beginning of the First World War. This bold statement must come as a surprise to many who have neither heard of him nor listened to his music. After 1930 Meyerbeer's popularity gradually diminished and even here in Israel his works have been sadly neglected and seldom played.
Meyerbeer was born Yaakov Lieberman Beer in 1791, the eldest of three sons of Judah and Malka Beer in Germany, an extremely financially successful, well established Jewish business family. Yaakov's musical talents developed at an early age, his first public appearance being as a pianist at nine years of age. At seventeen he was appointed court composer in Damstaat and by the age of twenty four he had composed several modest oratorios and operas in German. He was then advised by Antonio Salieri to go to Italy to study art composing for the voice. There he met and became friendly with Rossini who, by that time, was a well known, successful composer of operas. Yaakov's grandfather, Liebermann Meyer Wulff, died during his stay in Italy and Yaakov inherited a vast fortune from him on condition that he changed his name to Meyerbeer. He then changed the Yaakov to Giacomo and adopted the name of Giacomo Meyerbeer. Rossini recommended to Meyerbeer that he move to Paris where the opera house was relatively new, having been built in 1812, and could offer numerous resources for the presentation of his works.
So it came to be that just after the French revolution of 1830 when the autocratic Charles 10th was replaced by the more liberal minded Citizen King Louis Phillipe, that the Paris opera was turned over to a directeur-entrepreneur to manage the opera for six years at his own risk and fortune. The first of such men to accept that position was Louis Véron, a physician turned business man. A veritable fop who understood the mentality of the French public and promptly fired all the staff and brought in new blood, composers, conductor, librettist, stage managers, dancing teachers and last, but not least, the chef de claque. The claque was a body of men who were responsible for leading the applause, the screams, sobs, tears, laughter, hissing, howls, the booing, the insults and so on for a fee. It would have been folly for any performer to appear on the stage without first engaging the chef de claque and agreeing on terms of service for leading the right response at the right moment from the audience. By the turn of the century, the Paris Opera had become the richest and most successful in Europe.
Meyerbeer had a great talent for the theater and wrote successfully for the voice, particularly dazzling coloratura and unusual harmonies. He knew what the public wanted and wrote his operas to satisfy them. His priority was to please the new bourgeoisie public and this he did by writing operas which were spectacular and historically correct in every detail. He knew that they had to have brilliant vocal parts so that no one would be bored by long mediocre arias. He knew that the orchestration had to be glittering and powerful with massed super-fortissimos and that there had to be massed choruses, huge crowd scenes and five acts with a ballet. Absolutely everything had to be grand and spectacular to cater for the demands of the rising middle classes. What the Paris opera house resources couldn't supply, Meyerbeer readily paid for out of his own private income. He had a gift for management and publicity, effectively creating the lavish press conference with dinner and fine wines to announce the forthcoming presentations.
Meyerbeer's first great success was Robert le Diable in 1831, with words by the librettist, Eugene Scribe. It was performed using gas lighting for the first time on the Paris stage. It was a romantic opera about medieval knights and the devil. Its success outshone all previous performances, everything about it was spectacular and grand. In the first eight years it was performed in 1,845 theaters. Rossini's final opera in Paris was William Tell in 1829. After that he stopped writing operas and for the next forty years lived the life of a retired gentleman. Meyerbeer on the other hand went on to compose several other highly successful grand operas, the main ones being The Huguenots 1836, Le Prophete 1849, L'Etoile du Nord 1855, Dinorah 1859, and L'Africain' 1865. It was the role of Marguerite in The Huguenots that Dame Joan Sutherland chose for her farewell performance on the operatic stage.
Berlioz said to Schlesinger, the publisher of the score of Les Huguenots 1836: “Tell me about a score like that, it is superb! I would love to see Meyerbeer and shake the hand that wrote such beautiful things.” March 12th 1836.
Meyerbeer was a practicing Jew and unlike several of his Jewish contemporaries did not attempt to convert to Catholicism. He saw it as his duty to carry out the principles of humanitarian Judaism as stated by Moses Mendelssohn. However, Felix Mendelssohn, Heinrich Heine the poet, and later Jacques Offenbach and Gustav Mahler all became practicing Christians. From 1933 onwards the Nazis banned performances of all works by Jewish artists and removed the statue of Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig. In 1839 Meyerbeer wrote to Heine, 'I believe that Jew-hatred is like love in theaters and novels, no matter how often one encounters it in all shapes and sizes, it never misses its target if effectively wielded. What can be done? No pomade or bear grease, not even baptism, can grow back the foreskin of which we were robbed on the eighth day of life; those who did not bleed to death from this operation shall continue to bleed an entire lifetime, even after death.' It is not surprising that several of his masterpieces deal with the problem of religious intolerance.
Meyerbeer died suddenly in Paris on May 2, 1864 whilst rehearsals for his final opera L'Africaine were taking place. After a great funeral procession in Paris, a special train for the coffin was sent from Berlin by the Prussian government. He was buried alongside his mother in the Jewish cemetery in Schönhauser Allee among other members of the Beer family. In Paris today you will find Rue Meyerbeer adjacent to Rue Halevy and a bust of Meyerbeer is in front of the opera house alongside other famous composers. The Belgian town of Spa which Meyerbeer visited frequently has a statue of him standing in a public park.
Hans von Bülow (1830-1894), a conductor and pianist of worldwide reputation and founder of many stylistic interpretations of classic and romantic symphonies, made the following observations on Meyerbeer: "After all, Meyerbeer was a man of genius. If we fail to recognize Meyerbeer's genius, we are not only unjust but also ungrateful. In every sense, in his conception of opera, in his treatment of orchestration, in his handling of choruses, even in stage setting, he gave us new principles by which our modern works have profited to a large extent."
It is to be hoped that Meyerbeer's music will soon be heard again ringing throughout our concert halls.