Giacomo Meyerbeer 1791 – 1864 was a noted German born opera composer, and the first great exponent of Grand Opera.
Meyerbeer was a cousin of John Barnett, and he was also a friend of homeopathic supporters Louis Hector Berlioz, Pauline Viardot García, David Ferdinand Koreff, Jenny Lind, and Ignaz Moscheles, including a turbulent relationship with Wilhelm Richard Wagner.
Meyerbeer was born to a Jewish family in Tasdorf (now a part of Rüdersdorf), near Berlin with the name Jacob Liebmann Beer. His father was the enormously wealthy financier Jacob Judah Herz Beer (1769-1825) and his much beloved mother, Amalia Liebmann Meyer Wulff (1767-1854) also came from the wealthy elite. Their other children included the astronomer Wilhelm Beer and the poet Michael Beer.
Meyerbeer made his debut as a nine-year old playing a Mozart concerto in Berlin. Throughout his youth, although he was determined to become a musician, he found it difficult to decide between playing and composition.
Certainly other professionals in the decade 1810-1820, including Ignaz Moscheles, considered him amongst the greatest virtuosi of his period.
Realizing, however, that a full understanding of Italian opera was essential for his musical development, he went to study in Italy for some years, during which time he adopted the first name Giacomo. The ‘Meyer’ in his surname he adopted after the death of his great grandfather. It was during this time that he became acquainted with, and impressed by, the works of his contemporary Gioacchino Rossini.
Meyerbeer’s name first became known internationally with his opera Il crociato in Egitto (premiered in Venice in 1824, and produced in London and Paris in 1825; incidentally the last opera ever to feature a castrato), but he became virtually a superstar with Robert le Diable (Robert the Devil, with libretto by Eugene Scribe and Casimir Delavigne), produced in Paris in 1831 and regarded by some as the first grand opera, although this honor rightly belongs to Auber’s La muette de Portici.
The fusion of dramatic music, melodramatic plot and sumptuous staging proved a sure fire formula which Meyerbeer repeated in Les Huguenots (1836), Le prophète (1849), and L’Africaine, (produced posthumously, 1865).
All of these operas held the international stage throughout the 19th century, as did the more pastoral Dinorah (1859). However, because they were expensive to stage, requiring large casts of leading singers, and subject to consistent attack from the prevalent Wagnerian schools, they gradually fell into desuetude.
Meyerbeer left Paris for Berlin in 1842 to take the post of Court musical director, but returned to Paris in 1849.
Meyerbeer’s immense wealth (increased by the success of his operas) and his continuing adherence to his Jewish religion set him apart somewhat from many of his musical contemporaries. They also gave rise to malicious rumours that his success was due to his bribing musical critics.
Wilhelm Richard Wagner accused him of being only interested in money, not music. Meyerbeer was, however, a deeply serious musician and a sensitive personality. He philosophically resigned himself to being a victim of his own success.
Meyerbeer’s extensive diaries and correspondence miraculously survived the turmoil of 20th century Europe and are now being published (6 volumes so far out of 7 – the diaries alone have been published in an English translation in 4 volumes). They are an invaluable source for the history of music and the theatre in the composer’s time.
The vitriolic campaign of Wilhelm Richard Wagner against Meyerbeer was to a great extent responsible for the decline of Meyerbeer’s popularity after his death in 1864. This campaign was as much a matter of personal spite as of racism – Wilhelm Richard Wagner had learnt a great deal from Meyerbeer and indeed Wilhelm Richard Wagner‘s early opera Rienzi (1842) has, facetiously, been called ‘Meyerbeer’s most successful work’.
However, Wilhelm Richard Wagner resented Meyerbeer’s continuing success at a time when his own vision of German opera had little chance of prospering. After the May Uprising in Dresden of 1849, Wilhelm Richard Wagner was for some years a political refugee facing a prison sentence or worse in Saxony.
During this period when Wilhelm Richard Wagner was gestating his Ring cycle he had few sources of income apart from journalism and benefactors, and little opportunity of getting his own works performed.
The success of Le Prophète sent Wilhelm Richard Wagner over the edge, and he was also deeply envious of Meyerbeer’s wealth.
After Meyerbeer’s death Wilhelm Richard Wagner reissued his 1850 essay Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music), in 1868, in an extended form, with a far more explicit attack on Meyerbeer. This version was under Wilhelm Richard Wagner‘s own name – for the first version he had sheltered behind a pseudonym – and as Wilhelm Richard Wagner had by now a far greater reputation, his views obtained far wider publicity.
Meyerbeer’s compositions were banned by the Nazi regime because the composer was Jewish, and this was a major factor in their disappearance from the repertory.
However, the operas are now beginning to be regularly revived and recorded, although (despite the efforts of such champions as Joan Sutherland, who took part in performances of, and recorded, Les Huguenots) they have yet to achieve anything like the huge popular following they attracted during their creator’s lifetime.
Amongst reasons often adduced for the dearth of modern productions are the scale of Meyerbeer’s more ambitious works and the cost of mounting them, as well as the alleged lack of virtuoso singers capable of doing justice to Meyerbeer’s demanding music.
However, recent successful productions of some of the major operas at relatively small centres such as Strasbourg (L’Africaine, 2004) and Metz (Les Huguenots, 2004) show that this conventional wisdom is not unchallengeable.
Meyerbeer was interred in the Berlin Jewish cemetery in Schönhauser Allee, amongst other members of the Beer family.