Giacomo Meyerbeer, born Jacob Liebmann Meyer Beer (September 5, 1791–May 2, 1864) was a German opera composer of Jewish birth who established in Paris a vogue for spectacular romantic opera and has been described as perhaps the most successful stage composer of the nineteenth century. His grand opera style was achieved by his merging of German orchestra style with Italian vocal tradition. Born to a very wealthy Berlin Jewish family in Tasdorf, now a part of Rüdersdorf, near Berlin, then the capital of Prussia, Jacob wrote an early cantata for performance at the private synagogue in his father’s house. His father was the enormously wealthy financier Judah Herz Beer (1769–1825) and his mother, Amalia (Malka) Wulff (1767–1854), to whom he was particularly devoted, also came from the moneyed elite. The Beer children were provided with a fine education; their tutors included two of the leaders of the enlightened Jewish intelligentsia, the author Aaron Halle-Wolfssohn and Edmund Kley, later a reform movement rabbi in Hamburg, to whom they remained attached into their maturity. Beer’s first keyboard instructor was Franz Lauska, a pupil of Johann Georg Albrechtsberger and a favoured teacher at the Berlin court. Beer also became one of Muzio Clementi’s pupils while Clementi was in Berlin. The boy made his public debut in 1801 playing Mozart’s D minor Piano Concerto in Berlin.
Beer, as he still named himself, studied with Antonio Salieri and the German master and friend of Goethe, Carl Friedrich Zelter. Louis Spohr organised a concert for Beer at Berlin in 1804 and continued his acquaintance with the lad later in Vienna and Rome. Beer’s first stage work, the ballet Der Fischer und das Milchmädchen (The Fisherman and the Milkmaid) was produced in March 1810 at the Court Opera in Berlin. His formal training with the Abbé Vogler at Darmstadt between 1810 and 1812 was of crucial importance, and at around this time he begins to sign himself ‘Meyer Beer’ after the death of his grandfather Liebmann Meyer Wulff in 1811. Here, with his fellow students, including Carl Maria von Weber, he learned not only the craft of composition but also the business of music, organizing concerts and dealing with publishers. Forming a close friendship with Weber and other pupils, Meyerbeer established the Harmonischer Verein (Musical Union), whose members undertook to support each other. On February 12, 1813, Beer received the first of the string of honous he was to accumulate throughout his life when he was appointed ‘Court Composer’ by Grand Duke Ludwig of Hesse-Darmstadt.
Throughout his early career, although determined to become a musician, Beer found it difficult to decide between playing and composition. Certainly other professionals in the decade 1810–1820, including Moscheles, considered him amongst the greatest piano virtuosi of his period. He wrote during this period numerous piano pieces, including a concerto and set of variations for piano and orchestra, but these have been lost. To this period also belongs a Clarinet Quintet written for the virtuoso Heinrich Baermann (1784–1847) who remained a close friend of the composer. Despite performances of his oratorio Gott und die Natur (God and Nature) (Berlin, 1811) and his early operas Jephtas Gelübde (Jephtha’s Vow) (Munich, 1812) and Wirth und Gast (Landlord and Guest) (Stuttgart, 1813) in Germany, Meyerbeer had set his sights by 1814 on basing an operatic career in Paris. In the same year, his opera Die beiden Kalifen (The Two Caliphs), a version of Wirth und Gast, was a disastrous failure in Vienna.
Realizing that a full understanding of Italian opera was essential for his musical development, he went to study in Italy, enabled by the financial support of his family. He arrived in Italy at the beginning of 1816, after visits to Paris and London, where he heard Cramer play. During his years in Italy Meyerbeer became acquainted with, and impressed by, the works of his contemporary Gioachino Rossini, who by 1816, at the age of 24, was already director of both major opera houses in Naples and in the same year premiered his operas The Barber of Seville and Otello. Meyerbeer, who adopted the first name Giacomo during his period of study in Italy around 1817, wrote a series of Italian operas on Rossinian models, including Romilda e Costanza (Padua, 1817), Semiramide riconosciuta (Turin, 1819), Emma di Resburgo (Venice, 1819), Margherita d’Anjou (Milan 1820) and L’esule di Granata (Milan 1821). All but the last two of these had libretti by Gaetano Rossi, whom Meyerbeer continued to support until the latter’s death in 1855, although not commissioning any further libretti from him after Il crociato in Egitto (1824).
During a visit to Sicily in 1816, Meyerbeer noted down a number of folksongs, and these in fact constitute the earliest collection of folk music of the region. The name Giacomo Meyerbeer first became known internationally with his opera Il crociato in Egitto—premiered in Venice in 1824 and produced in London and Paris in 1825. In 1826, shortly after the death of his father, Meyerbeer married his cousin, Minna Mosson (1804–1886). The couple were to have five children, of whom the three youngest (all daughters) survived to adulthood. In the same year, following the death of Carl Maria von Weber, Weber’s widow asked Meyerbeer to complete her husband’s unfinished comic opera Die drei Pintos. With his next opera Meyerbeer became virtually a superstar. Robert le diable, with libretto by Eugène Scribe and Germain Delavigne produced in Paris in 1831, was one of the earliest grand operas. The composer added ballet episodes, including the “Ballet of Nuns”, which was to prove one of the opera’s great sensations, becoming an early example of the ballet blanc genre.
The success of the opera led to Meyerbeer himself becoming a celebrity. In January 1832 he was awarded membership of the Légion d’honneur. King Frederick William III of Prussia who attended the second performance of Robert le diable, swiftly invited him to compose a German opera, and Meyerbeer was invited to stage Robert in Berlin. Within a few years the opera had been staged with success all over Europe, and also in the USA. In Paris Meyerbeer had been asked by Louis Véron, the director of the Opéra, for a new work. At first he attempted to persuade Véron to accept the opéra-comique Le portefaix to a libretto by Scribe, but Véron insisted on a full five-act piece. Together with Scribe, Meyerbeer reviewed many subjects before deciding, in 1832, on Les Huguenots which premiered on February 29, 1836. It was an immediate and immense success. Les Huguenots was the first opera to be performed at the Opéra more than 1,000 times. Its many performances in all other of the world’s major opera houses give it a claim to being the most successful opera of the 19th century.
Meanwhile, in Paris Meyerbeer began to seek new libretti, considering Le prophète of Scribe, and by the end of 1841 had completed the first draft. In 1842, at the instigation of Alexander von Humboldt, Meyerbeer was installed as Prussian Generalmusikedirektor and director of music for the Royal Court. Meyerbeer wrote a number of works for court occasions. In 1843, the Berlin Opera house burnt down. The creation of the new building gave a new opportunity to commission a German opera from Meyerbeer. The subject of the opera, Ein Feldlager in Schlesien (A Silesian Encampment), was an episode in the life of Frederick the Great; the opera premiered on December 7, 1844. In 1846 Meyerbeer began work on a new project with Scribe and Saint-Georges, Noëma. Le prophète was finally staged in 1849. Increasing ill-health now began to restrict Meyerbeer’s output and activities. The death of his beloved mother in 1854 was also a blow. However, the music from Ein Feldlager in Schlesien was used by Meyerbeer for a revamped libretto by Scribe featuring Peter the Great, and produced as an opéra comique in Paris as L’étoile du nord in 1854, and the success of L’étoile du nord in 1854 demonstrated that he could still pack the theatres.
Meanwhile, in Berlin, Meyerbeer also provided music, at the King’s request, for the first staging on Berlin in 1856 of his brother Michael’s play Struensee (based on the life of Johann Friedrich Struensee). Following this he began on two new projects, an opera by Scribe based on the apocryphal story of Judith which remained only as sketches, and an opéra comique, Le pardon de Ploërmel, (also known as Dinorah, the title given to the Italian version performed at London) to a libretto by Jules Barbier, which premiered on April 4, 1859 at the Opéra Comique at Paris. The death of Scribe in 1861 was a further disincentive to Meyerbeer to proceed with his operatic work in progress. Nevertheless, Meyerbeer’s last years saw the composition of a good deal of non-operatic music, including incidental music (now lost) to Henry Blaze de Bury’s play La jeunesse de Goethe (1860), a Coronation March for William I of Prussia, (1861), an overture for the 1862 International Exhibition in London, and also choral works for the synagogue at Paris. Meyerbeer died in Paris on May 2, 1864. L’Africaine was eventually premiered after Meyerbeer’s death in 1865.
The fusion of dramatic music, melodramatic plot, and sumptuous staging in Robert le diable proved a sure-fire formula, as did the partnership with Scribe, which Meyerbeer would go on to repeat in Les Huguenots, Le prophète, and L’Africaine. All of these operas held the international stage throughout the 19th century, as did the more pastoral Dinorah, making Meyerbeer the most frequently performed composer at leading opera houses in the nineteenth century. Apart from around 50 songs, Meyerbeer wrote little except for the stage. Meyerbeer enjoyed an enormous vogue in his day, but his reputation, based on his four Paris operas, did not survive long. The critical assaults of Wagner and his supporters, especially after his death, led to a decline in the popularity of his works; his operas were suppressed by the Nazi regime in Germany, and were neglected by opera houses through most of the early twentieth century. Meyerbeer’s works are only infrequently performed today. Yet he exercised a considerable influence on the development of opera by his conception of big character scenes, his dramatic style of vocal writing, and his original sense of orchestration. A number of his operas, most notably L’Africaine, were revived in the later 20th century, and a ballet suite, Les Patineurs, based on Le Prophète, was arranged by Constant Lambert.
My collection includes the following work by Giacomo Meyerbeer:
Le Prophete: Coronation March.
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources