By Sigurd Neubauer
This essay is primarily drawn on Elaine Thornton’s book, “Giacomo Meyerbeer and His Family: Between Two Worlds” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2021) as well as an interview with the author. An overview of Meyerbeer’s life and legacy can be found in the article ‘The Forgotten Master of the Opera: Giacomo Meyerbeer‘.
In the fall of 1814 the Kapellmeister in Berlin, Bernald Amsel-Weber, offered Meyerbeer to serve as assistant music director but the young composer declined as he insisted on furthering his studies in Italy.
From 1816-1825, Meyerbeer studied in Italy where he focused on the Rossinian style.
During this period, he composed the following six operas:
- Romilda e Costanza (1817)
- Semiramide riconosciuta (1819)
- Emma di Resburgo (1819)
- Margherita d’Anjou (1820)
- L’esule di Granata (1822
- Il crociato in Egitto (1824)
Not only were they all in the Rossinian style, but Meyerbeer and Rossini established in the process a life-long friendship.
Perhaps coincidentally, the libretto of Romilda e Costanza was written by Gaetano Rossi who had also worked for Rossini and Gaetano Donizetti.
Margherita d’Anjou was first performed at Milan’s La Scala, which remains Italy’s premier opera house until the present. With Margherita d’Anjou, Meyerbeer, who was not even 30 years old in 1820, received widespread fame and success in Italy.
His Italian success landed him an invitation in 1825 to perform Il crociato in Egitto at Paris’ Théâtre-Italien [Italian theater] where Rossini was the music director at the time.
The conductor at the Paris premier of Il crociato in Egitto was none other than Rossini himself.
Opera composer Gioachino Rossini was a close friend of Meyerbeer
Meyerbeer’s growing international acclaim became evident when King Frederick Wilhelm III of Prussia (1797-1840) attended its second performance.
For Meyerbeer’s fifth Italian opera, L’esule di Granata, his librettist was Felice Romani who would later write the libretto for Vincenzo Bellini’s (1801-1835) Norma.
In the twentieth century, the legendary Maria Callas would bring Norma back to life as it became her signature opera.
In the meantime, Romani, who had both written for Meyerbeer and Rossini, also served as the librettist for Donizetti’s L’elisir D’amore.
In the twentieth century, the legendary Luciano Pavarotti adopted the L’elisir D’amore as one of his signature operas.
At the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Pavarotti “as the simple, good-hearted Nemorino” …enchanted audiences with his larger-than-life personality as well as his golden voice.”
Meyerbeer also became friendly with Donizetti, Thornton writes in her book as she illustrates how the Prussian composer achieved success in Italy, the very country where opera as an art form had originated.
With Meyerbeer’s Italian success, Fredrick Wilhelm III attempted in 1820 to recruit him for the Prussian Court to serve under its music director, Gaspare Spontini (1774-1851), an offer Meyerbeer declined. Spontini, an Italian national, was also the composer of the Prussian national anthem, Borussia.
Spontini had personally been recruited by the King, even though Meyerbeer’s old friend, Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), had initially been a finalist for the position. After von Weber’s death, the Meyerbeer family represented his family’s operatic interests in Berlin.
Von Weber’s wife even asked Meyerbeer to finish his Die Drei Pintos opera. Meyerbeer, however, was never able to finish it, but Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) did in 1887. The opera was never successful, Thornton writes.
“Emperor Napoleon III, who reigned from 1852-1870, invited Meyerbeer to attend court functions on a regular basis...Napoleon III, along with his wife, attended the premier of L’Africaine in 1865”
Once Meyerbeer arrived in Paris in 1825, his most important collaborator became librettist Eugene Scribe (1791-1861), Thornton writes.
Scribe was “developing new ideas in opera comique, working with established musicians…Scribe did more than any other writer to put French opera in the forefront of exportable commodities,” according to the Oxford History of Opera.
Meyerbeer’s collaboration with Scribe brought him to the Paris Opera, the most prestigious and important opera house in France.
On November 21, 1831, Meyerbeer’s first opera in Paris, Robert Le Diable [Robert the Devil], – in collaboration with Scribe – premiered.
In its attendance were Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849); George Sand (1804-1876); Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850); Berlioz; Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842); Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), along with Beer family friend Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859).
The opera received widespread praise and by the end of the nineteenth century, it has been produced over 750 times at the Paris Opera and by 1850 in places such as Calcutta, India, New Orleans, United States, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Mauritius and Moscow, Russia, Thornton writes.
Robert Le Diable also became a cultural icon, Thornton argues. For instance, when the celebrated painter Edward Degas wanted to paint the orchestra of the Paris Opera in 1871, he chose to depict them playing during the Nun’s Ballet. Chopin and Franz Liszt (1811-1886) also helped popularize the music by writing piano arrangements.
Chopin called the opera “a masterpiece,” adding that “Meyerbeer has made himself immortal,” Thornton writes. When Chopin died in 1849, Meyerbeer along with painter extraordinaire Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) were chosen to be a pallbearer, Thornton writes.
Along with Robert Le Diable, Les Huguenots (1834), Le Prophète [The Prophet] (1849) and L’Africaine [The African Woman], which was first premiered after Meyerbeer’s death in 1865, fall under the musical terminology of Grand Opera.
Grand Opera as a concept was developed by Louis-Desire Veron (1798-1867) who sought to “democratize” the Paris Opera by creating operas more to the liking of the bourgeoise.
Prominent features for Grand Operas are exiting plots and accessible music which appeals to emotions, Thornton writes.
“Operas in this style had a number of defining characteristics: the story typically focused on a personal dilemma set against a background of sweeping historical events, often featuring doomed relationships that crossed religious or social divides. The staging demand massed crowds scenes, a large orchestra, and spectacular stage effects. Great attention was paid to accuracy in evoking the period and place of the opera’s settings, not just through costumes and scenery, but also through the introduction of music with ‘local color,’” Thornton writes.
Les Huguenots became a major success and was performed over a thousand times at the Paris Opera. “To this day, only Gounod’s Faust has been staged more often,” Thornton writes.
Hundreds of arrangements have been made of the music, among others by Frantz List (1811-1886), Johan Strauss Sr. (1804-1849) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).
Meanwhile, “several pieces from Le Prophète became popular in their own right, and some have remained so up to the present. The coronation march from Act Five has been used on state occasions. In 1851, Louis Napoleon, like his uncle before him, seized power from the republic, and in 1852 became the Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873). In January of the following year, when he married a Spanish countess, Eugenie de Montijo, at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the bride entered the cathedral to the march from Le Prophete,” Thornton writes.
Napoleon III, who reigned from 1852-1870, invited Meyerbeer to attend court functions on a regular basis, Thornton writes. Napoleon III, along with his wife, attended the premier of L’Africaine in 1865.
In 1833, Meyerbeer became a member of Prussian Academy. King Fredrick Wilhelm IV bestowed upon him, Rossini, Mendelssohn and List the order Pour le Mertie, respectively.
Meyerbeer had already been recognized in Paris where he became a member of the French Academy and a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 1832. In 1850 Meyerbeer received the Knight of the Order of Emperor I Frantz Joseph of Austria (1830-1916).
In 1842, King Fredrick Wilhelm IV appointed Meyerbeer to succeed Spontini as the Music Director of the Berlin Court where he became responsible for managing the Berlin Opera.
Mendelssohn was at the same time appointed Director of Church Music at the Berlin Court, who Meyerbeer considered to be his “his worst enemy,” Thornhon writes.
Meyerbeer also recommended in 1847 to King Fredrick Wilhelm IV – via von Humboldt as an intermediary – that Berlioz should be bestowed the Prussian order of the Red Eagle.
Meyerbeer was also popular in Great Britain where Queen Victoria (1819-1901) enjoyed his music. She even tasked him to organize the musical entertainment for her visit to Prussia in 1845. And she chose him to compose an overture for a concert opening at the London International Exhibition of 1862.
Wagner: From protégé to adversary
In an interview with Man & Culture, Thornton says that Wagner “had initially been a protégée” of Meyerbeer. While Wagner’s fourth opera, Der Fliegende Holländer [The Flying Dutchman] became his first success in 1843, Meyerbeer had known Wagner since 1837. The two had first been acquainted when Wagner wrote him from Königsberg introducing himself as a struggling young composer requesting his assistance.
“Meyerbeer was also popular in Great Britain where Queen Victoria (1819-1901) enjoyed his music. She even tasked him to organize the musical entertainment for her visit to Prussia in 1845”
At the time, Wagner had already composed two operas, Die Feen [The Fairies] and Das Lieberverbot [The Love Ban], the latter based on William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) Measure for Measure, but neither of his works had generated any significant success.
Wagner asked Meyerbeer “to help stage his operas once he moved to Paris in October 1839 and even asked him to lend him money,” Thornton writes.
Meyerbeer not only introduced Wagner to the Paris Opera, but also introduced his third opera, Rienzi, to the Dresden Court Opera, Thornton writes. The introduction contributed to Wagner’s first success as he was appointed Royal Saxon Court Conductor in 1843, giving him financial security, Thornton adds.
Meyerbeer also helped facilitate the performance of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer, which was premiered in Berlin in 1844 and even hosted a dinner for the composer.
Meyerbeer, however, expressed concern over Wagner turning on him, Thornton says in the interview. Wagner had already begun turning on Meyerbeer in his private correspondence during the 1850s. Wagner used Meyerbeer’s Jewishness as a weapon against him, including in his infamous essay entitled “Jewry in Music,” Thornton adds.
Although Meyerbeer was not mentioned by name, he was clearly targeted in it, along with Mendelssohn, Thornton explains. “Wagner accused Jews of ‘commercializing art,’ whereas he pursued it for its pure forms,” Thornton says.
In 1851, Wagner began attacking Meyerbeer publicly in his work “Opera and Drama.”
Wagner also believed that his opera Tannhäuser (1861) had failed in Paris because Meyerbeer had conspired against him. Wagner even accused Meyerbeer of having used his wealth to bribe and mobilize critics against him.
“Meyerbeer, however, never publicly responded to Wagner’s accusations. He also insisted that his personal papers and diaries were never to be published”
Wagner’s campaign against Meyerbeer was also taken up by his followers. “The anti-Meyerbeer campaign has had a lasting impact,” Thornton says, adding that it also impacted why his works were not performed in the United States. “If Meyerbeer’s work wasn’t performed in Europe, it wouldn’t be performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York either,” she explains.
Wagner’s vitriolic campaign has cast a long shadow over Meyerbeer’s work.
This, along with rising German nationalism during the second half of the nineteenth century accelerated Wagner’s popularity but came at the detriment of Meyerbeer’s own legacy.
Furthermore, Wagner’s assault on Meyerbeer can be understood within the context of rising anti-Semitism in Germany during the second half of the nineteenth century, which would ultimately culminate in the Holocaust.
During the Nazi era, from 1933-1945, Meyerbeer’s music was banned altogether while Wagner’s was celebrated. Because of Wagner’s pervasive anti-Semitism and the Nazis adopting his music for their own propaganda purposes, Wagner’s music remains banned from public performances in Israel until this day. Meyerbeer, ironically, is hardly performed in Israel either.
Meyerbeer, however, never publicly responded to Wagner’s accusations. He also insisted that his personal papers and diaries were never to be published.
It was only in the 1950s that one of Meyerbeer’s decedents, Hans Richter, who was the son of Meyerbeer’s daughter Cornelie, opened the composer’s private archive to scholars but he did not personally publish anything. Richter did so because he considered it to be in the public interest especially after what had happened during World War II, says Thornton.
When Meyerbeer died on May 2, 1864, a special train was arranged for him to bring him back to his native Berlin. The funeral train left Paris’ Gare Du Nord and was warmly welcomed at Berlin’s Potsdam Station by none other than Prince George of Prussia (1826-1902).