By Sigurd Neubauer
Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), born Jacob Meyer Beer in Berlin, became during his lifetime the undisputed master of opera in Paris. He is widely considered a master of musical expression and a proponent of Grand Opera in particular, which broke away from the classic traditions and into the romantic spirit of the nineteenth century. Meyer Beer later changed his name to Giacomo Meyerbeer.
Meyerbeer studied composition in Italy and the operas of Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) in particular, and the two composers became lifelong friends. Rossini, whose repertoire remains some of the most beloved and widely performed operas until the present, even composed a funeral march in honor of Meyerbeer.
Meyerbeer was also a contemporary of Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), Louis Spohr (1784-1859) and Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), all of whom remained his friends throughout his prolific career.
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847), who originated in the same Jewish milieu in Berlin, became a ferocious rival of Meyerbeer as he detested the opera composer with particular venom.
Author Elaine Thornton published a book on the distinguished Beer family in 2021
While Meyerbeer’s colleagues, and Mendelssohn in particular, have been immortalized in music history as their work continue to be widely performed and celebrated, Meyerbeer has largely been forgotten by the modern world.
Despite Meyerbeer’s unprecedented popularity during his high days at the Paris Opera (1831-1864), Richard Wagner (1813-1883) – once a friend and admirer later turned rival and mortal enemy – did his outmost to destroy Meyerbeer’s reputation, including through deploying vicious anti-Semitism as he sought to establish himself as the preeminent opera composer of the day. Wagner’s relentless campaign against Meyerbeer, including by his earlier followers, largely succeeded in sidelining his rival into a composer who has largely been forgotten by history.
Given Meyerbeer’s relative obscurity as his operas are hardly performed anymore, I read with great interest Elaine Thornton’s book, “Giacomo Meyerbeer and His Family: Between Two Worlds” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2021).
In it, Thornton outlines in perfect detail Meyerbeer’s meritocratic rise from a child prodigy who learned to play the piano at the Prussian Royal Court to achieving fame at the Paris Opera where French and Prussian royalty, along with the rest of French high society, delighted in the splendor of his compositions. But the book is merely about Meyerbeer alone – even though his operatic successes and lifelong ties to the Prussian Court are documented in painstaking detail – it is about the Beer family in its entirety.
“Fredrick the Great’s policies, including towards the Jews, were based on the ideals of the Enlightenment in which the focus was on what unifies people rather than what divides them.”
The Beer family, spearheaded by Jacob Herz Beer and Amalia (née Wulff), established itself as one of Berlin’s most prominent of its kind and could even be characterized as a de-facto Jewish aristocracy. Three of their four children, Meyer (who later changed his name to Meyerbeer), Wilhelm, and Michael, developed highly successful careers.
Wilhelm became “an amateur astronomer…he and his colleague, the scientist Johann Heinrich von Mädler, produced the first accurate maps of the surfaces of the moon and Mars,” writes Thornton.
Giacomo’s brother was a dramatist and poet who became a favorite at the Bavarian Court of King Ludwig I. Credit: Elaine Thornton
Michael was a dramatist and poet who became a favorite at the Bavarian Court of King Ludwig I (1786-1868). His most successful play, “Der Paria” [The Pariah] was admired and later staged by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who is considered to be the greatest of German classical writers. Goethe even expressed his desire to have Meyerbeer set the music to his famous play, Faust, which at the end was composed by Charles Gounod (1818-1893).
It was, meanwhile, Gounod’s Faust which eventually overtook Meyerbeer’s long-held record as the most performed opera of all time at the Paris Opera. Meyerbeer’s most popular work, Les Huguenots [The Huguenots] was “performed over 1,000 times…from its premier in 1836 up to the Second World War, and was staged all over the world,” Thornton writes.
“Consequently, Berlin flourished for trade and culture, which is the environment where Meyerbeer grew up,” Thornton explains. “The family’s close ties with the Court started with Meyerbeer’s piano lessons as a boy”
The fourth son, Heinrich, became the “black sheep of the family” but developed nonetheless a life-long friendship with the great German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). For his part, Jacob Herz Beer became Berlin’s wealthiest businessman, and his wife entertained the Prussian Chancellor on a regular basis and enjoyed long-standing friendships with members of the royal family. Among the many influential the Beer family counted as their friends was the famous German poet, Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) who would often turn to Meyerbeer for personal loans as he struggled financially throughout his life.
Heinrich Heine would often turn to Meyerbeer for personal loans as he struggled financially throughout his life
“While Meyerbeer’s success was championed by an ambitious mother (Amalia) and father who ‘considered him to be equal to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven,’ Thornton’s book sheds a light on Meyerbeer’s gentlemanly nature, including of his financial generosity towards many struggling artists”
In an interview with Man & Culture, Thornton describes the reasoning for writing about Meyerbeer, saying:
“I first became interested in Meyerbeer when I saw, quite by chance, a production of his last opera L’Africaine at the Bielefeld Opera House in Germany in the early1990s. At the time, I knew next to nothing about Meyerbeer and had no preconceived ideas about his music. I loved the opera, finding it dramatically exciting and absorbing, and decided I wanted to know more about this composer and his works.”
Thornton adds that as her interest in Meyerbeer developed, she was constantly surprised by the negative commentary on his music and of his personality in general.
She also wondered why a composer who had been enormously successful throughout his life, and whose work represents an entire epoch in music history, was so often ignored or even reviled.
“I very quickly became fascinated by his extraordinary family and their background in the Berlin Jewish community of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and began sketching out their history,” Thornton says. The book, however, took over a decade to research and write, she adds.
“One of the challenges of writing a book about such an accomplished family,” Thornton says, “was that within the constraints of the book, I had to keep it together. It couldn’t be about a holistic impression of either Wagner or Heine asking for loans.” Everything, “of course has to be through the prisms of the Beer family’s correspondence,” Thornton explains.
Author Elaine Thornton
Thornton describes the era of King Fredrick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786), also known as
Fredrick II, as a golden age in Jewish history. The King had sought to establish a manufacturing base in Berlin, which created an opening for Germans – and Jews who at that time were not emancipated – to participate in the economy and in the process creating wealth for themselves.
“Fredrick had established strict regulations specifically for Jews in Berlin where only the wealthy were allowed to live,” says Thornton while adding that servants and schoolteachers, among others, could also live there but they did not enjoy any security. At that time, the King placed social restrictions on Jews, even on the wealthy, as they were not granted citizenship.
The Wulff family lived in Berlin, but Jacob Beer moved to the city upon his marriage to Amalia. Fredrick the Great’s policies, including towards the Jews, were based on the ideals of the Enlightenment in which the focus was on what unifies people rather than what divides them.
“Consequently, Berlin flourished for trade and culture, which is the environment where Meyerbeer grew up,” Thornton explains. “The family’s close ties with the Court started with Meyerbeer’s piano lessons as a boy.”
Meyerbeer moved to Vienna in 1813 to pursue his musical studies just as Prussia declared war on France. Prussia had been a satellite state of France’s since the defeat of 1806 but rebelled in 1813 and joined the Allies fighting against France.
During the Nazi era, from 1933-1945, Meyerbeer’s music was banned altogether
Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France
Following the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815), which Thornton examines as well, including their implications on the Beer family, the Jews of Berlin were finally emancipated in 1812 even though the overall environment remained fluid for Jews and how they were perceived, including by Prussia’s high society. His mother, Amalia, played an instrumental role in fundraising for the Prussian war effort while his brother Wilhelm joined the Prussian army.
In Vienna, Meyerbeer met among others, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756-1791) chief rival and protagonist, Antonio Salieri (1750-1825).
From Vienna, Meyerbeer traveled in 1816 to Italy to further his composition studies where he remained until 1825. Following his considerable success in Italy, where he became a friend of Rossini, the composer moved to Paris where he became the dominant operatic force of the time until his death in 1864.
Thornton’s book’s is delightfully written and easily accessible to scholars and the layman alike.
In it, the fame and brilliant successes of the Beer family is masterly interwoven within the broader changes in German-Jewish relations ushered in through the various reforms embarked by Fredrick the Great. While Meyerbeer’s success was championed by an ambitious mother (Amalia) and father who “considered him to be equal to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven,” Thornton’s book sheds a light on Meyerbeer’s gentlemanly nature, including of his financial generosity towards many struggling artists, including von Weber and Spohr.
For instance, when Meyerbeer became Music Director at the Prussian Court, he insisted that German composers should have their work performed. The first artist to be featured was Spohr, whom he had known since 1804.
Celebrated German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe expressed a desire to have Meyerbeer set the music to his famous play, Faust
Similarly, although Wagner admired and considered Der Freischütz to be one of the best German romantic operas, it was Heinrich Beer, Meyerbeer’s brother who supported the von Weber family’s interests in Berlin after Carl Maria’s early death.
The overtures of Der Freischütz and Oberon remain until this day some of the most beloved and widely performed repertoires in classical music even if the two operas themselves have faded in popularity.
Meyerbeer also demonstrated his generosity towards Berlioz, who he nominated for the Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur in France and for Red Eagle in Prussia.
The decency of the Beer family, and of Meyerbeer in particular, are themes spanning Thornton’s book. By highlighting Meyerbeer’s meritocratic rise to stardom through his profound impact on opera, Thornton has provided nothing short of an important public service: to remind the opera world, and all of us who cherish this very special form of artistry, about the impressive and extraordinary legacy of an artist who has long been forgotten by history.
“While Meyerbeer’s colleagues, and Mendelssohn in particular, have been immortalized in music history as their work continue to be widely performed, Meyerbeer has largely been forgotten by the modern world”