#composer: Giacomo Meyerbeer

#composer: Giacomo Meyerbeer

by Sigurd Neubauer

This article first appeared in 'Man & Culture Magazine', republished with the kind permission of the author: bit.ly/3D7T50F

Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), born Jacob Meyer Beer in Berlin, was the undisputed master of the Paris Opera during his lifetime. He is also considered a virtuoso of musical expression and a grand master of the Grand Opéra , which broke away from classical traditions and embraced the romantic spirit of the 19th century. Meyer Beer later changed his name to Giacomo Meyerbeer.

Meyerbeer studied composition in Italy, especially the operas of Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868). The two composers became lifelong friends; Rossini, whose works remain among the most popular and frequently performed operas to this day, 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), with whom he was friends. Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847), on the other hand, who came from the same Jewish background in Berlin as Meyerbeer, became a bitter rival: he viewed the opera composer with particular disgust. While Meyerbeer's colleagues, especially Mendelssohn, have found their place in music history and their works are still frequently performed, Meyerbeer has largely been forgotten today.

Despite Meyerbeer's unprecedented popularity during his heyday at the Paris Opera (1831-1864), Richard Wagner (1813-1883) - once a friend and admirer, later a rival and sworn enemy - did everything he could to destroy Meyerbeer's reputation. Wagner viciously stoked anti-Semitic resentment against Meyerbeer in order to establish himself as the preeminent opera composer of his time. His relentless campaign against Meyerbeer, for which he also sought the support of former admirers of Meyerbeer, resulted in his rival as a composer being largely ignored by music history.

Given Meyerbeer's relative obscurity, whose operas are rarely 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 describes in great detail Meyerbeer's meritocratic rise from a child prodigy who learned to play the piano at the Prussian royal court to fame at the Paris Opera, where the French and Prussian kings and the rest of French high society enjoyed his magnificent compositions. But the book is not just about Meyerbeer alone - even though his operatic successes and his lifelong ties to the Prussian court are meticulously documented - but about the history of the Beer family as a whole.


The Beer family, led by Jacob Herz Beer and Amalia (née Wulff), established themselves as one of the most prominent families in Berlin; one could call them the 'Jewish aristocracy'. Three of their four children, Meyer (who later changed his name to Meyerbeer), Wilhelm and Michael, had very 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. Michael was a playwright and poet who made his name at the Bavarian court of King Ludwig I (1786-1868). His most successful play, The Pariah , was admired and later performed by the great German classicist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). Goethe even expressed a wish that Meyerbeer would set his famous play Faust to music, but this was later done by Charles Gounod (1818-1893). It was Gounod's opera Faust that broke Meyerbeer's long-held record as the most performed opera of all time at the Paris Opéra. Meyerbeer's most popular work, Les Huguenots [ The Huguenots ], was "performed over 1,000 times and staged all over the world from its premiere in 1836 until World War II," writes Thornton.

The fourth son, Heinrich, became the 'black sheep of the family', but nevertheless developed a lifelong friendship with the great German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). The father, Jacob Herz Beer, in turn, became the richest businessman in Berlin, his wife regularly received the Prussian Chancellor and maintained long-standing friendships with members of the royal family. Among the many influential people the Beer family counted among their friends was the famous German poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), who often turned to Meyerbeer for personal loans as he struggled with financial difficulties throughout his life.

In an interview with Man & Culture Thornton describes his motivation for writing about Meyerbeer as follows: "I became interested in Meyerbeer when I happened to see a production of his last opera, L'Africaine, at the Bielefeld Opera House in the early 1990s. At that time, I knew almost nothing about Meyerbeer and had no preconceived ideas about his music. I loved the opera, found it dramatically exciting and captivating, and decided to learn more about this composer and his works."

Thornton adds that as her interest in Meyerbeer developed, she was continually surprised by the negative comments about his music and his personality in general. She wondered why a composer who was enormously successful throughout his life and whose work represents an entire era 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 18th and 19th centuries and began to sketch out their story," Thornton says. But researching and writing the book took over a decade, she adds. "One of the challenges of writing a book about such a successful family," Thornton says, "was that I had to keep it together within the confines of the book. It couldn't be about giving a holistic impression of Wagner or Heine begging for credit." Everything "has to be viewed through the prism of the Beer family correspondence, of course," Thornton explains.


Thornton describes the era of Emperor Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786), also known as Frederick II, as a golden age in Jewish history. The king sought to establish Berlin as a manufacturing base, which gave Germans - and the then-unemancipated Jews - the opportunity to participate in the economic boom and thus create wealth for themselves. "Frederick II had strict regulations specifically for Jews in Berlin, where only the wealthy were allowed to live," says Thornton, adding that servants and teachers, among others, could also live there but were not safe. At this time, the king imposed social restrictions on Jews, even the wealthy, by denying them citizenship.

The Wulff family lived in Berlin, and Jacob Beer also moved to the city after his marriage to Amalia. Frederick the Great's policies, including towards the Jews, were based on the ideals of the Enlightenment, which focused on what united rather than what divided. "In the period that followed, Berlin flourished in terms of trade and culture, and Meyerbeer grew up in this environment," explains Thornton. "The family's close connection with the court began with Meyerbeer's piano lessons as a boy." Meyerbeer moved to Vienna in 1813 to continue his musical studies, just as Prussia declared war on France. Prussia had been a satellite state of France since its defeat in 1806, but rebelled in 1813 and joined the Allies fighting against France. After the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), which Thornton also examines in terms of their impact on the Beer family, Berlin's Jews were finally emancipated in 1812. Nevertheless, a certain insecurity remained for Jews, including in their perception by Prussian high society. Meyerbeer's mother Amalia played an important role in raising funds for the Prussian war effort, while his brother Wilhelm joined the Prussian army.

In Vienna, Meyerbeer met, among others, Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), the main rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). From Vienna, he traveled to Italy in 1816 to deepen his composition studies, where he remained until 1825. After his considerable success in Italy, where he became friends with Rossini, the composer moved to Paris, where he remained until his death in 1864 and became the most important opera composer of his time.

Thornton's book is attractively written and easily accessible to both scholars and laypeople, relating the fame and brilliant successes of the Beer family to the general changes in German-Jewish relations brought about by the various reforms instituted by Frederick the Great. While Meyerbeer's success was encouraged by an ambitious mother (Amalia) and a father who "considered him the equal of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven," Thornton's book sheds light on Meyerbeer's accommodating nature, including his financial generosity toward many artists, including Carl Maria von Weber and Luis Spohr. When Meyerbeer became music director at the Prussian court, he insisted that more works by German composers be performed. The first artist to be put on the repertoire was Spohr, whom Meyerbeer had known since 1804. And although Richard Wagner also admired Der Freischütz and considered it one of the best German romantic operas, it was Heinrich Beer, Meyerbeer's brother, who supported the interests of the von Weber family in Berlin after the early death of Carl Maria. The overtures of Der Freischütz and Oberon remain among the most popular and frequently performed in classical music, even though the two operas themselves have lost popularity.

Meyerbeer also showed his generosity towards Berlioz, whom he Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in France and the Red Eagle in Prussia. The honesty and integrity of the Beer family, especially Meyerbeer, are themes that run throughout Thornton's book. By highlighting Meyerbeer's meritocratic rise to stardom through his profound influence on opera, Thornton has done the public an important service: she reminds the opera world, and all of us who appreciate this very special form of art, of the impressive and extraordinary legacy of an artist who, unfortunately, history has not given his deserved place: "While Meyerbeer's colleagues, especially Mendelssohn, have become immortal in music history and their works continue to be frequently performed, Meyerbeer has been largely forgotten by the modern world."

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