#composer: Meyerbeer und seine Zeitgenossen

#composer: Meyerbeer and his contemporaries

by Sigurd Neubauer

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

In the autumn of 1814, the Berlin conductor Bernald Amsel-Weber offered Giacomo Meyerbeer the opportunity to work as deputy music director in Berlin, but the young composer declined because he wanted to continue his studies in Italy first. Meyerbeer spent the years 1816-1825 in Italy and became acquainted with the opera production there, the so-called 'Rossini style'. During this time, he wrote six operas:

  1. Romilda and Costanza (1817)
  2. Semiramide riconosciuta (1819)
  3. Emma of Resburgo (1819)
  4. Margherita of Anjou (1820)
  5. The Grenade's Shell (1822
  6. The Cross in Egypt (1824)

During his stay in Italy, a lifelong friendship was formed between Meyerbeer and Gioacchino Rossini, from which other artistic connections also arose: the libretto of Romilda e Costanza , for example, was written by Gaetano Rossi, who also worked for Rossini and Gaetano Donizetti. Margherita d'Anjou was premiered at La Scala in Milan, which is still Italy's most important opera house today. Meyerbeer, who was not even 30 years old in 1820, became very famous in Italy with this opera. His Italian success brought him to the Italian premiere of Il crociato in Egitto in 1825. an invitation to the Théâtre-Italien in Paris, where Rossini was music director at the time.

The conductor of the Paris premiere of Il crociato in Egitto was none other than Rossini himself. The growing international recognition of Meyerbeer's operatic output was evident when King Frederick William III of Prussia (1797-1840) attended the second performance. Meyerbeer's fifth Italian opera, L'esule di Granata , was written by Felice Romani, who later went on to be the librettist of Vincenzo Bellini's (1801-1835) Norma , an opera that made the legendary Maria Callas her flagship opera in the twentieth century. Meanwhile, Romani, who had written for both Meyerbeer and Rossini, was also the librettist for Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore , an opera that in turn made Luciano Pavarotti one of his most famous operas in the twentieth century.


Meyerbeer also became friends with Donizetti, writes Elaine Thornton in her book on Meyerbeer's life and work. She describes how the Prussian composer became successful in Italy, the country where opera as an art form originated. Due to Meyerbeer's Italian success, Frederick William III tried to bring him to the Prussian court in 1820 to work under his music director Gaspare Spontini (1774-1851), an offer Meyerbeer turned down. Spontini, an Italian citizen, was also the composer of the Prussian national anthem. He had been recruited personally by the king, although Meyerbeer's old friend Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) had initially been on the shortlist for the job. After von Weber's death, the Meyerbeer family represented his family's opera interests in Berlin. Von Weber's wife even asked Meyerbeer to complete his last opera, The Three Pintos . However, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) took over in 1887, but the opera was never successful, writes Thornton.

When Meyerbeer arrived in Paris in 1825, his main collaborator became the librettist Eugene Scribe (1791-1861). Scribe "developed new ideas for the opera comique and worked with established musicians… Scribe did more than any other author to bring French opera to the forefront of exportable commodities," says the Oxford History of Opera . Meyerbeer's collaboration with Scribe brought him to the Paris Opéra, the most prestigious and important opera house in France. On November 21, 1831, Meyerbeer's first 'Paris opera' was premiered: Robert Le Diable (Robert the Devil). Guests at the premiere were Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), George Sand (1804-1876), Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), Berlioz, Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) and Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a friend of the Beer family. The opera was a great success: in the 19th century it was performed over 750 times at the Paris Opera, and by 1850 there had been performances in places such as Calcutta, New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, Mauritius and Moscow.


Robert Le Diable became French cultural treasure, says Thornton. For example, when the famous painter Edward Degas wanted to paint the orchestra of the Paris Opera in 1871, he chose to paint it during the nuns' ballet in that opera. Chopin and Franz Liszt (1811-1886) also contributed to the work's dissemination by writing piano arrangements. Chopin called the opera 'a masterpiece' and added that "Meyerbeer has made himself immortal." When Chopin died in 1849, Meyerbeer was chosen as pallbearer along with the extraordinary painter Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863).

Together with Robert Le Diable, the operas Les Huguenots (The Huguenots, 1834), Le Prophète (The Prophet, 1849) and L'Africaine (The African Woman), which was first performed after Meyerbeer's death in 1865, can be described as 'Grand Opéra'. The concept of 'Grand Opéra' was developed by Louis-Desire Veron (1798-1867), who tried to 'democratize' the Paris Opera by creating operas that were more in line with the tastes of the bourgeoisie. The 'Grand Opéra' is characterized by an exciting plot and accessible music that appeals to the emotions.

"Operas in this style had a number of distinctive features: the story typically focused on a personal dilemma against a backdrop of far-reaching historical events, often involving doomed relationships that crossed religious or social boundaries. The production required scenes with large crowds, a large orchestra, and spectacular stage effects. Great care was taken to accurately depict the time and place in which the opera was set, not only through costumes and scenery, but also through the introduction of music with 'local color,'" writes Thornton.

Les Huguenots was also a great success in the 19th century and was performed over a thousand times at the Paris Opera. "To date, only Gounod's Faust has been performed more often," writes Thornton. There are hundreds of adaptations, including by Frantz List (1811-1886), Johan Strauss Sr. (1804-1849) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

"At the same time, several melodies from Le Prophete became popular in their own right, some of which remain so to this day. The Coronation March from the fifth act was used on state occasions. In 1851, Louis Napoleon, like his uncle before him, seized power in the Republic and in 1852 became Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873). When he married a Spanish countess, Eugenie de Montijo, in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in January of the following year, the bride entered the cathedral to the sounds of the march from Le Prophete ," writes Thornton. Napoleon III, who ruled from 1852-1870, regularly invited Meyerbeer to court events and attended the premiere of L'Africaine with his wife in 1865.


In 1833 Meyerbeer became a member of the Prussian Academy. King Frederick William IV awarded him, Rossini, Mendelssohn and List the 'Order Pour le Merite'. Meyerbeer had already received great public recognition in Paris: in 1832 he became a member of the French Academy and Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. In 1850 Emperor I Franz Joseph of Austria (1830-1916) appointed him a Knight of the Order.

In 1842, King Frederick William IV appointed Meyerbeer as Berlin court conductor to succeed Spontini, thereby taking over the direction of the Berlin Opera. At the same time, Mendelssohn was appointed church music director at the Berlin court. Meyerbeer considered Mendelssohn to be 'his worst enemy', as Thornton writes.

Meyerbeer was also popular in Great Britain, and Queen Victoria (1819-1901) had his music played regularly. She even commissioned him to organize the musical entertainment for her visit to Prussia in 1845, and she also commissioned him to compose an overture for the opening concert of the London World Exhibition in 1862.


In an interview with Man & Culture, Thornton says that Wagner was 'originally a protégé' of Meyerbeer. Meyerbeer had known Wagner since 1837, when Wagner wrote to the composer from Königsberg, almost 30 years his senior, introducing himself as a young composer and asking for his support. By this time Wagner had already composed two operas, The Fairies and The Prohibition of Love, based on William Shakespeare's (1564-1616) Measure for Measure , neither of which had achieved any notable success. Wagner initially asked Meyerbeer to help him stage his operas. 'When he [Wagner] moved to Paris in October 1839, he even asked him [Meyerbeer] to lend him money,' writes Thornton. In addition to introducing Wagner to the Paris Opera, Meyerbeer also presented his third opera, Rienzi , at the Dresden Court Opera. This contributed to Wagner's first success: in 1843 he was appointed Royal Saxon Court Kapellmeister - a position that gave him financial security for the first time. Meyerbeer also supported the premiere of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman in Berlin in 1844 and even gave a dinner for the composer. The Flying Dutchman became Wagner's breakthrough and made the young opera composer famous.

Meyerbeer was worried that Wagner might turn against him, according to Elaine Thornton. In his private correspondence, Wagner turned against Meyerbeer as early as the 1850s. He used Meyerbeer's Jewish family background to discredit him. Mahler's essay entitled Judaism in Music . Although Meyerbeer is not mentioned by name, the essay is clearly directed against him and Felix Mendelssohn, Thornton explains. "Wagner accused the Jews of 'commercializing art' while he persecuted them for their pure forms," ​​says Thornton. In 1851, Wagner began in his work Opera and Drama To attack Meyerbeer directly and publicly.

Wagner believed that his opera Tannhäuser (1861) had failed in Paris because Meyerbeer had conspired against him. Wagner accused Meyerbeer of using his wealth to bribe critics and mobilize against him. Wagner's campaign against Meyerbeer was taken up by his supporters. "The anti-Meybeer campaign had a lasting impact," says Thornton. "Wagner helped to keep Meyerbeer's works from being performed in the United States: if Meyerbeer's works were not performed in Europe, they would not be performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York," she explains.

Wagner's smear campaign cast a lasting shadow over Meyerbeer's work: German nationalism in the second half of the 19th century made Wagner's works increasingly popular, while the rise of anti-Semitism in the second half of the 19th century, which culminated in the Holocaust, accelerated the rejection of the works of Jewish artists. During the Nazi era (1933-1945), Meyerbeer's music was banned altogether, while Wagner's music was celebrated. Due to Wagner's increasingly obvious anti-Semitism and the fact that the Nazis used his music for their own propaganda purposes, to this day no work by Wagner is played publicly in Israel. Ironically, Meyerbeer's compositions are rarely performed in Israel either.

Meyerbeer never responded publicly to Wagner's accusations. He also insisted that his personal papers and diaries should never be published. It was not until the 1950s that one of Meyerbeer's descendants, Hans Richter, the son of Meyerbeer's daughter Cornelie, opened the composer's private archive to scholars, but without publishing anything himself. Richter did this because he believed it was in the public interest, especially after the events during World War II, Thornton says.

When Meyerbeer died on May 2, 1864, a special train was organized to bring him back to his hometown of Berlin. The funeral procession left the Gare Du Nord in Paris and was received at the Potsdam train station by none other than Prince George of Prussia (1826-1902).

(This article is based on Elaine Thornton's book 'Giacomo Meyerbeer and His Family: Between Two Worlds' (Vallentine Mitchell, 2021) and an interview with the author.)

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