Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 2.djvu/333

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MEYERBEER.
321
 

memory the popular tunes he heard, and to play them on the piano, accompanying them with their appropriate harmony. His first instructor was Lauska, an eminent pianoforte player, and pupil of Clementi; and old Clementi himself, although he had long given up teaching, was so much struck, during a visit to Berlin, with the promise displayed in the boy's performance as to consent to give him lessons. As early as seven years old he played in public the D minor Concerto of Mozart, and two years later was reckoned one of the best pianists in Berlin. The fact that, owing to the example and patronage of royalty, music was 'the fashion' in the Prussian capital did not prevent its being regarded by the wealthier classes in the light of a mere pastime, and it is to the credit of the Beers that they not only recognised their son's especial bent, but did their best to give him a sound professional training. It was as a pianist that he was expected to win his laurels, but as he had also, from an early age, shown much talent for composition, he was placed under Zelter for instruction in theory, and subsequently (for Zelter's rigid severity was insupportable to the young prodigy) under Bernard Anselm Weber, director of the Berlin Opera, and a pupil of the then celebrated Abbé Vogler. An amiable, accomplished man, full of enthusiasm for art, Weber was an inspiring companion, but not a competent theoretical teacher for such a pupil. The boy, whose industry was equal to his talent, brought one day to his master a fugue on which he had expended an unusual amount of time and pains, as he thought, with success. So thought Weber, who, proud and joyful, sent off the fugue as a specimen of his pupil's work to his old master, the Abbé Vogler, at Darmstadt. The answer was eagerly looked for, but months elapsed and nothing came. At last there appeared—not a letter, but a huge packet. This proved to contain a long and exhaustive treatise on Fugue, in three sections. The first of these was theoretical, setting forth in rule and maxim the 'whole duty' of the fugue-writer. The second, entitled 'Scholar's Fugue,' contained Meyerbeer's unlucky exereise, dissected and criticised, bar by bar, and pronounced bad. The third, headed 'Master's Fugue,' consisted of a fugue by Vogler, on Meyerbeer's subject, analysed like the preceding one, to show that it was good.[1]

Weber was astonished and distressed, but Meyerbeer set to work and wrote another fugue, in eight parts, in accordance with his new lights. This, with a modest letter, he sent to Vogler. The answer soon came. 'Young man! Art opens to you a glorious future! Come to me at Darmstadt. You shall be to me as a son, and you shall slake your thirst at the sources of musical knowledge.' Such a prospect was not to be resisted, and in 1810 Meyerbeer became an inmate of Vogler's house.

This notorious Abbé, regarded by some people as the most profound theoretician of Germany, by others (including Mozart) as an impudent charlatan, was possessed of some originality, much eccentricity, and unbounded conceit, not so much a learned man as an enthusiast for learning in the abstract, and with a mania for instructing others. His imperturbable self-confidence ('he gives out that he will make a composer in three weeks and a singer in six months,' says Mozart in one of his letters) certainly had an attraction for young ardent minds, for among his pupils were several men of genius. After many years of a wandering, adventurous life, he had settled at Darmstadt, where he was pensioned and protected by the Grand Duke. In his house Meyerbeer had for companions Gänsbacher (afterwards an organist of repute at Vienna) and Carl Maria von Weber, who had studied with Vogler some years before, and was now attracted to Darmstadt by his presence there, and between whom and Meyerbeer, eight years his junior, there sprang up a warm and lasting friendship. Each morning after early mass, when the young men took it in turns to preside at the organ, they assembled for a lesson in counterpoint from the Abbé. Themes were distributed, and a fugue or sacred cantata had to be written every day. In the evening the work was examined, when each man had to defend his own composition against the critical attacks of Vogler and the rest. Organ fugues were improvised in the Cathedral, on subjects contributed by all in turn. In this way Meyerbeer's education was carried on for two years. His diligence was such, that often, when interested in some new branch of study, he would not leave his room nor put off his dressing-gown for days together. His great powers of execution on the pianoforte enabled him to play at sight the most intricate orchestral scores, with a full command of every part. His four-part 'Sacred Songs of Klopstock' were publlshed at this time, and an oratorio of his, entitled 'God and Nature,' was performed in presence of the Grand Duke, who appointed him Composer to the Court. His first opera, 'Jephthah's Vow,' was also written during this Vogler period. Biblical in subject, dry and scholastic in treatment, it resembled an oratorio rather than an opera, and although connoisseurs thought it promising, it failed to please the public. A comic opera, 'Alimelek, or the Two Caliphs,' met with a similar fate at Munich. It was, however, bespoken and put in rehearsal by the manager of the Kärnthnerthor theatre in Vienna. To Vienna, in consequence, Meyerbeer now repaired, with the intention of making his appearance there as a pianist. But on the very evening of his arrival he chanced to hear Hummel, and was so much impressed by the grace, finish, and exquisite legato-playing of this artist that he became dissatisfied with all he had hitherto aimed at or accomplished, and went into a kind of voluntary retirement for several months, during which time he subjected his technique to a complete reform, besides writing a quantity of pianoforte music, which however was never

  1. This treatise was published after Vogler's death. It is unfortunate that his criticism is often unsound, and that his own fugue will not bear close examination.