1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Meyerbeer, Giacomo

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MEYERBEER, GIACOMO (1791-1863), German composer, first known as Jakob Meyer Beer, was born at Berlin on the 5th of September 1791,[1] of a wealthy and talented Jewish family. His father, Herz Beer, was a banker; his mother, Amalie (née Wulf), was a woman of high intellectual culture; and two of his brothers distinguished themselves in astronomy and literature. He studied the pianoforte, first under Lauska, and afterwards under Lauska's master, Clementi. When seven years old he played Mozart's Concerto in D Minor in public, and at nine he was pronounced the best pianist in Berlin. For composition he was placed under Zelter, and then under Bernard Weber, director of the Berlin opera, by whom he was introduced to the Abbé Vogler. Vogler invited him to Darmstadt, and in 1810 received him into his house, where he formed an intimate friendship with Karl Maria von Weber, who also took daily lessons in counterpoint, fugue and extempore organ-playing. At the end of two years the grand duke appointed Meyerbeer composer to the court. His first opera, Jephtha's Gelübde, failed lamentably at Darmstadt in 1811, and his second, Wirth und Gast (Alimelek), at Vienna in 1814. These checks discouraged him so cruelly that he feared he had mistaken his vocation. Nevertheless, by advice of Salieri he determined to study vocalization in Italy, and then to form a new style. But at Venice he was so captivated by Rossini that, renouncing all thought of originality, he produced a succession of seven Italian operas — Romilda e Costanza, Semiramide riconosciuta, Eduardo e Cristina, Emma di Resburgo, Margherita d'Anjou, L'Esule di Granata and Il Crociato in Egitto — which all achieved a success as brilliant as it was unexpected. Against this act of treason to German art Weber protested most earnestly; and before long Meyerbeer himself grew tired of his defection. An invitation to Paris in 1826 led him to review his position dispassionately, and he came to the conclusion that he was wasting his powers. For several years he produced nothing in public; but, in concert with Scribe, he planned his first French opera, Robert le Diable. This gorgeous spectacle was produced at the Grand Opera in 1831. It was the first of its race, a grand romantic opera, with situations more theatrically effective than any that had been attempted either by Cherubini or Rossini, and with ballet music such as had never yet been heard, even in Paris. Its popularity exceeded all expectations; yet for five years Meyerbeer appeared before the public no more.

His next opera, Les Huguenots, was first performed in 1836. In gorgeous colouring, rhetorical force, consistency of dramatic treatment, and careful accentuation of individual types, it is at least the equal of Robert le Diable. In two points only did its interest fall short of that inspired by the earlier work. Meyerbeer had shown himself so eminently successful in his treatment of the supernatural that one regretted the omission of that element; and, more important still, the fifth act proved to be an anti-climax. The true interest of the drama culminates at the close of the fourth act, when Raoul, leaping from the window to his death, leaves Valentine fainting upon the ground. The opera now usually ends at the fourth act.

After the production of Les Huguenots Meyerbeer spent many years in the preparation of his next greatest works — L'Africaine and Le Prophète. The libretti of both these operas were furnished by Scribe; and both were subjected to countless changes in fact, the story of L'Africaine was more than once entirely rewritten.

Meanwhile Meyerbeer accepted the appointment of kapellmeister to the king of Prussia, and spent some years at Berlin where he produced Ein Feldlager in Schlesien, a German opera, in which Jenny Lind made her first appearance in Prussia. Here also he composed, in 1846, the overture to his brother Michael's drama, Struensee. But his chief care at this period was bestowed upon the worthy presentation of the works of others. He began by producing his dead friend Weber's Euryanthe, with scrupulous attention to the composer's original idea. With equal unselfishness he procured the acceptance of Rienzi and Der fliegende Holländer, the first two operas of Richard Wagner, who, then languishing in poverty and exile, would, but for him, have found it impossible to obtain a hearing in Berlin. With Jenny Lind as prima donna and Meyerbeer as conductor, the opera flourished brilliantly in the Prussian capital; but the anxieties materially shortened the composer's life.

Meyerbeer produced Le Prophète at Paris in 1849. In 1854 he brought out L'Étoile du nord at the Opéra Comique, and in 1859 Le Pardon de Ploërmel (Dinorah). His last great work, L'Africaine, was in active preparation at the Académie when, on the 23rd of April 1863, he was seized with a sudden illness, and died on the 2nd of May. L'Africaine was produced with pious attention to the composer's minutest wishes, on the 28th of April 1865.

Meyerbeer's genius was criticized by contemporaries with widely different results. Mendelssohn thought his style exaggerated; Fetis thought him one of the most original geniuses of the age; Wagner ungratefully calls him “a miserable music-maker,” and “a Jewish banker to whom it occurred to compose operas.” The reality of his talent has been recognized throughout all Europe; and his name will live so long as intensity of passion and power of dramatic treatment are regarded as indispensable characteristics of dramatic music. But his work shows that these qualities, with the aid of an experienced stage-writer, may be entirely independent of genuine musical insight.


  1. Or, according to some accounts, 1794.