Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 2.djvu/335

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himself with any style he chose, found in this intellectual ferment, as yet unrepresented in music, a well-nigh inexhaustible field, while these influences in return proved the key to unlock all that was original and forcible in his nature. And he found a fresh stimulus in the; works of French operatic composers, abounding, as they do, in quaint, suggestive ideas, only waiting the hand of a master to turn them to full account.

'He did not shrink, as a man, from the unremitting, insatiable industry he had shown as a boy, and he buried himself in the literature of French opera, from the days of Lulli onwards.… It was interesting to see in his library hundreds of opera-scores great and small, many of which were hardly known by name even to the most initiated.… In his later works we see that to the flowing melody of the Italians and the solid harmony of the Germans he united the pathetic declamation and the varied, piquant, rhythm of the French.' (Mendel.) Last, but not least, in his librettist, Eugene Scribe, he found a worthy and invaluable collaborator.

Many vicissitudes preceded the first performance, in 1831, of 'Robert le Diable,' the opera in which the new Meyerbeer first revealed himself, and of which the unparalleled success extended in a very few years over the whole civilized world. It made the fortune of the Paris Opera. Scenic effect, striking contrast, novel and brilliant instrumentation, vigorous declamatory recitative, melody which pleased none the less for the strong admixture of Italianopera conventionalities, yet here and there (as in the beautiful scena 'Robert! toi que j'aime') attaining a dramatic force unlooked for and till then unknown, a story part heroic, part legendary, part allegorical,—with this strange picturesque medley all were pleased, for in it each found something to suit his taste.

The popularity of the opera was so great that the 'Huguenots, produced in 1836, suffered at first by contrast. The public, looking for a repetition, with a difference, of 'Robert,' was disappointed at finding the new opera quite unlike its predecessor, but was soon forced to acknowledge the incontrovertible truth, that it was immeasurably the superior of the two. As a drama it depends for none of its interest on the supernatural. It is, as treated by Meyerbeer, the most vivid chapter of French history that ever was written. The splendours and the terrors of the sixteenth century,—its chivalry and fanaticism, its ferocity and romance, the brilliance of courts and the 'chameleon colours of artificial society,' the sombre fervour of Protestantism—are all here depicted and endued with life and reality, while the whole is conceived and carried out on a scale of magnificence hitherto unknown in opera.

In 1838 the book of the 'Africaine' was given to Meyerbeer by Scribe. He became deeply interested in it, and the composition and recomposition, casting and recasting of this work, occupied him at intervals to the end of his life. His excessive anxiety about his operas extended to the libretti, with which he was never satisfied, but would have modified to suit his successive fancies over and over again, until the final form retained little likeness to the original. This was especially the case with the 'Africaine,' subsequently called 'Vasco de Gama' (who, although the hero, was an afterthought!), and many were his altercations with Scribe, who got tired of the endless changes demanded by the composer, and withdrew his book altogether; but was finally pacified by Meyerbeer's taking another libretto of his, 'Le Prophète,' which so forcibly excited the composer's imagination that he at once set to work on it and finished it within a year (1843).

A good deal of his time was now passed in Berlin, where the King had appointed him Kapellmeister. Here he wrote several occasional pieces, cantatas, marches, and dance-music, besides the three-act German opera, 'Ein Feldlager in Schlesien.' The success of this work was magically increased, a few weeks after its first performance, by the appearance in the part of the heroine of a young Swedish singer, introduced to the Berlin public by Meyerbeer, who had heard her in Paris,—Jenny Lind.

He at this time discharged some of the debt he owed his dead friend, C. M. von Weber, by producing 'Euryanthe' at Berlin. His duties at the opera were heavy, and he had neither the personal presence nor the requisite nerve and decision to make a good conductor. From 1845 he only conducted—possibly not to their advantage—his own operas, and those in which Jenny Lind sang.

The year 1846 was marked by the production of the overture and incidental music to his brother Michael's drama of 'Struensée.' This very striking work is its composer's only one in that style, and shows him in some of his best aspects. The overture is his most successful achievement in sustained instrumental composition. A visit to Vienna (where Jenny Lind achieved a brilliant success in the part of Vielka in the 'Feldlager in Schlesien'), and a subsequent sojourn in London occurred in 1847. In the autumn he was back in Berlin, where, on the occasion of the King's birthday, he produced, after long and careful preparation, 'Rienzi,' the earliest opera of his future rival and bitter enemy, Richard Wagner. The two composers had seen something of one another in Paris. Wagner was then in necessitous circumstances, and Meyerbeer exerted himself to get employment for him, and to make him known to influential people in the musical world. Subsequently, Wagner, while still in France, composed the 'Fliegende Holländer,' to his own libretto. The score, rejected by the theatres of Leipsic and Munich, was sent by its composer to Meyerbeer, who brought about its acceptance at Berlin. Without claiming any extraordinary merit for these good offices of one brother-artist to another, we may, however, say that Meyerbeer's conduct was ill-requited by Wagner.