University Musical Encyclopedia/Great Composers: A Series of Biographical Studies/Giacomo Meyerbeer

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The famous dramatic composer Giacomo Meyerbeer was born in Berlin, Germany, of Jewish parents, September 5, 1791. His father, Herz Beet, a native of Frankfort, was a wealthy banker in Berlin; his mother was a woman of rare intellectual gifts. He was their eldest son, and was called Jacob Mayer Beer, a name he afterward contracted and Italianized into Giacomo Meyerbeer. His genius showed itself early. When hardly more than an infant he was able to retain in 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 a 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, and two years later was reckoned one of the best pianists in Berlin. It was as a pianist that he was expected to win his laurels, but as he had also shown much talent for composition, he was placed under Zelter for instruction in theory, and subsequently under Bernard Anselm Weber, director of the Berlin Opera. Weber was an inspiring companion, but not a competent theoretical teacher for such a pupil. The boy brought one day to his master a fugue on which he had expended an unusual amount of time and pains. Weber, 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 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 exercise, 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, analyzed like the preceding one, to show that it was good.

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 home.

Here Meyerbeer had for companion Karl Maria von Weber, and between the two sprang up a 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 published at this time, and an oratorio of his, "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. A comic opera, "Alimelek, or the Two Caliphs," failed at Munich. It was, however, put in rehearsal at Vienna, whither 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 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 published. He made a great sensation on his first appearance. In 1815 Meyerbeer went to Venice. It was carnival time. Rossini's "Tancredi" was then at the height of its pristine popularity. To Meyerbeer it was a revelation. He had no style of his own to abandon, but he abandoned Vogler's, and set to work to write Italian operas. His success was easy and complete. "Romilda e Constanza" (produced at Padua in 1815), "Semiramide riconosciuta" (Turin, 1819), "Eduardo e Cristina" and "Emma di Resburgo" (Venice, 1820) were all received with enthusiasm by the Italian people.

In 1823, while engaged in writing "Il Crociato in Egitto," the composer went to Berlin. This was a time of transition in his life. He was wearying of the Italian manner, and he could not be insensible to the murmurs of dissatisfaction which everywhere in Germany made themselves heard at the degradation of his talent by his change of style. Foremost among the malcontents was K. M. von Weber, who had looked on his friend as the hope of that German opera in which were centered his own ardent aspirations. In spite of this the friendship between the two men remained unshaken.

"Il Crociato" was produced in Venice in 1824, and created a furor. In this opera, written in Germany, old associations seem to have asserted themselves. In 1826 he was invited to witness its first performance in Paris, and this proved to be the turning-point of his career. He eventually took up residence in Paris, and lived most of his subsequent life there. From 1824 till 1831 no opera appeared from his pen. A sojourn in Berlin, during which his father died, his marriage, and the loss of two children, were among the causes which kept him from public life. But in these years he undertook the profound study of French character, French history, and French art, which resulted in the final brilliant metamorphosis of his dramatic and musical style, and in the great works by which his name is remembered.

Paris was the headquarters of the unsettled, restless, tentative spirit which at that epoch pervaded Europe—the partial subsidence of the ferment caused by a century of great thoughts, ending in a revolution that had shaken society to its foundations. Art was a conglomeration of styles of every time and nation, all equally acceptable if treated with cleverness. Originality was at an ebb. Men turned to history and legend for material, seeking in the past a torch which, kindled at the fire of modern thought, might throw light on present problems. This spirit of eclecticism found its perfect musical counterpart in the works of Meyerbeer.

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 Italian-opera conventionalities, and 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 "Les 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 splendors and terrors of the sixteenth century—its chivalry and fanaticism, its ferocity and romance, the brilliance of courts and the "chameleon colors of artificial society," the somber fervor 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 spite of some banalities.

In 1838 the book of "L'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 "L'Africaine," subsequently called "Vasco da 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 Meyerber'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 "Das 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. 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 "Struensee." 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 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 has 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 "Der Fliegende Holländer," to his own libretto. The score, rejected by the theaters of Leipzig 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.

"Le Prophète," produced at Paris in 1849, after long and careful preparation, materially added to its composer's fame. Thirteen years had elapsed since the production of its predecessor. Once again the public, looking for something like "Les Huguenots," was disappointed. Once again it was forced, after a time, to do justice to Meyerbeer's power of transferring himself, as it were, according to the dramatic requirements of his theme. But there are fewer elements of popularity in "Le Prephéte" than in "Les Huguenots." The conventional operatic forms are subordinated to declamation and the coherent action of the plot. It contains some of Meyerbeer's grandest thoughts, but the gloomy political and religious fanaticism which constitutes the interest of the drama, and the unimportance of the love-story (the mother being the female character in whom the interest is centered) are features which appeal to the few rather than the many. The work depends for its popularity on coloring and chiaroscuro.

Meyerbeer's health was beginning to fail, and after this time he spent a part of every autumn at Spa, where he found a temporary refuge from his toils and cares. Probably no great composer suffered such a degree of nervous anxiety about his own works as he did. During their composition, and for long after their first completion, he altered and retouched continually, never satisfied and never sure of himself. During the correcting of the parts, the casting of the characters, the "coaching" of the actors, he never knew, nor allowed any one concerned to know, a moment's peace of mind. Then came endless rehearsals, when he would give the orchestra passages scored in two ways, written in different colored inks, and try their alternate effect; then the final performance, the ordeal of public opinion and of possible adverse criticism, to which, probably owing to his having been fed with applause and encouragement from his earliest years, he was so painfully susceptible that, as Heine says of him, he fulfilled the true Christian ideal, for he could not rest while there remained one unconverted soul, "and when that lost sheep was brought back to the fold he rejoiced more over him than over all the rest of the flock that had never gone astray."

Faithful to change, he now challenged his adopted countrymen on their own especial ground by the production at the Opéra Comique of "L'Étoile du Nord." To his book, he had intended to adapt the music of "Das Feldlager in Schlesien," but his own ideas transforming themselves gradually while he worked on them, there remained at last only six numbers of the earlier work. "L'Étoile" achieved considerable popularity, although it aroused much animosity among French musicians, jealous of this invasion of their own domain, which they also thought unsuited to the melodramatic style of Meyerbeer. The same may be said of "Le pardon de Ploermel" (Dinorah), founded on a Breton idyll, and produced at the Opéra Comique in 1859. Meyerbeer's special powers found no scope in this comparatively circumscribed field. The development of his genius since 1824 was too great not to be apparent in any style of composition, but these French operas, although containing much that is charming, were, like his Italian "wild oats," the result of an effort of will—the will to be whomsoever he chose.

After 1859 he wrote, at Berlin, two cantatas, and a grand march for the Schiller Centenary Festival, and began a musical drama—never finished—called "Goethe's Jugendzeit," introducing several of Goethe's lyrical poems set to music. His life was overshadowed by the death of many friends and contemporaries, among them his old coadjutor, Scribe, to whom he owed so much.

In 1861 he represented German music at the opening of the London International Exibition by his "Overture in the form of a March." The next winter he was again in Berlin, still working at "L'Africaine," to which the public looked forward with impatience and curiosity. For years the difficulty of getting a satisfactory cast had stood in the way of the production of this opera. His excessive anxiety and fastidiousness resulted in its being never performed at all during his lifetime. In October, 1863, he returned, for the last time, to Paris. The opera was now finished, and in rehearsal. Still he corrected, polished, touched, and retouched: it occupied his thoughts day and night. On April 23, 1864, he as attacked by illness, and on May 2 he died.

"L'Africaine" was performed after his death at the Académie in Paris, April 28, 1865. The work has suffered somewhat from the incessant change of intention of its composer. The original conception of the music belongs to the same period as "Les Huguenots"—Meyerbeer's golden age—having occupied him from 1838 till 1843. Laid aside at that time for many years, and the book then undergoing a complete alteration, a second story being engrafted onto the first, the composition, when resumed, was carried on intermittently to the end of his life. The excessive length of the opera on its first production (when the performance occupied more than six hours) necessitated considerable curtailments detrimental to coherence of plot. But in spite of all this, the music has a special charm, a kind of exotic fragrance of its own, which will always make it to some minds the most sympathetic of Meyerbeer's works. It is, in fact, the most purely musical of them all. None is so melodious or so pathetic, or so free from blemishes of conventionality; in none is the orchestration so tender; it may contain less that is surprising, but it is more imaginative; it approaches the domain of poetry more nearly than any of his other operas.

It is common to speak of Meyerbeer as the founder of a new school. Fétis affirms that whatever faults or failings have been laid to his charge by his opponents, one thing—his originality—has never been called in question. "All that his works contain—character, ideas, scenes, rhythm, modulation, instrumentation—all are his and his only."

Between this view and that of Wagner, who calls him a "miserable music-maker," "a Jew banker to whom it occurred to compose operas," there seems to be an immeasurable gulf. The truth probably may be expressed by saying that he was unique rather than original. No artists exists that is not partly made what he is by the "accident" of preceding and surrounding circumstances. But on strong creative genius these modifying influences, especially those of contemporary art, have but a superficial effect, wholly secondary to the individuality which asserts itself throughout, and finally molds its environment to its own likeness.

Meyerbeer's faculty was so determined in its manifestations by surrounding conditions, that apart from them, it may be said to have had no active existence at all. He changed music as often as he changed climate, though a little of each of his successive styles clung to him till the last. A born musician, of extraordinary ability, devoted to art, and keenly appreciative of the beautiful in all types, with an unlimited capacity for work, helped by the circumstance of wealth, which in many another man would have been an excuse for idleness, he seized on the tendencies of his time and became its representative. He left no disciples, for he had no doctrine to bequeath; but he filled a gap which no one else could fill. His character stand out from the canvas with—his contemporary eulogists say—the vividness of Shakespeare's characters; we should say rather of Scott's. The literary analogue to his operas is to be found, not in tragedy, they are too realistic for that, but in the historical novel. Here the men and women of past times live again before our eyes, not as they appear to the poet, who "sees into the life of things," but as they appeared to each other when they walked the earth. This is most compatible with the conditions of the modern stage, and Meyerbeer responds to its every need.

It is consistent with all this that he should have been singularly dependent for the quality of his ideas on the character of his subject. His own original vein of melody was limited, and his constructive skill not such as to supplement the deficiency in sustained idea. He often arrests the attention by some chord or modulation quite startling in its force and effect, immediately after which he is apt to collapse, as if frightened by the sudden stroke of his own genius. The modulation will be carried on through a sequence of wearisome sameness, stopping short in some remote key, whence, as if embarrassed how to escape, he will return to where he began by some trite device or awkward makeshift. His orchestral coloring, however, is so full of character, so varied and striking as to hide many of its shortcomings in form. In these days of Richard Strauss and overwhelming orchestras, it scarcely seems possible that Meyerbeer should be classed as an orchestral genius; but he was decidedly an originator in this field, and many who have abused him have copied some of his orchestral devices—Wagner not excepted.

In some moments of intense dramatic excitement he rises to the height of the situation as perhaps few others have done. His very defects stand him here in good stead, for these situations do not lend themselves to evenness of beauty. Such a moment is the last scene in the fourth act of "Les Huguenots," culminating in the famous duet. Here the situation is supreme, and the music is inseparable from it. Beyond description, beyond criticism, nothing is wanting. The might, the futility, the eternity of Love and Fate—he has caught up the whole of emotion and uttered it. Whatever was the source of such an inspiration (and the entire scene is said to have been an afterthought), it bears that stamp of truth which makes it a possession for all time. If Meyerbeer lives, it will be in virtue of such moments as these. And if "Le Prophète" may be said to embody his intellectual side, and "L'Africaine" his emotional side, "Les Huguenots" is perhaps the work which best blends the two, and which, most completely typifying its composer, must be considered his masterpiece.

Presenting, as they do, splendid opportunities to singers of dramatic ability, his operas hold the stage, in spite of the exacting character which renders their perfect performance difficult and very rare. They will live long, although many of the ideas and associations which first made them popular belong already to the past.