Meyerbeer, Giacomo

Giacomo Meyerbeer, the major opera composer of the 19th century, was born in the family of rich Berlin banker. He did not have to prove out his right for creativity, his parents were highly educated people that were fond of art and understood it. They did not grudge efforts to give their children the most brilliant education.

The best teachers in Berlin developed the boy’s taste for classical literature, history, and languages. Meyerbeer was fluent in French and Italian, knew Greek, Latin and Yiddish. His brothers were gifted as well. Wilhelm later became a famous professional astronomer and the younger brother, who died early, was a talented poet and author of the tragedy “Struensee“, to which Meyerbeer later wrote music.

Giacomo, the eldest of the brothers, began to study music at the age of five. Having made tremendous progress, he already performed in public at the age of nine. He played the Concerto in D-minor by Mozart. The famous Muzio Clementi was his teacher. The renowned organist and music theorist Abbé Vogler from Darmstadt, after listening to young Meyerbeer, suggested that the boy should learn counterpoint and fugue mastery. Later, Vogler himself invited Meyerbeer to Darmstadt (1811), where students from all over Germany came to study under the famous teacher.

There, Meyerbeer became friends with Carl Maria von Weber, the future author of “The Magic Shooter” and “Euryanthe”.

The cantata "God and Nature" and two operas "The Oath of Jephthah" following the biblical plot (1812) and comic opera "The Host and the Guest" (1813) on the plot of the tale from "A Thousand and One Nights", were among the first independent experiments of Meyerbeer. The operas were staged in Munich and Stuttgart, but failed. Critics reproached the composer for dryness and lack of melodic gift. Weber consoled his deranged friend. The experienced Antonio Salieri advised him to go to Italy to adopt the grace and beauty of melodies from the great masters.
Meyerbeer spent several years in Italy (1816-1824). The music of Gioachino Rossini reigned on the stages of the Italian theater. His operas “Tancred, Prince of Galilee” and “The Barber of Seville” premiered with triumph. Meyerbeer sought to learn a new style of writing. His new operas “Romilda e Costanza (1817), “Semiramide Riconosciuta” (1819), “Emma di Resburgo” (1819), Margaret of Anjou (1820), “Exile from Grenada” "(1822) and, finally, the brightest opera of those years "The Crusader in Egypt" (1824) were staged in Padua, Turin, Venice and Milan. The opera scored a great success not only in Europe, but in the USA and in Brazil as well.

“I didn’t want to imitate Rossini,” Meyerbeer claimed and seemed to make excuses, “and write in Italian, as they say, but had to write like that ... because of my inner attraction.” Indeed, many of the composer's German friends — and primarily Weber — did not welcome this Italian metamorphosis. The modest success of Meyerbeer Italian operas in Germany did not discourage the composer. He had a new goal Paris - the largest political and cultural center at that time. In 1824, none else than maestro Rossini, who did not suspect then that he was taking a step fatal for his fame, invited Meyerbeer to Paris.

He even contributed to the staging of “The Crusader (1825), patronizing the young composer. In 1827, Meyerbeer moved to Paris, where he found his second homeland and where he gained the world fame.
Political and artistic life was seething in Paris of the late 1820’s. The bourgeois revolution of 1830 was approaching. The liberal bourgeoisie was gradually preparing for the liquidation of the Bourbons. Napoleon's name was merged with romantic legends. The ideas of utopian socialism spread. Young Victor Hugo in the famous preface to the drama "Cromwell" proclaimed the ideas of the new artistic movement - Romanticism. In the musical theater, along with the operas by Étienne Méhul and Luigi Cherubini, the works of Gaspare Spontini become especially popular. The images of the ancient Romans that he created echoed with the heroes of the Napoleonic era in the minds of French people. Comic operas by Gioachino Rossini, François-Adrien Boieldieu and François Auber were performed. Hector Berlioz wrote his innovative and groundbreaking “Fantastic Symphony”.

Progressive writers from other countries gathered in Paris - Ludwig Börne, Heinrich Heine and others. Meyerbeer carefully observed Parisian life, made artistic and business contacts, attended theatrical premieres, among which were two milestones for the romantic opera - “The Mute Girl of Portici” (“Fenella”) by Daniel Auber (1828) and “William Tell” by Gioachino Rossini (1829). The meeting of the composer with the future librettist Eugène Scribe, an excellent connoisseur of theater and public tastes, and a master of stage intrigue became significant.

The romantic opera “Robert the Devil” (1831), which was a stunning success, was the result of their collaboration. Vivid contrasts, lively action, spectacular vocal numbers, and orchestral sound recordings - all this became characteristic of other Meyerbeer operas.
The triumphant premiere of "The Huguenots" (1836) finally defeated all his rivals. The great fame of Meyerbeer reached his motherland - Germany. In 1842, the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV invited him as the music-general director to Berlin.

In the Berlin opera, Meyerbeer was engaged in the production of “The Flying Dutchman” by Richard Wagner (conducted by the author); he invited Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt and Heinrich Marschner to Berlin, showed interest in the music of Mikhail Glinka and performed the trio from “Ivan Susanin”. In turn, Glinka wrote, "Meyerbeer conducted the orchestra, but we had to admit that he was an excellent bandmaster in all ways". The composer wrote the opera “Ein Feldlager in Schlesien” (A Field Camp in Silesia) for Berlin Opera Theater. The operas “The Prophet” (1849), “The Northern Star” (1854) and “Dinora” (1859) were staged in Paris. Meyerbeer’s last opera, “The African”, saw the scene a year after his death - in 1865.

Meyerbeer declared himself as an excellent master in his best stage works. Even his opponents R. Schumann and R. Wagner recognized his first-class musical talent, especially in the field of orchestration and melody. Virtuoso mastery of conducting the orchestra allowed him to achieve the finest figurative and stunning dramatic effects. He manifested unmatched skill in chorus management.

Meyerbeer’s contemporaries were effected by his creative work and followed his style. Wagner was one of them. He demonstrated it in his operas “Rienzi”, “The Flying Dutchman”, and partly in “The Tannhäuser”.

The contemporaries were also captured by the political orientation of Meyerbeer operas. They saw the battle of modern ideas that were reflected in the pseudo-historical subjects of the composer’s operas. Meyerbeer had a fine appreciation of the era. Heinrich Heine enthusiastically accepting the work of Meyerbeer wrote, "This is a man of his time, and the time, which is always able to choose its own people, noisily raised him to the shield and proclaimed his dominance."

Source: E. Ilyeva