Meyerbeer, Giacomo (real name, Jakob Liebmann Beer)
Meyerbeer, Giacomo (real name, Jakob Liebmann Beer)
Meyerbeer, Giacomo (real name, Jakob Liebmann Beer), famous German composer; b. Vogelsdorf, near Berlin, Sept. 5, 1791; d. Paris, May 2, 1864. He was a scion of a prosperous Jewish family of merchants. He added the name Meyer to his surname, and later changed his first name for professional purposes. He began piano studies with Franz Lauska, and also received some instruction from Clementi. He made his public debut in Berlin when he was 11. He then studied composition with Zelter (1805–07), and subsequently with B.A. Weber. It was as Weber’s pupil that he composed his first stage work, the ballet-pantomime Der Fischer und das Milchmädchen, which was produced at the Berlin Royal Theater (March 26, 1810). He then went to Darmstadt to continue his studies with Abbé Vogler until late 1811; one of his fellow pupils was Carl Maria von Weber. While under Vogler’s tutelage, he composed the oratorio Gott und die Natur (Berlin, May 8, 1811) and also the operas Der Admiral (1811; not perf.) and Jephthas Gelübde (Munich, Dec. 23, 1812). His next opera, Wirth und Gast, oder Aus Scherz Ernst (Stuttgart, Jan. 6, 1813), was not a success; revised as Die beyden Kalifen for Vienna, it likewise failed there (Oct. 20, 1814). However, he did find success in Vienna as a pianist in private musical settings. In Nov. 1814 he proceeded to Paris, and in Dec. 1815 to London. He went to Italy early in 1816, and there turned his attention fully to dramatic composition. His Italian operas—Romilda e Costanza (Padua, July 19, 1817), Semiramide riconosciuta (Turin, March 1819), Emma di Resburgo (Venice, June 26, 1819), Margherita d’Angiù (Milan, Nov. 14, 1820), L’Esule di Granata (Milan, March 12, 1821), and II Crociato in Egitto (Venice, March 7, 1824)—brought him fame there, placing him on a par with the celebrated Rossini in public esteem. The immense success of II Crociato in Egitto in particular led to a successful staging at London’s King’s Theatre (July 23, 1825), followed by a triumphant Paris production (Sept. 25, 1825), which made Meyerbeer famous throughout Europe. To secure his Paris position, he revamped Margherita d’Angiù for the French stage as Margherita d’Anjou (March 11, 1826). He began a long and distinguished association with the dramatist and librettist Eugène Scribe in 1827 as work commenced on the opera Robert le diable. It was produced at the Paris Opéra on Nov. 21, 1831, with extraordinary success.
Numerous honors were subsequently bestowed upon Meyerbeer: he was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur and a Prussian Hofkapellmeister in 1832, a member of the senate of the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1833, and a member of the Institut de France in 1834. He began work on what was to become the opera Les Huguenots in 1832; set to a libretto mainly by Scribe, it was accorded a spectacular premiere at the Opéra on Feb. 29, 1836. Late in 1836 he and Scribe began work on a new opera, Le Prophète. He also commenced work on the opera L’Africaine in Aug. 1837, again utilizing a libretto by Scribe; it was initially written for the famous soprano Marie-Cornélie Falcon; however, after the loss of her voice, Meyerbeer set the score aside; it was destined to occupy him on and off for the rest of his life. In 1839 Wagner sought out Meyerbeer in Boulogne. Impressed with Wagner, Meyerbeer extended him financial assistance and gave him professional recommendations. However, Wagner soon became disenchanted with his prospects and berated Meyerbeer in private, so much so that Meyerbeer was compelled to disassociate himself from Wagner. The ungrateful Wagner retaliated by giving vent to his anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Meyerbeer began work on Le Prophète in earnest in 1838, completing it by 1840. However, its premiere was indefinitely delayed as the composer attempted to find capable singers. On May 20, 1842, Les Huguenots was performed in Berlin. On June 11, 1842, Meyerbeer was formally installed as Prussian Generalmusikdirektor. From the onset of his tenure, disagreement with the Intendant of the Royal Opera, Karl Theodor von Küstner, made his position difficult. Finally, on Nov. 26, 1848, Meyerbeer was dismissed from his post, although he retained his position as director of music for the royal court; in this capacity he composed a number of works for state occasions, including the opera Ein Feldlager in Schlesien, which reopened the opera house on Dec. 7, 1844, following its destruction by fire. The leading role was sung by Jenny Lind, one of Meyerbeer’s discoveries. It had a modicum of success after its first performance in Vienna under the title Vielka in 1847, although it never equaled the success of his Paris operas. In 1849 he again took up the score of Le Prophète. As he could find no tenor to meet its demands, he completely revised the score for the celebrated soprano Pauline Viardot-Garcia. With Viardot-Garcia as Fidés and the tenor Gustave Roger as John of Leyden, it received a brilliant premiere at the Opéra on April 16, 1849, a success that led to Meyerbeer’s being made the first German Commandeur of the Légion d’honneur. His next opera was L’Étoile du nord, which utilized music from Ein Feldlager in Schlesien; its first performance at the Opéra-Comique on Feb. 16, 1854, proved an outstanding success. Equally successful was his opera Le Pardon de Ploërmel (Opéra-Comique, April 4, 1859). In
1862 he composed a special work for the London World Exhibition, the Fest-Ouverture im Marschstyl, and made a visit to England during the festivities. In the meantime, work on L’Africaine had occupied him fitfully for years; given Scribe’s death in 1861 and Meyerbeer’s own failing health, he was compelled to finally complete it. In April 1864 he put the finishing touches on the score and rehearsals began under his supervision. However, he died on the night of May 2, 1864, before the work was premiered. His body was taken to Berlin, where it was laid to rest in official ceremonies attended by the Prussian court, prominent figures in the arts, and the public at large. Fétis was subsequently charged with making the final preparations for the premiere of L’Africaine, which was given at the Paris Opéra to notable acclaim on April 28, 1865.
Meyerbeer established himself as the leading composer of French grand opera in 1831 with Robert le diable, a position he retained with distinction throughout his career. Indeed, he became one of the most celebrated musicians of his era. Although the grandiose conceptions and stagings of his operas proved immediately appealing to audiences, his dramatic works were more than mere theatrical spectacles. His vocal writing was truly effective, for he often composed and tailored his operas with specific singers in mind. Likewise, his gift for original orchestration and his penchant for instrumental experimentation placed his works on a high level. Nevertheless, his stature as a composer was eclipsed after his death by Wagner. As a consequence, his operas disappeared from the active repertoire, although revivals and several recordings saved them from total oblivion in the modern era.
dramatic:Opera: Jephthas Gelübde (Munich, Dec. 23, 1812); Wirth und Gast, oder Aus Scherz Ernst, Lustspiel (Stuttgart, Jan. 6, 1813; rev. as Die beyden Kalifen, Vienna, Oct. 20, 1814; later known as Alimelek); Das Brandenburger Tor, Singspiel (1814; not perf.); Romilda e Costanza, melodramma semiserio (Padua, July 19, 1817); Semiramide riconosciuta, dramma per musica (Turin, March 1819); Emma di Resburgo, melodramma eroico (Venice, June 26, 1819); Margherita d’Angiù, melodramma semiserio (Milan, Nov. 14, 1820; rev. as Margherita d’Anjou, Paris, March 11, 1826); LAlmanzore (1821; not perf.); L’Esule di Granata, melodramma serio (Milan, March 12, 1821); II Crociato in Egitto, melodramma eroico (Venice, March 7, 1824); Robert le diable, grand opéra (Paris, Nov. 21, 1831); Les Huguenots, grand opéra (Paris, Feb. 29, 1836); Ein Feldlager in Schlesien, Singspiel (Berlin, Dec. 7, 1844; later known as Vielka); Le Prophète, grand opéra (Paris, April 16, 1849); L’Étoile du nord, opéra-comique (Paris, Feb. 16, 1854; much of the music based on Ein Feldlager in Schlesien); Le Pardon de Ploërmel, opéra-comique (Paris, April 4, 1859; also known as Le Chercheur du trésor and as Dinorah, oder Die Wallfahrt nach Ploërmel); L’Africaine, grand opéra (Paris, April 28, 1865; originally known as Vasco da Gama). He also left a number of unfinished operas in various stages of development. Other: Der Fischer und das Milchmädchen, oder Viel Lärm um einen Kuss (Le Passage de la rivière, ou La Femme jalouse; Le Pêcheur et la laitière), ballet-pantomime (Berlin, March 26, 1810); Gli amori di Teolinda (Thecelindens Liebschaften), monodrama (Genoa, 1816); Das Hoffest von Ferrara, masque (Berlin, Feb. 28, 1843); Struensee, incidental music for a drama by Michael Beer, Meyerbeer’s brother (Berlin, Sept. 19, 1846); etc. orch.: Sym. in E-flat major (1811); Piano Concerto (1811); Concerto for Piano and Violin (1812); 4 Fackeltänze for Military Band or Orch. (1844, 1850, 1856, 1858); Festmarsch for the centenary of Schiller’s birth (1859); Krönungsmarsch for 2 Orchs. (for the coronation of Wilhelm I, 1861); F est-Ouverture im Marschstyl (for the opening of the World Exhibition in London, 1862); etc. chamber: Piano pieces. vocal:Sacred: Gott und die Natur, oratorio (Berlin, May 8, 1811); Geistliche Gesänge, 7 odes after Klopstock, for Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass (Leipzig, 1817 or 1818); An Gott, hymn for Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass, and Piano (Leipzig, 1817); Psalm XCI for Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass, and Double Mixed Chorus a cappella (Berlin, 1853); Prière du matin for 2 Choirs and Piano ad libitum (Paris, 1864); etc. occasional and secular choral:Festgesang zur Errichtung des Gutenbergischen Denkmals in Mainz for 2 Tenors, 2 Basses, Men’s Voices, and Piano ad libitum (Mainz, 1835); Dem Vaterland for Men’s Voices (Berlin, 1842); Le Voyageur au tombeau de Beethoven for Bass Solo and Women’s Voices a cappella (1845); Festhymne for Solo Voices, Chorus, and Piano ad libitum (for the silver wedding anniversary of the King and Queen of Prussia, 1848); Ode an Rauch for Solo Voices, Chorus, and Orch. (in honor of the sculptor Christian Rauch; Berlin, 1851); Maria und ihr Genius, cantata for Soprano, Tenor, Chorus, and Piano (for the silver wedding anniversary of Prince and Princess Carl, 1852); Brautgeleite aus der Heimat, serenade for Chorus a cappella (for the wedding of Princess Luise, 1856); Festgesang zur Feier des 100- jährigen Geburtsfestes von Friedrich Schiller for Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass, Chorus, and Orch. (1859); Festhymnus for Solo Voices, Chorus, and Piano ad libitum (for the coronation of Wilhelm I, 1861); etc. other: Songs.
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—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire