Meyerbeer, Giacomo

views updated Jun 27 2018

Meyerbeer, Giacomo [ Beer, Jakob Liebmann] (b Berlin, 1791; d Paris, 1864). Ger. composer who worked mainly in Paris. After receiving legacy from relative named Meyer converted his name into Meyerbeer, 1810. Child prodigy pianist, playing Mozart conc. in Berlin at age 11. His comic opera was a failure in Vienna, where he was urged by Salieri to study vocal methods in It. He fell under Rossini's spell in 1815 and wrote 6 It. operas between 1817 and 1824, all successful, especially Il Crociato in Egitto. Weber advised him to turn to Ger. opera, but after the Paris première of Il Crociato in 1826 he concentrated on Fr. opera, spending the next few years assimilating Fr. history and character. He collaborated with the librettist Scribe and their first opera, Robert le Diable, in 5 acts and on a grand scale, was an unprecedented success. This was followed by Les Huguenots and Le Prophète. He was Generalmusikdirektor in Berlin 1842–9, during which time he wrote Ein Feldlager in Schlesien for Jenny Lind, later incorporating some of its nos. into L'Étoile du Nord. The success of Meyerbeer's pageant-like operas irked Wagner (who nevertheless learned from them in early works like Rienzi) and Meyerbeer, born of Jewish parentage, was bitterly attacked in Wagner's pamphlet Das Judentum in der Musik in spite of the fact that Meyerbeer had assisted him early in his career. He returned to Paris in 1863 to supervise rehearsals of his longest opera, L'Africaine, on which he had been working for nearly 25 years but he became ill and died. It had been customary to deride Meyerbeer for an eclecticism which lacked sufficient inner conviction to give his operas life beyond their day and away from the spectacular dramatic productions they received in Paris. Revivals of his operas, however, have revealed virtues which were his alone, and, as with so many other figures in mus. history, it would be rash to write him off as forgotten. Prin. works:OPERAS: Jephtas Gelübde (1812); Wirth und Gast (1813, rev. 1820 as Alimelek); Romilda e Costanza (1817); Semiramide Riconosciuta (1819); Emma di Resburgo (1819); Margherita d'Anjou (1820); L'esule di Granata (1822); Il Crociato in Egitto (1824); Robert le Diable (1831); Les Huguenots (1836); Le Prophète (1836–40); Ein Feldlager in Schlesien (1844, rev. 1847 as Vielka); L'Étoile du Nord (1854); Le Pardon de Ploërmel or Dinorah (1859); L'Africaine (1837–64).

Also wrote oratorio, marches, songs, and church mus.

Giacomo Meyerbeer

views updated May 23 2018

Giacomo Meyerbeer

The four grand operas composed for Paris by the German composer Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) set a style that dominated the French lyric theater and exerted a powerful influence on opera production throughout Europe for a generation afterward.

Giacomo Meyerbeer began life as Jakob Liebmann Beer, later adding Meyer, the name of his maternal grandfather, and changing Jakob to Giacomo on taking up residence in Italy. Born in Berlin into a cultured Jewish family, he studied piano with Muzio Clementi and was quickly recognized as a prodigy on that instrument. He also studied music theory and composition, first with Carl Friedrich Zelter, then with the Berlin opera director Bernard Anselm Weber, and finally with the Abbé Vogler, one of the most eminent German theorists of the time. By his early 20s Meyerbeer was a sensational pianist, but his chief aim was to be a composer.

Drawn from the start to dramatic music, Meyerbeer made a moderately successful public debut in 1811 with the oratorio Gott und die Natur. Following that came two operas, both failures, evidently because of their overly serious, academic vein. Antonio Salieri, director of the Imperial Chapel in Vienna, advised Meyerbeer to go to Italy to see more of the world and learn how to write for the voice. He took this good counsel and studied in Venice (1815-1817).

Meyerbeer's most important model there was Gioacchino Rossini, who epitomized the abilities and qualities that Meyerbeer himself lacked. He was an apt student and by 1817 had become sufficiently Italianized to compose an Italian opera, Romilda e Costanza, which was produced with success that year. This turn of fortune led him to compose three more works for Italian theaters, the best being Il Crociato in Egitto, given in 1824. By then his eyes were already turned toward Paris, where he eventually won his greatest triumphs.

From 1824 to 1831 Meyerbeer wrote nothing for the stage. Part of that time he spent in Berlin on family affairs; otherwise he was absorbed in the observation of French life and culture. His first French opera, Robert le Diable, was produced in Paris in 1831. A brilliant success, it catapulted him into a ruling position in the lyric theater of France.

After Robert, Meyerbeer brought out three more operas on a similar model: Les Huguenots (1836), probably his best work; Le Prophète (1849); and L'Africaine, composed and recomposed over a period of 25 years and produced post-humously in 1865. In collaboration with the popular playwright Eugène Scribe, Meyerbeer created in these pieces a species of opera offering highly melodramatic action organized in a series of vast tableaux culminating in a striking denouement. Extraordinary virtuosity is demanded of the solo singers, but the keynote of the scores is the adroit marshaling of vocal and instrumental forces into large-scale musical developments at climatic points in the action. This is French grand opera in its gaudiest dress—massive, spectacular, and as broad in its appeal as the Cecil B. De Mille film epics.

Meyerbeer composed L'Étoile du Nord (1854) and Le Pardon de Ploërmel (1859) for the Opéra-Comique, plus a few occasional pieces written in Berlin, where for a time he held a royal appointment as general director of music. None of these added much to his reputation, which has largely vanished over the years. There is little taste now for his style of expression, but his historical position is secure as the composer who caught most fully in opera the mood of middle-class society in 19th-century France.

Further Reading

Meyerbeer's work and place in history are outlined in Donald J. Grout, A Short History of Opera (1947; 2d ed. 1965). An interesting defense of Meyerbeerian methods is presented in Bernard van Dieren, Down among the Dead Men and Other Essays (1935). For a comprehensive study of Meyerbeer and his collaborators at work in the context of 19th-century romanticism see William L. Crosten, French Grand Opera: An Art and a Business (1948). □

Meyerbeer, Giacomo

views updated May 14 2018


MEYERBEER, GIACOMO (Jacob Liebmann-Beer ; 1791–1864), German composer, remembered mainly for his spectacular operas. Meyerbeer was born in Berlin, where his father Jacob Herz Beer was a prominent banker; his brothers were Wilhelm *Beer and Michael *Beer. His musical gifts appeared early, and his grandfather Liebman Meyer Wulf was so impressed with the boy's genius that he made him his sole heir on condition that he added "Meyer" to his name. After studying with the composer Clementi, he went to live and work with the Abbé Vogler in Darmstadt. There he composed his first opera, Jephthas Geluebde, which was performed at Munich in 1813 with moderate success. His next dramatic work, Die beiden Kalifen, was a failure when produced in Vienna in 1814. Discouraged, Meyerbeer went to Italy. Between 1818 and 1824 he composed a series of successful Italian operas, among the most popular being Romilda e Costanza, Semiramide riconosciuta, Emma di Resburgo, and Il crociato in Egitto. His change of name from Jacob to Giacomo symbolized his "conversion" to the new Italian style.

In 1826, Meyerbeer was invited to the first performance of Il crociato in Paris. Its favorable reception led to his later career as a composer of French grand opera. His first in a series of brilliant successes in this genre, Robert le Diable, was produced in 1831, and within a year it was being presented in many European cities. Meyerbeer, aided by his librettist Eugène Scribe, gave the public what it wanted: a sensational story, novel stage effects, showy singing, and colorful orchestration. This formula was repeated many times, most notably in Les Huguenots (1836), Le Prophète (1843), and L'Africaine (Vasco da Gama; 1838–64), first produced in French and English a year after the composer's death. While vigorously promoting his own career, Meyerbeer was always ready to help other composers. For example, he warmly recommended Wagner's Rienzi for production in Dresden, and during his period as royal director of opera in Berlin (1842–47) he introduced the Flying Dutchman to the repertoire there. Wagner, however, violently attacked the music and personality of his one-time friend. Meyerbeer remained faithful to Judaism. Meyerbeer's popularity continued for some years after his death – in 1895 Le Prophète attained its 150th performance in London – but his reputation declined in the 20th century.


M. Cooper, Fanfare for Ernest Newman (1959), 38–57; W.L. Crosten, French Grand Opera: An Art and a Business (1948), passim; H. Becker, Der Fall Heine-Meyerbeer (1958); B. Van Dieren, Down Among the Dead Men (1935), 142–74; Giacomo Meyerbeer, 1791–1864, exposition… (Fr. and Heb., Jerusalem, Jewish National Library, 1964); Istel, in: Musical Quarterly, 12 (1926), 72–109; J. Kapp, Meyerbeer (1920); A. Hervey, Giacomo Meyerbeer (1913); mgg, s.v.; G. Meyerbeer, Briefwechsel und Tagebuecher, ed. by H. Becker, 2 vols. (1960–70).

[Dika Newlin]

Meyerbeer, Giacomo

views updated May 23 2018

Meyerbeer, Giacomo (1791–1864) German composer, b. Jakob Liebmann Beer. His early operas, in the Italian tradition, were influenced by Gioacchino Rossini. Meyerbeer greatest acclaim, however, came in Paris where his works laid the foundations of French grand opera. With libretti by Eugene Scribe, these operas included Robert le Diable (1831), Les Huguenots (1836) and Le Prophète (1849).