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