Giacomo Meyerbeer

1791 1864

Giacomo Meyerbeer



Meyerbeer was born in Berlin to a distinguished Jewish family. He began taking piano lessons with Franz Lauska at an early age and was a successful prodigy despite a large amount of anti-Semitism. Meyerbeer later took lessons with Carl Friedrich Zelter and Bernhard Anselm Weber in composition, followed by studies in Darmstadt with Abbé Vogler. Interestingly, it was around this time that Meyerbeer formed his last name, which is a combination of his maternal family name Meyer and his paternal family name Beer.

During his studies with Vogler, he formed friendships with fellow students Carl Maria von Weber, Gänsbacher, Gottfried Weber and Alexander Dusch. Together they formed the ‘Harmonischer Verein’ with the aim of supporting each other in the press. Under Vogler’s tutelage, Meyerbeer composed his first works, including the operaJephthas Gelübde, which was premiered in the winter of 1812. HisWirth und Gast, revised as Die beiden Kalifen was premiered shortly thereafter. Though these early operas were not entirely successful, he was quickly gaining respect as a pianist. 

In 1814 Meyerbeer travelled to Paris, a city which he claimed was ‘the principal and most important place for my education in music drama.’ His travels also took him to London in 1815 and Italy in 1816. In Italy he studied, with many breaks, for nine years. His transformation into a successful opera composer occurred during this period and to show his appreciation for Italy he began to use the Italian form of his name, Giacomo.

Meyerbeer received his first opera contract in 1817 for Romilda e Costanza (1817) in Padua, which led to local success. This opera represents the popular style of the time and owes much toMozart. His opera Emma di Resburgo (1819) was even more successful and began to show his individuality and the stylistic transition to a drama. He then went on to succeed internationally at La Scala withMargherita d’Anjou (1820). The following years contained the unsuccessful L’esule di Granata(1822) and the remarkably popular Il crociato in Egitto (1824). In the latter opera, Meyerbeer expanded the instrumentation and dared to use unique combinations of instruments to depict characters. For instance, clarinets in C, piccolo and piccolo clarinet in F are used in combination with percussion, serpentone, trombone and two bassoons. The success of this opera distinguished Meyerbeer as the leading composer of Italian opera afterRossini . Goethe even deemed Meyerbeer the only true successor to Mozart. Meyerbeer was later approached by the Paris Opéra, with whom he signed a contract in 1829.

However, before signing with the Opéra, Meyerbeer’s father passed away, prompting his return to Berlin. To fulfill his family obligations, he soon after married his cousin Minna Mosson. Due to Minna’s poor health, the couple never moved to Paris. 

In Paris, opera was being called to reform by Joseph d’Ortigue, who represented a school that praised philosophy and history in opera. The desired style would be a combination of German instrumental music such as that of Beethoven and the Italianbel canto style of Rossini to form Gesamtkunstwerk. D’Ortigue declared Meyerbeer’s operaRobert le diable (1831) the first example of this style, writing ‘The union that the author of this article prides himself on having proclaimed is now realized: that of the vocal genre created byRossini and the instrumental genre developed byBeethoven and applied by Weber to dramatic music.’

Meyerbeer continued to develop the operatic style, eventually establishing the international model for music drama. For each opera, the libretto would be perfected over many years and compositional techniques were developed to complement the structure. Further, the subjects began to cover metaphysical and philosophical ideas. The progress made in the evolution of this operatic style can be seen in four of his grand operas,Robert le diable (1831), Les Huguenots (1836),Le prophète (1849) and L’Africaine (1837-63). The musical and theatrical techniques contributed to the basis of 20th-century music drama, influencing Franz Schreker,Alban Berg and Bernd Alois Zimmerman and eventually led the way to film music. 

Meyerbeer exchanged the traditional overture with a programmatic prelude, an idea that Wagner embraced. In addition, Meyerbeer’s development of instrumentation included specific motifs for characters and themes, making him the first composer to useleitmotifs, which first appear in Le prophète. His use of colours within the orchestra was also significant and frequently mentioned by Berlioz. Though the Franco-Italian layout of the orchestra is often attributed to Wagner, it was Meyerbeer who developed this. What is known as the suspense effect in films was also developed by Meyerbeer and termedtenir l’esprit by Charles Asselineau.

Though the 1836 premiere of Les Huguenots left the critics baffled, its success was established with subsequent performances, and it eventually became the most successful opera of the 19th century. It ran for more than 1000 performances at the Opéra, an impressive record broken only byGounod’s Faust.

Not only was Le prophète the first opera to contain a leitmotif, it was also the first opera to successfully make use of an electronic spotlight. His next opera,L’Africaine advanced the stage technique even more with a completely revolving stage set, the first of its kind. The set featured Vasco da Gama’s rival’s ship, which could change directions.L’Africaine was Meyerbeer’s most performed opera within his lifetime.

In his later years Meyerbeer often conducted and was the General music director of Prussia for a time. He also wrote several works for the court including the SingspielEin Feldlager in Schlesien (1844) for the re-opening of the Berlin opera house after a fire.

In addition to his vast contributions to the opera genre, Meyerbeer composed some wonderful German lieder. 

Despite his obvious talents, Meyerbeer received much criticism from Germany, but this was more due to anti-Semitism than to his music.Wagner, who received much initial support from Meyerbeer, later attacked his music, despite having been deeply influenced by his work. The reception of Meyerbeer’s operas was not affected on an international level by these attacks. TheNeue Sachlichkeit(new objectivity) of the 1920s did, however, affect his popularity as his works were then banned in Germany.

After World War II, Meyerbeer's works were revived by the best singers of the time, including Plácido Domingo. His works also attracted the attention of musicologists, and Meyerbeer is now considered one of the greatest and most influential European composers.

Images courtesy of The Culture Trip, Quotes Land and public domain