• 1791 — 1864
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Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) was a major figure in French opera in the first half of the nineteenth century. In fact, he had become recognized as Europe's leading active composer of opera by the 1830s and 1840s. He also wrote German and Italian operas with some success, Il crociato in Egitto being a prominent example in the latter vein. Meyerbeer was known to create unusual combinations of sound in brilliant and striking orchestration, and he introduced many innovations in opera. Robert le diable, Les Huguenots and L'africaine are among his finest operas. Meyerbeer was born on September 5, 1791, in Vogelsdorf, near Berlin. He showed talent at an early age, and studied piano with Franz Lauska. His skills developed quickly, and at age eleven he made his concert debut in Berlin. He subsequently studied composition with B.A. Weber.
His first work for the stage was the 1809-1810 ballet Der Fischer und das Milchmädchen. Shortly after its premiere, he went to Darmstadt to study with Abbé Vogler, whose students then included, among others, Carl Maria von Weber. After nearly two years of instruction, during which he wrote two operas and numerous other works, Meyerbeer left for Munich, ready to test his skills as a composer and performer. It was there that his second opera (but first surviving), Jephtas Gelübde, was unsuccessfully premiered in December 1812. Other works for the stage would follow, but none with success.
Yet his keyboard career was moving in the opposite direction; he received many accolades and was considered one of the leading virtuosos of the day. In November 1814, Meyerbeer departed Munich for Paris. Two years later he traveled to Rome, and for the next nine years, made Italy his home, turning out a half-dozen operas, including Romilda e Costanze (1817), and Il crociato in Egitto (1824), probably his most successful stage effort of that time. He traveled to Paris in 1825, confident he could conquer Parisian operatic audiences with the same success he had achieved in Italy. His first great success there came with Robert le diable; the 1831 premiere was a sensation, receiving acclaim not only in Paris but throughout Europe in subsequent performances. Five years later he scored another triumph with his opera Les Huguenots. Meyerbeer met the admiring Wagner in 1839, and helped to mount his Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman.
In 1842, Meyerbeer became the Prussian General Music Director in Berlin, also serving as Court composer and director of music at the Court. His opera Les Huguenots premiered in 1842, providing him with yet another success. Owing to a dispute, he stepped down as General Music Director in 1848, but kept his duties at Court. Meyerbeer began to look toward Paris once more and in 1849 his opera Le prophète, a work he had begun in 1836 and finished in 1840, scored another success. In his final years Meyerbeer worked on an opera he had begun in 1837, L'africaine. He finished it only in 1864, but did not live to see its 1865 premiere. He died on May 2, 1864.