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 on Giacomo Meyerbeer

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).