Giacomo Meyerbeer: Wikis


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Giacomo Meyerbeer, Lithograph by Josef Kriehuber, 1847.

Giacomo Meyerbeer (5 September 1791 – 2 May 1864) was a noted German-born opera composer, and the first great exponent of Grand Opera. At his peak in the 1830s and 1840s, he was the most famous and successful composer and producer of opera in Europe, yet is virtually unknown today.




Early years

Statue of Meyerbeer in the Belgian town of Spa, where he stayed many times

Meyerbeer was born to a Jewish family in Tasdorf (now a part of Rüdersdorf), near Berlin with the name Jacob Liebmann Beer. His father was the enormously wealthy financier Jacob Judah Herz Beer (1769-1825) and his much-beloved mother, Amalia Liebmann Meyer Wulff (1767-1854) also came from the wealthy elite. Their other children included the astronomer Wilhelm Beer and the poet Michael Beer.

Meyerbeer's first keyboard instructor was Franz Lauska (b. 1764), a pupil of Johann Georg Albrechtsberger and a favoured teacher at the Berlin court.[1] Meyerbeer also became one of Muzio Clementi's pupils while Clementi was in Berlin, and old Clementi himself, although he had long given up teaching, was so much struck, during a visit to Berlin, with the promise displayed in the boy's performance as to consent to give Meyerbeer lessons. Meyerbeer made his public debut in 1801 playing Mozart's D Minor Piano Concerto in Berlin. The Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung reported: 'The amazing keyboard playing of young Bär (a Jewish lad of 9 [sic]), who carried off the difficult passages and other solo parts with aplomb, and has fine powers of rendition even more rarely found in one of his age, made the concert even more interesting'.[2]

Throughout his youth, although he was determined to become a musician, Meyerbeer found it difficult to decide between playing and composition. Certainly other professionals in the decade 1810-1820, including Moscheles, considered him amongst the greatest virtuosi of his period. In his youth Beer (as he then was) studied with Antonio Salieri and the German master and friend of Goethe, Carl Friedrich Zelter. Realizing, however, that a full understanding of Italian opera was essential for his musical development, he went to study in Italy for some years, during which time he adopted the first name Giacomo. The 'Meyer' in his surname he adopted after the death of his great-grandfather. It was during this time that he became acquainted with, and impressed by, the works of his contemporary Gioachino Rossini.

The Grand Operas

Meyerbeer's grave in Berlin

Meyerbeer's name first became known internationally with his opera Il crociato in Egitto (premiered in Venice in 1824, and produced in London and Paris in 1825; incidentally the last opera ever to feature a castrato), but he became virtually a superstar with Robert le Diable (Robert the Devil, with libretto by Eugène Scribe and Casimir Delavigne), produced in Paris in 1831 and regarded by some as the first grand opera, although this honor rightly belongs to Auber's La muette de Portici. The fusion of dramatic music, melodramatic plot and sumptuous staging proved a sure-fire formula which Meyerbeer repeated in Les Huguenots (1836), Le prophète (1849), and L'Africaine, (produced posthumously, 1865). All of these operas held the international stage throughout the 19th century, as did the more pastoral Dinorah (1859). However, because they were expensive to stage, requiring large casts of leading singers, and subject to consistent attack from the prevalent Wagnerian schools, they gradually fell into desuetude.

Meyerbeer left Paris for Berlin in 1842 to take the post of Court musical director, but returned to Paris in 1849.

Meyerbeer's immense wealth (increased by the success of his operas) and his continuing adherence to his Jewish religion set him apart somewhat from many of his musical contemporaries. They also gave rise to malicious rumours that his success was due to his bribing musical critics. Richard Wagner (see below) accused him of being interested only in money, not music. Meyerbeer was, however, a deeply serious musician and a sensitive personality. He philosophically resigned himself to being a victim of his own success. Meyerbeer was interred in the Berlin Jewish cemetery in Schönhauser Allee, amongst other members of the Beer family.

Meyerbeer's extensive diaries and correspondence miraculously survived the turmoil of 20th century Europe and are now being published (6 volumes so far out of 7 - the diaries alone have been published in an English translation in 4 volumes). They are an invaluable source for the history of music and the theatre in the composer's time.

Meyerbeer and Richard Wagner

The vitriolic campaign of Richard Wagner against Meyerbeer was to a great extent responsible for the decline of Meyerbeer's popularity after his death in 1864. This campaign was as much a matter of personal spite as of racism - Wagner had learnt a great deal from Meyerbeer and indeed Wagner's early opera Rienzi (1842) has, facetiously, been called 'Meyerbeer's most successful work'. Meyerbeer supported the young Wagner, both financially and in obtaining a production of Rienzi at Dresden.

However, Wagner resented Meyerbeer's continuing success at a time when his own vision of German opera had little chance of prospering. After the May Uprising in Dresden of 1849, Wagner was for some years a political refugee facing a prison sentence or worse in Saxony. During this period when he was gestating his Ring cycle he had few sources of income apart from journalism and benefactors, and little opportunity of getting his own works performed. The success of Le Prophète sent Wagner over the edge, and he was also deeply envious of Meyerbeer's wealth. After Meyerbeer's death Wagner reissued his 1850 essay Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music), in 1868, in an extended form, with a far more explicit attack on Meyerbeer. This version was under Wagner's own name - for the first version he had sheltered behind a pseudonym - and as Wagner had by now a far greater reputation, his views obtained far wider publicity.

These attacks on Meyerbeer (which also included a swipe at Felix Mendelssohn) are regarded by Paul Lawrence Rose as a significant milestone in the growth of German anti-Semitism.[3]

Modern productions of Meyerbeer

Meyerbeer's compositions were banned by the Nazi regime because the composer was Jewish, and this was a major factor in their disappearance from the repertory. However, the operas are now beginning to be regularly revived and recorded, although (despite the efforts of such champions as Dame Joan Sutherland, who took part in performances of, and recorded, Les Huguenots) they have yet to achieve anything like the huge popular following they attracted during their creator's lifetime.

Amongst reasons often adduced for the dearth of modern productions are the scale of Meyerbeer's more ambitious works and the cost of mounting them, as well as the alleged lack of virtuoso singers capable of doing justice to Meyerbeer's demanding music. However, recent successful productions of some of the major operas at relatively small centres such as Strasbourg (L'Africaine, 2004) and Metz (Les Huguenots, 2004) show that this conventional wisdom is not unchallengeable.

List of operas

Title First performance Location Notes
Jephtas Gelübde 1812-12-23 Munich
Wirt und Gast 6 January 1813 Stuttgart
Das Brandenburger Tor 1814 Berlin
Romilda e Costanza 19 July 1817 Padua
Semiramide riconosciuta March 1819 Teatro Regio, Turin
Emma di Resburgo 26 June 1819 Venice, San Benedetto
Margherita d’Anjou 14 November 1820 Milan
L'Almanzore Probably composed 1820-21 intended for Rome but unperformed there. While it is believed to have been unfinished it is also possible that it is an earlier version of L'esule di Granata
L'esule di Granata 12 March 1822 Milan
Il crociato in Egitto 7 March 1824 La Fenice, Venice Frequently revised by Meyerbeer
Robert le diable 21 November 1831 Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique, Paris
Les Huguenots 29 February 1836 Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique, Paris Sometimes staged during the 19th century under other titles e.g. "The Guelfs and the Ghibellines" or "The Anglicans and the Puritans" (see WP article on the opera)
Ein Feldlager in Schlesien 7 December 1844 Hofoper, Berlin Revised as Vielka, Vienna, 1847-02-18
Le prophète 16 April 1849 Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique, Paris
L'étoile du nord 16 February 1854 Opéra-Comique, Paris Partly based on the earlier Feldlager in Schlesien, revised in Italian, London, Covent Garden, 19 July 1855
Dinorah ou Le pardon de Ploërmel 4 April 1859 Opéra-Comique, Paris Revised in Italian as Dinorah, Covent Garden, London, 26 July 1859
L'Africaine 28 April 1865 Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique, Paris Posthumous


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  1. ^ Zimmermann, 22
  2. ^ Zimmerman (1991) 24
  3. ^ See e.g. Paul Lawrence Rose, Wagner, Race and Revolution, London, 1996 ISBN 057117888x

External links


  • Becker, Heinz and Gudrun (1989). Giacomo Meyerbeer, a Life in Letters. London.  
  • Zimmermann, Reiner (1998). Giacomo Meyerbeer, eine Biographie nach Dokumenten. Berlin.  
  • Meyerbeer, Giacomo (1999-2004). The Diaries of Giacomo Meyerbeer. Madison and London.  
  • Meyerbeer, Giacomo (1960 -). Briefwechsel und Tagebücher. Berlin and New York.  
  • Kaufman, Tom (Autumn 2003). "Wagner vs. Meyerbeer". Opera Quarterly 19 (No. 4).  
  • Letellier, Robert: A Meyerbeer Reader: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, 2008
  • Wikisource-logo.svg "Meyerbeer, Giacomo". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1911.  
  • Letellier, Robert. Meyerbeer Studies: A Series of Lectures, Essays,and Articles on the Life and Work of Giacomo Meyerbeer.Rosemont Publishing, New Jersey. 2005


  • [1] A Meyerbeer discography (updated whenever an additional opera by Meyerbeer is issued on CD)

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

GIACOMO MEYERBEER (1791-1863), German composer, first known as Jakob Meyer Beer, was born at Berlin on the 5th of September 1791, 1 of a wealthy and talented Jewish family. His father, Herz Beer, was a banker; his mother, Amalie (née Wulf), was a woman of high intellectual culture; and two of his brothers distinguished themselves in astronomy and literature. He studied the pianoforte, first under Lauska, and afterwards under Lauska's master, Clementi. When seven years old he played Mozart's Concerto in D Minor in public, and at nine he was pronounced the best pianist in Berlin. For composition he was placed under Zelter, and then under Bernard Weber, director of the Berlin opera, by whom he was introduced to the Abbe Vogler. Vogler invited him to Darmstadt, and in 1810 received him into his house, where he formed an intimate friendship with Karl Maria von Weber, who also took daily lessons in counterpoint, fugue and extempore organ-playing. At the end of two years the grand duke appointed Meyerbeer composer to the court. His first opera, Jephtha's Gelilbde, failed lamentably at Darmstadt in 1811, and his second, Wirth and Gast (Alimelek), at Vienna in 1814. These checks discouraged him so cruelly that he feared he had mistaken his vocation. Nevertheless, by advice of Salieri he determined to study vocalization in Italy, and then to form a new style. But at Venice he was so captivated by Rossini that, renouncing all thought of originality, he produced a succession of seven Italian operas - Romilda e Costanza, Semiramide riconosciuta, Eduardo e Cristina, Emma di Resburgo, Margherita d'Anjou, L'Esule di Granata and Il Crociato in Egitto - which all achieved a success as brilliant as it was unexpected. Against this act of treason to German art Weber protested most earnestly; and before long Meyerbeer himself grew tired of his defection. An invitation to Paris in 1826 led him to review his position dispassionately, and he came to the conclusion that he was wasting his powers. For several years he produced nothing in public; but, in concert with Scribe, he planned his first French opera, Robert le Diable. This gorgeous spectacle was produced at the Grand Opera in 1831. It was the first of its race, a grand romantic opera, with situations more theatrically effective than any that had been attempted either by Cherubini or Rossini, and with ballet music such as had never yet been heard, even in Paris. Its popularity exceeded all expectations; yet for five years Meyerbeer appeared before the public no more.

His next opera, Les Huguenots, was first performed in 1836. In gorgeous colouring, rhetorical force, consistency of dramatic treatment, and careful accentuation of individual types, it is at least the equal of Robert le Diable. In two points only did its interest fall short of that inspired by the earlier work. Meyerbeer had shown himself so eminently successful in his treatment of the supernatural that one regretted the omission of that element; and, more important still, the fifth act proved to be an anti-climax. The true interest of the drama culminates at the close of the fourth act, when Raoul, leaping from the window to his death, leaves Valentine fainting upon the ground. The opera now usually ends at the fourth act.

After the production of Les Huguenots Meyerbeer spent many years in the preparation of his next greatest works - L'Africaine and Le Prophete. The libretti of both these operas were furnished 1 Or, according to some accounts, 1794.

by Scribe; and both were subjected to countless changes; in fact, the story of L'Africaine was more than once entirely rewritten.

Meanwhile Meyerbeer accepted the appointment of kapellmeister to the king of Prussia, and spent some years at Berlin, where he produced Ein Feldlager in Schlesien, a German opera, in which Jenny Lind made her first appearance in Prussia. Here also he composed, in 1846, the overture to his brother Michael's drama, Struensee. But his chief care at this period was bestowed upon the worthy presentation of the works of others. He began by producing his dead friend Weber's Euryanthe, with scrupulous attention to the composer's original idea. With equal unselfishness he procured the acceptance of Rienzi and Der fliegende Hollander, the first two operas of Richard Wagner, who, then languishing in poverty and exile, would, but for him, have found it impossible to obtain a hearing in Berlin. With Jenny Lind as prima donna and Meyerbeer as conductor, the opera flourished brilliantly in the Prussian capital; but the anxieties materially shortened the composer's life.

Meyerbeer produced Le Prophete at Paris in 1849. In 1854 he brought out L'Etoile du nord at the Opera Comique, and in 1859 Le Pardon de Ploermel (Dinorah). His last great work, L'Afri- .caine, was in active preparation at the Academie when, on the 23rd of April 1863, he was seized with a sudden illness, and died on the 2nd of May. L'Africaine was produced with pious attention to the composer's minutest wishes, on the 28th of April 1865.

Meyerbeer's genius was criticized by contemporaries with widely different results. Mendelssohn thought his style exaggerated; Fetis thought him one of the most original geniuses of the age; Wagner' ungratefully calls him "a miserable music-maker," and "a Jewish banker to whom it occurred to compose operas." The reality of his talent has been recognized throughout all Europe; and his name will live so long as intensity of passion and power of dramatic treatment are regarded as indispensable characteristics of dramatic music. But his work shows that these qualities, with the aid of an experienced stage-writer, may be entirely independent of genuine musical insight.

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Simple English

by Josef Kriehuber, 1847.]]

Giacomo Meyerbeer (born near Berlin, 5 September 1791; died Paris, 2 May 1864) was a famous German-born opera composer. He was the most important composer of French Grand opera during the 1830s and 1840s. Although he was tremendously popular in his day, his music is not often played now.



Early years

, where he stayed many times]]

Meyerbeer was born into a rich Jewish family in Tasdorf (now a part of Rüdersdorf), near Berlin. His father owned large sugar refineries in Berlin and in Italy. His mother also came from a wealthy family. Her father had been important in Germany’s struggle to be free of the French in 1812 when Napoleon was trying to conquer much of Europe. Giacomo’s mother did a lot of good work trying to help people who were wounded during the war.

A lot of famous people came to the house where Giacomo’s family lived. Some of their friends were from the royal Prussian court, including the future King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. The naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt also visited them quite often.

Meyerbeer's first piano teacher was Franz Lauska, who also taught the royal princes. He also had lessons in composition. Meyerbeer first played in public in 1801 playing Mozart's Piano Concerto in D Minor in Berlin. He wrote his first opera in 1810. In the same year he went to Darmstadt to study with the well-known music theorist Abbé Vogler. There he met the young Carl Maria von Weber who was also a pupil of Vogler. He left Vogler in 1811 and tried to get some work in Munich. In 1813 he found he had been offered a job as court composer to the Grand Duke of Hessen. Vogler had probably recommended him for the job. At this time Meyerbeer was better known as a pianist than as a composer. He travelled to London to hear J.B.Cramer. There he met other famous pianists such as Kalkbrenner and Ferdinand Ries.


In 1816 Meyerbeer went to Italy. He wanted to learn about Italian opera and collect Italian folksongs. He was going to stay three months, but he stayed nine years. He made some trips back to Germany and Austria during this time. He composed several operas which became very popular. People started to compare him with the famous Rossini. However, in Germany people were not interested in his music. He took his opera Il crociato in Egitto to London and then to Paris, where it was an immediate success. The opera is remembered now for being the last opera ever to have a part for a castrato singer.

He was becoming well-known now. Spontini asked him to compose an opera for Berlin. He became friends, in Paris, with the librettist Eugène Scribe who had a lot of influence in the French theatre.

The Grand Operas

From 1825 onwards Meyerbeer spent his life travelling about Europe. He was often in Paris and in Berlin, but did not live in either of these places. He stayed in hotels or private houses wherever he went. One reason why he travelled was because of his health. His wife also had bad health, so they often went to spa towns to try to get better. He also travelled about to watch productions of his operas, and to hear young singers.

When Carl Maria von Weber died, he left an opera, Die drei Pintos, unfinished. It was sent to Meyerbeer in the hope that he would finish it, but he did not seem interested. In the end Gustav Mahler finished it many years later.

Meyerbeer made changes to Il crociato in Egitto and turned it into a grand opera for the Opéra in Paris. He changed it from an Italian to a French opera, composing extra dance music and a new overture. He was determined to be famous in Paris.

In 1826 he married his cousin. They had two children, but they both died when they were very small.

In 1828 Auber had composed a very successful opera called La muette de Portici. It was the first French grand opera. Meyerbeer realized he could not become really popular by turning his Italian operas into French grand opera, so he took his comic opera Robert le Diable and changed it into a grand opera. It is probably the best opera Meyerbeer ever wrote. Within three years it had been performed in 77 theatres in 10 different countries. Many composers made their own arrangements of some of the tunes from the opera. He was given many honours: the Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur, the title of Prussian Hof Kapellmeister (Director of Music at the Royal Court), and was made a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts and a member of the French Institute.

Meyerbeer realized that anything else he wrote would have to be really good. In 1836 he produced another opera Les Huguenots.

In 1842 he went to Boulogne to improve his health. There he met Richard Wagner who asked him for financial help to stage his operas Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman. Meyerbeer lent him money, but stopped giving him money when he heard that Wagner was secretly criticizing him.

Berlin years

When Spontini died Meyerbeer was made Generalmusikdirektor in Berlin. His opera Les Huguenots had been forbidden in Germany, but now it was allowed to be performed. As court composer he wrote a grand opera called Ein Feldschlag in Schlesien (A Battle in Silesia), but it was too patriotic ever to become internationally famous. The main part in the opera was sung by Jenny Lind.

Return to Paris

In 1849 he returned to Paris where he had fewer enemies than in Germany. He wrote several works together with Scribe, whom Meyerbeer described as the best librettist of comic opera. His opera Le prophète was a huge success and earned him a lot of money. The great contralto Pauline Viardot-Garcia sang the main part.

Scribe died in 1861. Meyerbeer worked very hard to try to finish his opera L’africaine. Napoleon III said he wanted it to be performed by the winter of 1862-63, but he did not finish it until 1864. The work was being rehearsed for its first performance when Meyerbeer suddenly died.

Meyerbeer’s body was taken to Berlin where it was buried in the Jewish cemetery in a vault that belonged to his family.

Meyerbeer’s music

Meyerbeer was always more popular in France than in Germany. His operas are about the society of wealthy people. The sounds he made with his orchestra are often deliberately “unbeautiful” in order to show the harshness of real life. In this he is like Beethoven in his final years, and Berlioz. He sometimes used new instruments such as the bass clarinet and the saxophone. He always thought carefully about what his singers were capable of when writing his music. He enjoyed working with different singers, among them Velluti, who was the last of the great operatic castrati. He thought carefully about how to give his singers rests during the opera so that they would still be in good voice for the climax of the story. He liked scenes with large crowds. He composed his dance music very carefully, and would often throw it away and start again if the dancers were not happy with it.

Besides his operas he also wrote orchestral pieces for special occasions. He also wrote some songs for performance in the salon.

Meyerbeer was one of the richest men in Europe. This is why some people hated him.

Meyerbeer’s reputation after his death

Meyerbeer’s operas were very popular in the middle of the 19th century, but by the end of the century they had gone out of fashion. In the 20th century his music was banned by the Nazi’s because the composer was Jewish. Today there is some interest again, but nothing like the huge popularity he had in his lifetime.


  • The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie; 1980; ISBN 1-561-174-2; article “Meyerbeer” vol 12 p.246ff


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