When Giacomo Meyerbeer died in his beloved Paris in 1864, a special train carried the coffin back to his native Germany.

The funeral procession along a crowded Champs-Élysées, en route to Paris’s Northern Terminus, was accompanied by musical luminaries galore, plus representatives of royalty and military top brass.

Four companies of the National Guard paid tribute. Three army bands provided a musical soundtrack as the cortège advanced.

They mourned, too, in London. The Royal Italian Opera crammed tribute performances of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Robert le Diable and Le Prophète into a single week – an astonishing feat, given the musical and staging demands.

The shock waves at Meyerbeer’s death went round the world. Once the SS Rangatira docked at Adelaide in July, the news it bore from Paris was the stuff of headlines. But at least as significant is what a search of Australian newspapers reveals of how much Meyerbeer was being performed in the weeks before that news arrived, including productions of Le prophète and Les Huguenots at Melbourne’s Royal Haymarket Theatre.

Who was Giacomo Meyerbeer?

Yes, we’ve forgotten to remember Meyerbeer – never mind the fact that the authoritative Grove Dictionary makes him ‘the most frequently performed opera composer of the 19th century’. In that respect he outstripped, yes, even Rossini, Verdi and Wagner. We get an aural ‘glimpse’ of how ubiquitous Meyerbeerian melodies were via works by the likes of Liszt and Chopin, which traded on the great operatic barnstormers. Try the latter’s winning Grand Duo for cello and piano on themes from Robert le Diable.

When and where was Meyerbeer born?

Meyerbeer was born close to Berlin in 1791, the year of Mozart’s death. Unlike Mozart, though, Jakob Beer (as he must first be called) was born into serious money. His father was a wealthy industrialist; his mother came from a prominent banking family.

Jakob left home in 1810 to study music in Darmstadt. There he elided his mother’s middle name, Meyer, with the family surname to create a first new persona. Then, when snared by Italy (and Italian vocalism) to the extent that his 1816 visit turned into a nine-year stay, Meyerbeer swapped the ‘Jakob’ for its equivalent ‘Giacomo’. And it was Italy that first witnessed a string of Meyerbeer operas, from Emma di Resburgo, his first major success, to the true breakthrough work, Il crociato in Egitto, which made its way round Europe, including London and, crucially, Paris.

Meyerbeer’s emergence as a composer may have surprised those who witnessed his early keyboard skills. He was a prodigiously talented pianist. Legendary virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles thought his playing ‘incomparable’. The composer Weber reckoned him (in 1815) to be ‘one of the best pianists, if not the best pianist of our time’.

What is Giacomo Meyerbeer known for?

Instead, it was Meyerbeer’s bold conception of ‘grand opera’ which made his name. Il crociato proved the entrée to the Opéra in Paris, where four subsequent premieres well and truly made his name: Robert le diable in 1831, leading on to the favourite of many Meyerbeerians, Les Huguenots (1836), then Le prophète (1849) and L’Africaine (premiered in 1865, after Meyerbeer’s death). Meanwhile the two, lighter, opéra comiques, L’etoile du Nord and Le pardon de Ploërmel (these days known as Dinorah), also broke new ground within their genre and travelled widely.

This ‘small’ body of grand operas spread across three decades set the tone for the development of music drama through and way beyond Meyerbeer’s lifetime. Consider his unmistakable influence on Wagner. And Verdi. Then keep going. Meyerbeer’s good fortune was that Paris provided the cultural, social and financial environment to nurture opera of this type and on this scale.

From a period there in his early 20s, Meyerbeer had simply adored everything about the city, but especially the vibrancy of its artistic life. ‘Where,’ he wrote, ‘save in Paris shall one find the immense resources which the French Opéra offers to an artist who desires to write really dramatic music?’

So many dimensions of opera that we take for granted can be traced back to Meyerbeer, whose vision can in turn be traced back to the fashionable Gesamtkunstwerk philosophy of his day – the idea that an art form should embrace a wide variety of cutting-edge elements. Here was heightened drama, shot through with philosophical ideas and historical perspectives, marked by a sense of spectacle, vivid orchestral colour and high-wire acts from carefully chosen singers. There were original musical ‘effects’ to capture mood and atmosphere.

More than this, though, Meyerbeer brought a certain rigour to the whole opera production process in the most hands-on fashion. There was the intense, highly interactive relationship with his librettists, most notably Eugène Scribe, then the vast amount of research demanded from opera house staff into historical correctness and new technical possibilities – visual and lighting devices he developed have been compared to 20th-century film techniques. Oh, and Meyerbeer was a dab hand at PR as well.

This grand opera was grand in every way, not least in terms of energy-sapping performance durations. It was music for a modern urban society – fast-moving, visually dazzling, vocally ear-popping. Audiences lapped it up far and wide, even if the lavishness of the Paris productions could hardly be duplicated everywhere.

So why had Meyerbeer’s star waned by the early years of the 20th century, never to rise again? Yes, there were some detractors among serious-minded opera buffs in the composer’s own day, who baulked at the ‘showiness’, but they were mere specks of dissent in a universe of acclaim.

Meyerbeer and Wagner

Traditionally, Richard Wagner has been regarded as the villain of the piece. Wagner scholar Nicholas Vazsonyi’s work has revealed in disarming detail the German’s single-minded obsession with manipulating the media to denigrate and elbow aside all competition in the construction of the Wagner ‘brand’. Appalling rants against Jews in music were all part of the campaign and no target would have been deemed more critical than Meyerbeer. ‘There is such frightful hollowness, shallowness and nullity displayed in Meyerbeer’s music,’ Wagner spat, ‘that we feel inclined to set down his specifically musical competency at zero.’

Eyebrow-raising stuff when you consider that, as an aspiring young composer, Wagner had sought and been granted open-handed financial and promotional help from Meyerbeer. The older man’s influence was crucial in securing early performances of Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman. And when it came to the clear musico-dramatic influence Meyerbeer had on Wagner, Edouard Hanslick, one of the most celebrated of all 19th-century critics, observed that ‘Rienzi, Tannhäuser and Holländer cannot be imagined without the example of Meyerbeer.’

But how successful was Wagner’s campaign against Meyerbeer? Well, the latter’s centenary in 1891 (eight years after Wagner’s death) was in fact widely marked in Germany. And while at the time a German critic such as Otto Lessmann might have seen Meyerbeer’s influence as ‘…a thing of the past… the supreme ruler of the operatic stage the whole world over now has to lead a miserable existence’, the afore-mentioned Hanslick reckoned otherwise, noting the continued widespread performance of the operas and their great popular following.

OK, Wagnerian mud may have stuck, not least in the context of widespread 19th-century anti-Semitism, but Meyerbeer authority Mark Everist dates the significant decline of the composer’s reputation to the period around and after the First World War: ‘There are various issues that come into play – for example, modernism’s refusal to engage with the past as represented by someone like Meyerbeer… and the fact that in the 1920s he was reviled by the Right in Germany as a Jew, while the Left saw him as coming from Germany’s discredited Prussian past.’

Meyerbeer in the 20th century

It goes without saying that Nazism did less than nothing for Meyerbeer’s music, scorned and banned like that of so many others. But it’s fascinating to read the composer and music writer Alexander Brent-Smith pondering the possibility of a Meyerbeer revival immediately after the Second World War. ‘All that brought Meyerbeer his success is anathema to us,’ he wrote, before focusing on one element in particular. ‘All vocal virtuosity we detest. This is really rather strange and unreasonable, as we love virtuosity in other things – in ballet, the piano concerto, the violin concerto. But… vocal virtuosity is taboo. But it does not follow that… some succeeding generation may not find pleasure and value in such virtuosity.’

Well, any amount of opera requiring extreme vocal dexterity has been re-discovered over the years, yet self-evidently there has been no real Meyerbeer revival. Continuing work on the critical edition of his music by the publisher Ricordi may help – but no great stimulus has been provided by occasional commercial recordings of the four great Meyerbeer operas, even with such giants as soprano Joan Sutherland and tenor Plácido Domingo involved. And until the operas win widespread interest, what chance for Meyerbeer’s songs, piano pieces, choral music?

Why aren't Meyerbeer opera's performed more today?

What, then, really militates against stage productions of Meyerbeer opera today? Mark Everist says it’s impossible to say definitively.
‘I usually like to characterise this as an enigma, a conundrum. Yes, there are resource/cost issues – things like the fact that ballet needs to be incorporated and in an opera like Les Huguenots you need so many singers able to cope with very taxing roles. But maybe it’s also the fact that Meyerbeer isn’t an obvious candidate for “historically informed performance” and hasn’t been out of the repertory long enough to be “rediscovered”.’

Opera critic David Nice nonetheless wonders if Meyerbeer’s day has simply passed, full-stop. He cites as evidence the 2012 Covent Garden production of Robert le diable: ‘Desperately disappointing, though admittedly Les Huguenots is better. Yes, there’s the pioneering experimental stuff and the ballet music is quite good, but overall, where are the tunes? Yes, an opera that connects us to a particular moment in musical history… but just not very good.’ Divided opinion never helps. Intriguingly, at Meyerbeer’s death, his friend Berlioz reported in a letter that the news meant ‘half our little music circle (including myself) is sad; the other half is cheerful.’

When did Meyerbeer die

Meyerbeer died in Paris on 2 May 1864 and he is buried in the family vault at the Jewish cemetery in Schönhauser Allee.

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