Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > Life of Giacomo Meyerbeer (2)
(Original name: Jakob Liebman Beer)
German opera composer
Although he was born in Berlin (September 5, 1791), studied pianoforte and theory in Germany, and attained in that country a reputation as a brilliant pianist, besides producing several operas there, Meyerbeer is regarded as the founder of what generally is understood as modern French grand opera. It has been said of him that "he joined to the flowing melody of the Italian the solid harmony of the Germans, the poignant declamation and varied, piquant rhythm of the French"; which is a good description of the opera that flourishes on the stage of the Académie or Grand Opéra, Paris. The models for elaborate spectacular scenes and finales furnished by Meyerbeers operas have been followed ever since by French composers nor have they been ignored by Italians. He understood how to write effectively for the voice, and he was the first composer of opera who made a point of striving for tone colour in the instrumental accompaniment. Sometimes the effect may be too calculated, too cunningly contrived, too obviously sought for. But what he accomplished had decided influence on the enrichment of the instrumental score in operatic composition.
Much criticism has been directed at Meyerbeer, and much of his music has disappeared from the stage. But such also has been the fate of much of the music of other composers earlier than, contemporary with, and later than he. Meyerbeer had the pick of the great artists of his day. His work were written for and produced with brilliant casts, and had better not be sung at all than indifferently. His greatest work, "Les Huguenots," is still capable of leaving a deep impression, when adequately performed.
Meyerbeer, like many other composers for the lyric stage, has suffered much from writers who have failed to approach opera as opera, but have written about it from the standpoint of the symphony, with which it has nothing in common, or have looked down upon it from the lofty heights of the music-drama, from which, save for the fact that both are intended to be sung and acted with scenery on a stage, it differs greatly. Opera is a highly artificial theatrical product, and those who have employed convincingly its sophisticated processes are not lightly to be thrust aside.
Meyerbeer came of a Jewish family. His real name was Jacob Liebmann Beer. He prefixed "Meyer" to his patronymic at the request of a wealthy relative who made him his heir. He was a pupil in pianoforte of Clementi; also studied under Abbé Vogler, being a fellow pupil of C. M. von Weber. His first operas were German. In 1815 he went to Italy and composed a series of operas in the style of Rossini. Going to Paris in 1826, he became "immersed in the study of French opera, from Lully onward." The first result was "Robert le Diable" (Robert the Devil), Grand Opéra, Paris, 1831. This was followed by "Les Huguenots," 1836, "Le Prophète," 1849; "LEtoile du Nord," Opéra Comique, 1854; "Dinorah, ou de Pardon de Ploërmel" (Dinorah, or the Pardon of Ploërmel), Opéra Comique, 1859. Much of the music of "LEtoile du Nord" came from an earlier score, "Das Feldlager in Schlesien" (The Camp in Silesia), Berlin, 1843. Meyerbeer died May 2, 1864, in Paris, where his "LAfricaine" was produced at the Grand Opéra in 1865.