Giacomo Meyerbeer

by Moritz Moszkowski


The 2nd of May, 1894, was the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Meyerbeer, and according to the provision of his will, on that day his heirs entered into possession of his musical estate. Among other conditions to inheritance, Meyerbeer stipulated that his unpublished manuscripts be given to that one of his grandsons who should have developed most musical ability. These posthumous works, however, will not be published.

In commemoration of this anniversary of Meyerbeer’s death “L’Africaine” was given at the Berlin royal opera house, several papers made cursory reference to the import of the day, and there were occasional expressions of curiosity, in musical circles, as to the nature of the master’s musical legacy. It was believed that there existed a completed opera of which the young Goethe was the hero, but the facts only partly sustain that assumption, for the work proved to be simply a drama by Blaze de Bury, entitled “La Jeunesse de Goethe,” in which music is accorded an important role.

All of these discussions and conjectures attracted little attention from the outer world, and aroused less interest among musicians of the inner circles than could have been expected, considering the  honored and popular name with which they were associated. This circumstance suggests an investigation of Meyerbeer’s present position in the public esteem, of what it once was, and as to what rank the verdict of future generations is likely to assign his creations.

Music is an art which rapidly alters its forms. We speak of “immortal masterpieces” of music, forgetting that barely four hundred years have passed since that epoch which we of today look upon as the dawn of musical art. What enormous development, what unforeseen perfections, and what wide dissemination it has attained during this period! How much has been created, admired, and afterward buried! And there has been no lack of errors of diagnosis in regard to musical works. Many have been adjudged dead that contained the life impulse, while others have been accredited with vitality that they did not possess. Factious critics have sometimes proved too ambitious to become grave diggers, and at other times have worshipped musical corpses, as the Portuguese court parasites did homage to the exhumed remains of Ines de Castro, which Pedro had seated upon the throne.

Among the energetic partisans of the so called new German school, the men whom I have denominated grave diggers were numerous, and it strikes me that the arrangements which they made for the wholesale burial not only of Meyerbeer’s operas, but of all related works, were a trifle premature. It is not the be denied that they succeeded in somewhat discrediting the value of Meyerbeer’s music, and after the absolute denial of merit in his works had become an article of faith for Wagnerism there was no hesitation in its acceptance by those who desired to be modern a tout prix.

The public at large, which has little judgment in things musical, soon became an active participant in the war for the reformation of dramatic music; for Wagner not only illustrated his art principles through his operas, but also announced  them in papers on art, which most skillfully accentuated the German national element in its esthetic ambitions. He furthermore took into consideration so much that was foreign to music, attempting to establish parallels between his reformation ideas in his own department of art and matters which concerned apparently remote domains of thought and action, that many who had originally been totally indifferent came through this indirect path of reasoning into the Wagner fold.

The anti-Semitic propaganda found capable champion in Wagner. Had there been no other available reasons for condemning Meyerbeer’s music than the Jewish origin of its author, that, with Wagner’s help, would have sufficed. The interesting discovery was made that the scores of “Robert le Diable” and “Les Huguenots” were in reality nothing but Jewish brogue, though they afforded valuable documentary proof at the same time of the existence of the famous French-Jewish alliance. I will not accuse Wagner of having greeted this popularized interpretation of his ideas with satisfaction, although in his warfare against Meyerbeer and his adherents he sometimes failed to confine himself to purely artistic arguments.

In should be mentioned, however, that before Wagner’s appearance upon the filed the fight against Meyerbeer had been conducted with great personal enmity. Spontini, who was at first overestimated, and later saw his fame fade, had done all that was possible in this reprehensible style of warfare. As soon as he became convinced that no machinations could prevail against the success of his hated rival, he overreached himself in the harebrained assertion that Meyerbeer did not compose his own operas, but that they were the products of a certain Gouin, who preferred selling his fame to endangering his position as postal clerk by the acquisition of musical renommee.

Meyerbeer’s home in Paris in 1851 Rue de Richelieu, corner rue St. Mare. Meyerbeer’s home was at No. 91, the house on the left. Opposite, at No. 96, Berlioz lived in 1830. At No. 89, the second door from the corner on the left, lived Ferdinand Palt, the operatic conductor, from 1830 until his death in 1839.


Meyerbeer's home in Paris in 1851 Rue de Richelieu, corner rue St. Mare. Meyerbeer's home was at No. 91, the house on the left. Opposite, at No. 96, Berlioz lived in 1830. At No. 89, the second door from the corner on the left, lived Ferdinand Palt, the operatic conductor, from 1830 until his death in 1839.

Meyerbeer’s home in Paris in 1851
Rue de Richelieu, corner rue St. Mare. Meyerbeer’s home was at No. 91, the house on the left. Opposite, at No. 96, Berlioz lived in 1830. At No. 89, the second door from the corner on the left, lived Ferdinand Palt, the operatic conductor, from 1830 until his death in 1839.

In justice it must be admitted that Meyerbeer’s ardent admirers carried the glorification of their master to the borders of ridiculous. When Dr. Schucht, for instance, in his work on Meyerbeer, says that the “Struensee” overture “takes first rank among classical overtures”, and when he, in discussing that early work, “Gott und die Nature”, claims that it evinces a command of counterpoint equal to that displayed by Handel and other masters of polyphony, every honest and intelligent person who honors Meyerbeer must regard these assertions as regrettable exaggerations.

Heine wrote of Meyerbeer in veins varying from extreme rapture to bitter mockery. In those operas composed during Meyerbeer’s Italian period he found “Rossiniisms intensified by means of the most delicious exaggerations, the gold gilded, and the flowers endowed with stronger perfumes”. He could not reach a similar height of absurdity in regard to “Robert le Diable” and “Les Huguenots”, for their qualities precluded such a result, even though most recklessly loaded with superlative praise. With the advent of “Le Prophete” a complete change manifested itself in Heine’s musical taste. He had fallen out with the composer, and thereafter saw in him only a “maitre de plaisir of the aristocracy, and a music corrupter, who composed morbid music” etc.

I remember that, even while a child, I was aware of the contradictions contained in the various opinions that I heard expressed in regard to Meyerbeer’s music. How I longed to hear a stage performance of one of his works! When I was about ten years old my wish was fulfilled. The third theatrical performance that I was permitted to attend made me acquainted with “Les Huguenots”. I had previously heard most of the opera played upon the piano, and had not been pleased with it thus presented; but through the medium of voices and orchestra it made an immense impression on me, the details of which are still clear in my memory. It was not until some years later that I heard “Robert le Diable” and “Le Prophete”. It seems strange to me that my present estimate of the comparative artistic value of these three operas should so perfectly tally with my youthful impressions. “Le Prophete” seems to me to approach “Les Huguenots” in musical value, while “Robert” is far inferior; but this order of rank does not accord with the scale of public esteem. Recent years have developed a light disposition to glorify “Le Phophete” at the expense of “Robert”; the latter work is nevertheless thought to possess greater melodic spontaneity, and the value of this quality is certainly beyond dispute.

Notwithstanding the fact that music is largely a matter of taste, it possesses elements that may be assayed. If we com[pare the scores of “Robert” and “Le Prophete” in all their details, taking into consideration the attributes of each as a musical dramatic work, we find in “Le Prophete”, first of all, a far more characteristic formation of the concerted numbers. The sermon of the Anabaptists and the chorus of peasantry associated with it form together a masterpiece of choral development, evincing a poser of climax possessed by no earlier dramatic composer. The rhythmic structure and modulations show a true art perception, just as the two principal motifs (in C minor and C major) shows a gift for melodic invention. I have always regarded the beginning of the latter, with its audacious upward progression to the chord of the seventh,


as one of Meyerbeer’s happiest inspirations. When this melody is repeated by the whole chorus in unison, it seems like a veritable cri du peuple, and the accompanying sturdy tributes of the celli, contrabassi, fagotti, and tuba sound like the dull tread of the working classes marching to revolution. The chorus “Auf! tanset um Leichen”, in the third act, is endowed with characteristic color; but Meyerbeer’s sovereign command of choral and instrumental forces is most brilliantly exemplified in the great ensemble of the church scene. The movement in D major, “Seft den Kongi, den Propheten”; is Handelian in its grandeur, and affords the most effective contrast possible to the “allegretto agitato” that succeeds it. The excitement which takes possession of the deluded people, who cannot be sure who is their betrayer, after the recognition scene between Fides and John; the ecstatic rejoicing called forth by the seeming miracle of the Prophet; and the final blending of the “Domine salvum fac regem nostrum” with the triumphant cries of the people – all this is handled with such mastery, and the manifold details are so ingeniously devised, that excepting literature furnishes no counterpart to it. The entire act is , besides, very rich in harmonic and instrumental effects, showing the Meyerbeer was, even in these spheres, a successful innovator.

It is obvious that these enormous demands upon musical and dramatic resources could have left little for the fifth act. Librettist and composer were both entirely exhausted, and could hope for a satisfactory finale only at the hands of the stage machinists, to whom they could, to be sure, cry as does King Philip in “Don Carlos”, “Cardinal, I have done my duty; do yours.” Taking it all in all, we may say that Meyerbeer reached the zenith of his technical skill in “Le Phrophete”, and that his creative power had at that period hardly diminished. It is not to be denied that this work exhibits numerous weak movements. The whole of the last act does not contain one important musical number; indeed, there is much in it that is repulsive. Fides’s grand aria (A flat major) is a model of disagreeable and misplaced vocal bravura, and the andante in E major, in the duet between John and his mother, direct torture. What the composer intended to express through the almost endless repetition of B in the trumpets, and later in the hautboys and violins, is to me incomprehensible. Perhaps others may see his intention more clearly.

Of the ballet music in “Le Prophete” the skating dance alone has obtained great popularity. The other numbers are entirely ineffective. Meyerbeer evidently devoted little care to their production, because they had not the slightest import in the scheme of the opera. In comparing the ballets of “Robert” and “Le Prophete”, I prefer the former. as both are incidental accessories, the superiority weighs less. It is of much more moment that the last act of “Robert” so far surpasses that of “Le Prophete” in healthy and soulful melody. The final trio of Alice, Robert


and Bertram is one of the most beautiful parts of the opera, and the pathetic melody played by the orchestra while Robert reads his mother’s will reconciles us tot he bantering of the preceding period, out of which it grows. Unfortunately, the composer’s intention is never entirely realized by our opera orchestras in the performance of this melody. Meyerbeer designed that it should be played underneath the stage, and by keyed bugles. In order to avoid the considerable difficulty of securing a perfect ensemble, and the trifling extra expense thus involved, the melody is assigned to the orchestra cornets, and loses materially in poetic effect. Alice, Robert and Bertram have another trio in the third act, although


it is effective only from the standpoint of the old Italian operatic style, on which the composer of “Robert” had turned his back. Shreds of that school adhered to him, however, for a long time. When we consider that Meyerbeer had previously written seven operas purely in Rossini’s vein, it ceases to seem strange that many traces of Italianism are to be found in “Robert”.

If we compare “Crociato in Egitto”, the last of Meyerbeer’s operas in the Italian school, with “Robert” which he began five years later, we find an astounding change of style – even greater than that shown in the period of Wagner’s development between “Rienzi” and “The Flying Dutchman”.

Musical historians with fine perceptions, in this, as in so many similar cases, have given the world the benefit of their backward glancing prophecies. They discover the “claws of the lion in ‘Crociato'”. If one has the whole lion before him, the genuineness of the claws can no longer be questioned. Had the score of “Crociato” been submitted to me as the work of a thirty three year old composer, and had I been asked for an estimate of his gifts as based thereon, I should have made a fool of myself. The whole opera impresses me as a shallow imitation of Rossini’s mannerisms, and the only feature of it which I find worthy of praise is the skilful treatment of the voices. Harmony, structural forms, and impersonations are unendurably commonplace: nothing forecasts greatness.

Meyerbeer’s increasing musical ability, as traceable through his successive operas, “Crociato”, “Robert” and “Les Hugeunots”, is quite analogous to the gradual development shown in Beethoven’s symphonies. Berlioz says, quite properly, of the First Symphony, “This is not yet Beethoven.” No one would question that the Second Symphony bears the unmistakable impress of its creator, but not until the Third Symphony does the master exhibit the full glory of his genius. The careers of Beethoven and Meyerbeer are analogous, in that each in his own province showed not only the ropest individuality but also the most perfect mastery of art forms; for just as Beethoven is the mightiest composer that has arisen in the symphonic filed, so is Meyerbeer still the foremost representative of grand opera. The gap between the highest and most ideal forms of instrumental music, and grand opera, distorted here and there through concessions to stage machinists and ballet dancers, is too wide to push the comparison further.

Whatever one’s opinion of Meyerbeers’ music in general, it cannot be denied that “Les Huguenots” is a work that exhibits entirely original invention, a rare wealth of characterization, and a wonderful mastery of technical resources. Even Richard Wagner, the most spiteful of Meyerbeer’s opponents, was aroused by the fourth act to the expression of the warmest praise.

Schumann alone saw retrogression from “Robert” in “Les Huguenots”; he indeed preferred “Crociato” to “Robert”. This assignment of rank is incontrovertible evidence of the one sidedness and untenableness of Schumann’s opinions. The individualities of the two musicians were so unlike that they necessarily repelled each other. Schumann could accord Meyerbeer justice as long as he showed noteworthy capacity on accepted lines; but as Meyerbeer became more and more Meyerbeer, as his artistic physiognomy became more and more marked and significant, he lost Schumann’s sympathy.

Rivalry, unhappily, often enough leads to enmity; but a no less deplorable, because unjust, antagonism often arises between artists having irreconcilable tastes. Such was the case between Meyerbeer the positivist and Schumann the symbolist. The former was a cosmopolitan, and the latter a national artist. The one was attracted by the brilliancy of the footlights; the other reveled in clair-obscure. Meyerbeer was objective, i.e., worked from the outside in. Schumann was subjective, i.e., worked from the inside out.

All music that does not belong to the class that might be called abstractly contrapuntal grows obsolete. This style alone is based on the everlasting laws of unassailable logic, for its structure rests upon combinations of actualities which are inspired by the spirit of mathematics. It is therefore not subject to the changing tastes of passing time. Quite other is the fate of musical works in the conception of which imagination plays the principal role, which arouse a thousand varying moods in their hearers, and in which the whole range of resources of musical expression is exhaustively applied; for here we have to do with an art of individual feeling and temporary taste. Such music is not deathless, but its life may be shorter or longer – a long life certainly indicating inherent strength. If this be granted, we cannot refuse “Les Huguenots” a place among the masterpieces of musical dramatic literature. What composer would not rejoice to see his creations the subject of strife for fifty eight years? While thus calling attention to the enduring vitality of “Les Hueguenots”, I should go too far did I claim that the work still presents the full vigor of youth.

There are two factors either of which may induce decadence in the effectiveness of a musical work. The one is the natural dullness of sensibilities toward any pleasure or stimulus with which we are too familiar; the other is the apparent change in our tastes. There is of course a wide difference between that loss of charm in a composition occasioned by too frequent hearing, and that caused by our having revised our estimate of its value. In the case of “Les Huguenots” we shall be obliged to concede the presence of both factors, but this may also be said of all works that belong to the same genre.

Did Rossini, Halevy, and Auber, in their operas, make less damaging concessions to the public, and to the vanity of singers? Did not their works also contain examples of those forced and artificially produced effects that Wagner quite aptly called “effects without motives”? Even if we grant that Meyerbeer is the greatest representative of the French Grand Opera, that is no justification for loading all of the shortcomings of his school upon his shoulders.

The score of “Les Huguenots” is so full of veritable musical beauties, it contains such a wealth of noble melody and ingenious dramatic settings, that one can well afford to overlook the many features of it that have become obsolete, and the few that are positively disagreeable. Its instrumentation is replete with characteristic qualities. A certain virtuoso like treatment of certain instruments, entirely different from that found in Mozart’s and Weber’s writings, was one of Meyerbeer’s characteristics. Raoul’s romanzo in the first act suggested to the ingenious composer the employment of the long disused viola d’amore, the ethereal tones of which blend most exquisitely with the mezzo boce of the tenor singer. This is the last occurrence of this instrument in all musical literature – probably because the charm of its tone-color is fully developed in but a few keys, best in D major. The bass clarinet, which Meyerbeer introduced into the opera orchestra, and which he used as solo instrument in “Les Huguenots” and “Le Prophete” has, however, been largely adopted by later composers. Altogether Meyerbeer’s treatment of the wood wind was entirely original and suitable. Every good treatise on instrumentation contains illustrative excerpts from his works, because they show such an extraordinary sense for tone-color, and such complete familiarity with the technic of each and all instruments.

Meyerbeer’s inventive faculty especially distinguished itself in producing melancholy, weird, and wild combinations. This was strikingly manifested in “Robert”. The famous triplet passage for the bassoons in the cemetery scene has always ranked as one of the greatest strokes of this master’s genius. He understood how to draw new and characteristic effects from this instrument. “Les Huguenotes” furnished especially numerous examples in this genre. Who does not remember the awful, hollow timbre with which the piccolo, bassoon, contrabass, and grand drum endow Marel’s war song, or the hissing chromatic, scales in which the flutes, hautboys, and clarinets so horribly portray the flaming blood thirstiness of the Catholic conspirators? Meyerbeer’s employment of the trumpets to depict furious fanaticism, as in the fourth and fifth acts, was markedly successful. In other places his treatment of the trumpets is not congenial to German taste. French and Italian operatic scores have always materially differed from German in this particular. Each of these three nations has its own physiognomic character in instrumentation.

Berlioz once said of Meyerbeer that “he not only has the luck to have talent, but he has the talent to have luck”. This was equally witty and true. If it was a rare good fortune for our master to have been aided in his difficult career as operatic composer by the possession of a million thalers, there was a second good fortune, not less valuable, for which he had every reason to be profoundly thankful. This second good fortune was called Scribe. The composer had in Scribe a librettist who not only possessed astonishing dramatic inventive faculty and knowledge of stage business, but who also had the talent of adaptability. Scribe could suit his work to the peculiar and often capricious demands of his collaborators. He complained often enough because of the changes that Meyerbeer required in his texts, but he always yielded until a difference of opinion arose with regard to “L’Arficaine” which no amount of discussion could adjust. Meyerbeer in consequence laid aside this score, which wa already far advanced toward completion, took up the “Prophete” libretto, and after that had been finished, wrote a comic opera, “Dinorah“, for which Carre and Barbier furnished the text. In my opinion Meyerbeer’s reason for the acceptance of this latter unsympathetic and also technically weak book is obvious. He wished to prove by the composition of this dubious idyl that the nature of his talent did not confine him to the heroic style; and it cannot be said that he failed to accomplish his purpose. “Dinorah” is not poor in characteristic graceful and brilliant vocal and instrumental effects. Still, it shows unmistakable evidence of decadence in inventive power, apparent in debilitating repetitions, rhythms, and in melismas from his earlier works. For this reason “Dinorah” has never secured a firm foothold in German opera repertoires, although even today it is highly regarded in France. The festival opera “A Camp in Silesia”, composed for the dedication of the new Berlin opera house, has had a similar experience. The French adaptation called “L’Etiole du Nord” is seldom seen in Germany, although it has obtained considerable popularity in Paris.

“Le Prophete”, “L’Etiole du Nord”, “Dinorah” and several compositions intended for the concert room and dating from the same period, had long since been performed when Meyerbeer returned to the neglected “L’Africaine”. Negotiations with Scribe for the alterations of the last tow acts were fruitless, and the death of the librettist, in 1861, blighted the composer’s hopes of ever seeing the libretto revised to accord with his desires. He was therefore obliged to finish the opera on the original lines. What displeased Meyerbeer in the text was the circumstance that, according to Scribe, the supposed African heroine turns out to be a young East Indian queen – a somewhat violent transformation, but one that Scribe regarded as essential. He maintained that India, with her gorgeous costumes and her pompous religious ceremonials, lent herself easily to musical illustration, whereas Africa was not operatically suggestive. He was not entirely wrong, for the first performance of “L’Africaine” – after the death of both authors – developed the fact that the most effective parts of the opera were those the scenes of which were laid in India. The composer was afforded exceedingly appropriate musical colors for the pomp of the Buddhist religious service, with its exotic magnificence of processions and dances; whereas other parts of the opera are uninterestingly dry, as might be expected from the long political and geographical discussion which they contain.

During his years of exhausting labor in the operatic field, Meyerbeer found time to compose a not inconsiderable number of small choral and orchestral works, many of them pieces d’occasion, the majority of which are today entirely forgotten. Such of his cantatas and church music as have become known to me are hardly worthy of earnest consideration, but I must not fail to call attention to one of Meyerbeer’s works which, although small in its proportions, equals the best creations of the master in artistic significance. It is his music to Michael Beer’s tragedy “Struensee”. The score embraces only fourteen numbers, but it belongs to the masterworks of its genre, and may be classed with Beethoven’s Egmont”, Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Weber’s “Preciosa”, Schumann’s “Manfred” and Bizet’s “L’Arlesienne”. Meyerbeer, with the overture to “Struensee”, nullified, once for all, the reproach that he could not write orchestral pieces in symphonic form.

Few, in advance, would have accredited the great master Verdi with the ability to produce such a “Requiem” as he has given to the world’ and when the painter Lenbach indecently showed that he could paint hands as well as heads, he also did so without the permission of his critics. It is doubtless vexatious that artists sometimes venture to exhibit new features of their talent, regardless of the category to which critics have consigned them; but it is certainly most disagreeable of all when any one – like Meyerbeer, for instance – persists in living in his works, although long since declared artistically dead and buried. Yes, he lives, to the satisfaction of all unprejudiced musicians, who know no one sidedness in art, and who will not allow doctrinaire pedants and their sterile principles to embitter their love of the beautiful.