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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 8212

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Few great names in art have been the occasion of such diversity of judgment as Giacomo Meyerbeer, whose works fill so large a place in French music. By one school of critics he is lauded beyond all measure as one whose scientific skill and gorgeous orchestration are only equaled by his richness of melody and genius for dramatic and scenic effects; "by far the greatest composer of recent years;" by another class we hear him stigmatized as "the very caricature of the universal Mozart... the Cosmopolitan Jew, who hawks his wares among all nations indifferently, and does his best to please customers of every kind." The truth lies between the two, as is wont to be the case in such extremes of opinion. Meyerbeer's remarkable talent so nearly approaches genius as to make the distinction a difficult one. He can not be numbered among those great creative artists who by force of individuality have molded musical epochs and left an undying imprint on their own and succeeding ages. On the other hand, his remarkable power of combining the resources of the lyric stage in a grand mosaic of all that can charm the eye and car, of wedding rich and gorgeous music with splendid spectacle, gives him a unique place in music; for, unlike Wagner, whose ideas of stage necessities are no less exacting, Meyerbeer aims at no reforms in lyric music, but only to develop the old forms to their highest degree of effect, under conditions that shall gratify the general artistic sense. To accomplish this, he spares no means either in or out of music. Though a German, there is but little of the Teutonic genre in the music of Weber's fellow pupil. When at the outset he wrote for Italy, he showed but little of that easy Assomption of the genius of Italian art which many other foreign composers have attained. It was not till he formed his celebrated art partnership with Scribe, the greatest of librettists, and succeeded in opening the gates of the Grand Opera of Paris with all its resources, more vast than exist anywhere else, that Meyerbeer found his true vocation, the production of elaborate dramas in music of the eclectic school. He inaugurated no clearly defined tendencies in his art; he distinctively belongs to no national school of music; but his long and important connection with the French lyric stage classifies him unmistakably with the composers of this nation.

The subject of this sketch belonged to a family of marked ability. Jacob Beer was a rich Jewish banker of Berlin, highly honored for his robust intellect and scholarly culture as well as his wealth. William, one of the sons, became a distinguished astronomer; another, Michael, achieved distinction as a dramatic poet; while the eldest, Jacob, was the composer, who gained his renown under the Italianized name of Giacomo Meyerbeer, a part of the surname having been adopted from that of the rich banker Meyer, who left the musician a great fortune.

Meyerbeer was born at Berlin, September 5, 1794, and was a musical prodigy from his earliest years. When only four years old he would repeat on the piano the airs he heard from the hand-organs, composing his own accompaniment. At five he took lessons of Lanska, a pupil of Clementi, and at six he made his appearance at a concert. Three years afterward the critics spoke of him as one of the best pianists in Berlin. He studied successively under the greatest masters of the time, Clemcnti, Bernhard Anselm Weber, and Abbé Vogler. While in the latter's school at Darmstadt, he had for fellow pupils Carl von Weber, Winter, and Gansbachcr. Every morning the abbé called together his pupils after mass, gave them some theoretical instruction, then assigned each one a theme for composition. There was great emulation and friendship between Meyerbeer and Weber, which afterward cooled, however, owing to Weber's disgust at Meyerbeer's lavish catering to an extravagant taste. Weber's severe and bitter criticisms were not forgiven by the Franco-German composer.

Meyerbeer's first work was the oratorio "Gott und die Natur," which was performed before the Grand Duke with such

success as to gain for him the appointment of court composer. Meyerbeer's concerts at Darmstadt and Berlin were brilliant exhibitions; and Moscheles, no mean judge, has told us that if Meyerbeer had devoted himself to the piano, no performer in Europe could have surpassed him. By advice of Salieri, whom Meyerbeer met in Vienna, he proceeded to Italy to study the cultivation of the voice; for he seems in early life to have clearly recognized how necessary it is for the operatic composer to understand this, though, in after-years, he treated the voice as ruthlessly in many of his most important arias and scenas as he would a brass instrument. He arrived in Vienna just as the Rossini madness was at its height, and his own blood was fired to compose operas à la Rossini for the Italian theatres. So he proceeded with prodigious industry to turn out operas. In 1818 he wrote "Romilda e Costanza" for Padua; in 1819, "Semiramide" for Turin; in 1820, "Emma di Resburgo" for Venice; in 1822, "Margherita d'Anjou" for Milan; and in 1823, "L'Esule di Granata," also for Milan. These works of the composer's 'prentice hand met with the usual fate of the production of the thousand and one musicians who pour forth operas in unremitting flow for the Italian theatres; but they were excellent drill for the future author of "Robert le Diable" and "Les Huguenots." On returning to Germany Meyerbeer was very sarcastically criticised on the one side as a fugitive from the ranks of German music, on the other as an imitator of Rossini.

Meyerbeer returned to Venice, and in 1824 brought out "Il Crociato in Egitto" in that city, an opera which made the tour of Europe, and established a reputation for the author as the coming rival of Rossini, no one suspecting from what Meyerbeer had then accomplished that he was about to strike boldly out in a new direction. "II Crociato" was produced in Paris in 1825, and the same year in London. In the latter city, Veluti, the last of the male sopranists, was one of the principal singers in the opera; and it was said by some of the ill-natured critics that curiosity to see and hear this singer of a peculiar kind, of whom it was said, "Non vir sed Veluti," had as much to do with the success of the opera as its merits. Lord Mount Edgcumbe, however, an excellent critic, wrote of it "as quite of the new school, but not copied from its founder, Rossini; original, odd, flighty, and it might be termed fantastic, but at times beautiful. Here and there most delightful melodies and harmonies occurred, but it was unequal, solos being as rare as in all the modern operas." This was the last of Meyerbeer's operas written in the Italian style. In 1827 the composer married, and for several years lived a quiet, secluded life. The loss of his first two children so saddened him as to concentrate his attention for a while on church music. During this period he composed only a "Stabat," a "Miserere," a "Te Deum," and eight of Klopstock's songs. But he was preparing for that new departure on which his reputation as a great composer now rests, and which called forth such bitter condemnation on the one hand, such thunders of eulogy on the other. His old fellow pupil, Weber, wrote of him in after-years: "He prostituted his profound, admirable, and serious German talent for the applause of the crowd which he ought to have despised." And Mendelssohn wrote to his father in words of still more angry disgust: "When in 'Robert le Diable' nuns appear one after the other and endeavor to seduce the hero, till at length the lady abbess succeeds; when the hero, aided by a magic branch, gains access to the sleeping apartment of his lady, and throws her down, forming a tableau which is applauded here, and will perhaps be applauded in Germany; and when, after that, she implores for mercy in an aria; when, in another opera, a girl undresses herself, singing all the while that she will be married to-morrow, it may be effective, but I find no music in it. For it is vulgar, and if such is the taste of the day, and therefore necessary, I prefer writing sacred music."

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