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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 11076

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Meyerbeer, a man of handsome private fortune, like Mendelssohn, made large sums by his operas, and was probably the wealthiest of the great composers. He lived a life of luxurious ease, and yet labored with intense zeal a certain number of hours each day. A friend one day begged him to take more rest, and he answered smilingly, "If I should leave work, I should rob myself of my greatest pleasure; for I am so accustomed to work that it has become a necessity." Probably few composers have been more splendidly rewarded by contemporary fame and wealth, or been more idolized by their admirers. No less may it be said that few have been the object of more severe criticism. His youth was spent amid the severest classic influences of German music, and the spirit of romanticism and nationality, which blossomed into such beautiful and characteristic works as those composed by his friend and fellow pupil Weber, also found in his heart an eloquent echo. But Meyerbeer resolutely disenthralled himself from what he appeared to have regarded as trammels, and followed out an ambition to be a cosmopolitan composer. In pursuit of this purpose he divested himself of that fine flavor of individuality and devotion to art for its own sake which marks the highest labors of genius. He can not be exempted from the criticism that he regarded success and the immediate plaudits of the public as the only satisfactory rewards of his art. He had but little of the lofty content which shines out through the vexed and clouded lives of such souls as Beethoven and Gluck in music, of Bacon and Milton in literature, who looked forward to immortality of fame as the best vindication of their work. A marked characteristic of the man was a secret dissatisfaction with all that he accomplished, making him restless and unhappy, and extremely sensitive to criticism. With this was united a tendency at times to oscillate to the other extreme of vaingloriousness. An example of this was a reply to Rossini one night at the opera when they were listening to "Robert le Diable." The "Swan of Pesaro" was a warm admirer of Meyerbeer, though the latter was a formidable rival, and his works had largely replaced those of the other in popular repute. Sitting together in the same box, Rossini, in his delight at one portion of the opera, cried out in his impulsive Italian way, "If you can write anything to surpass this, I will undertake to dance upon my head." "Well, then," said Meyerbeer, "you had better soon commence practicing, for I have just commenced the fourth act of 'Les Huguenots.'" Well might he make this boast, for into the fourth act of his musical setting of the terrible St. Bartholomew tragedy he put the finest inspirations of his life.

Singular to say, though he himself represented the very opposite pole of art spirit and method, Mozart was to him the greatest of his predecessors. Perhaps it was this very fact, however, which was at the root of his sentiment of admiration for the composer of "Don Giovanni" and "Le Nozze di Figaro." A story is told to the effect that Meyerbeer was once dining with some friends, when a discussion arose respecting Mozart's position in the musical hierarchy. Suddenly one of the guests suggested that "certain beauties of Mozart's music had become stale with age. I defy you," he continued, "to listen to 'Don Giovanni' after the fourth act of the 'Huguenots.'" "So much the worse, then, for the fourth act of the 'Huguenots,'" said Meyerbeer, furious at the clumsy compliment paid to his own work at the expense of his idol.

Critics wedded to the strict German school of music never forgave Meyerbeer for his dereliction from the spirit and influences of his nation, and the prominence which he gave to melodramatic effects and spectacular show in his operas. Not without some show of reason, they cite this fact as proof of poverty of musical invention. Mendelssohn, who was habitually generous in his judgment, wrote to the poet Immermann from Paris of "Robert le Diable": "The subject is of the romantic order; i.e., the devil appears in it (which suffices the Parisians for romance and imagination). Nevertheless, it is very bad, and, were it not for two brilliant seduction scenes, there would, not even be effect.... The opera does not please me; it is devoid of sentiment and feeling.... People admire the music, but where there is no warmth and truth, I can not even form a standard of criticism."

Schlüter, the historian of music, speaks even more bitterly of Meyerbeer's irreverence and theatric sensationalism: "'Les Huguenots' and the far weaker production 'Le Prophète' are, we think, all the more reprehensible (nowadays especially, when too much stress is laid on the subject of a work, and consequently on the libretto of an opera), because the Jew has in these pieces ruthlessly dragged before the footlights two of the darkest pictures in the annals of Catholicism, nor has he scrupled to bring high mass and chorale on the boards."

Wagner, the last of the great German composers, can not find words too scathing and bitter to mark his condemnation of Meyerbeer. Perhaps his extreme aversion finds its psychological reason in the circumstance that his own early efforts were in the sphere of Meyerbeer and Halé-vy, and from his present point of view he looks back with disgust on what he regards as the sins of his youth. The fairest of the German estimates of the composer, who not only cast aside the national spirit and methods, but offended his countrymen by devot

ing himself to the French stage, is that of Vischer, an eminent writer on aasthetics: "Notwithstanding the composer's remarkable talent for musical drama, his operas contain sometimes too much, sometimes too little-too much in the subject-matter, external adornment, and effective 'situations'-too little in the absence of poetry, ideality, and sentiment (which are essential to a work of art), as well as in the unnatural and constrained combinations of the plot."

But despite the fact that Meyerbeer's operas contain such strange scenes as phantom nuns dancing, girls bathing, sunrise, skating, gunpowder explosions, a king playing the flute, and the prima donna leading a goat, dramatic music owes to him new accents of genuine pathos and an addition to its resources of rendering passionate emotions. Through much that is merely showy and meretricious there come frequent bursts of genuine musical power and energy, which give him a high and unmistakable rank, though he has had less permanent influence in molding and directing the development of musical art than any other composer who has had so large a place in the annals of his time.

The last twelve years of Meyerbeer's life were spent, with the exception of brief residences in Germany and Italy, in Paris, the city of his adoption, where all who were distinguished in art and letters paid their court to him. When he was seized with his fatal illness he was hard at work on "L'Africaine," for which Scribe had also furnished the libretto. His heart was set on its completion, and his daily prayer was that his life might be spared to finish it. But it was not to be. He died May 2, 1864. The same morning Rossini called to inquire after the health of the sick man, equally his friend and rival. When he heard the sad news he sank into a fit of profound despondency and grief, from which he did not soon recover. All Paris mourned with him, and even Germany forgot its critical dislike to join in regret at the loss of one who, with all his defects, was so great an artist and so good a man.

Meyerbeer seems to have been greatly afraid of being buried alive. In his pocketbook after his death was found a paper giving directions that small bells should be attached to his hands and feet, and that his body should be carefully watched for four days, after which it should be sent to Berlin to be interred by the side of his mother, to whom he had been most tenderly attached.

The composer was the intimate friend of most of the celebrities of his time in art and literature. Victor Hugo, Lamartine, George Sand, Balzac, Alfred de Musset, Delacroix, Jules Janin, and Théophile Gautier were his familiar intimates; and the reunions between these and other gifted men, who then made Paris so intellectually brilliant, are charmingly described by Liszt and Moscheles. Meyerbeer's correspondence, which was extensive, deserves publication, as it displays marked literary faculty, and is full of bright sympathetic thought, vigorous criticism, and playful fancy. The following letter to Jules Janin, written from Berlin a few years before his death, gives some pleasant insight into his character:

Your last letter was addressed to me at Konigsberg; but I was in Berlin working-working away like a young man, despite my seventy years, which somehow certain people, with a peculiar generosity, try to put upon me. As I am not at Konigsberg, where I am to arrange for the Court concert for the eighteenth of this month, I have now leisure to answer your letter, and will immediately confess to you how greatly I was disappointed that you were so little interested in Rameau; and yet Rameau was always the bright star of your French opera, as well as your master in the music. He remained to you after Lulli, and it was he who prepared the way for the Chevalier Gluck: therefore his family have a right to expect assistance from the Parisians, who on several occasions have cared for the descendants of Racine and the grandchildren of the great Corneille. If I had been in Paris, I certainly would have given two hundred francs for a seat; and I take this opportunity to beg you to hand that sum to the poor family, who can not fail to be unhappy in their disappointment. At the same time I send you a power of attorney for M. Guyot, by which I renounce all claims to the parts of my operas which may be represented at the benefit for the celebrated and unfortunate Rameau family. Why will you not come to Konigsberg at the festival? Why, in other words, are you not in Berlin? What splendid music we have in preparation! As to myself, it is not only a source of pleasure to me, but I feel it a duty, in the position I hold, to compose a grand march, to be performed at Konigsberg while the royal procession passes from the castle into the church, where the ceremony of crowning is to take place. I will even compose a hymn, to be executed on the day that our king and master returns to his good Berlin. Besides, I have promised to write an overture for the great concert of the four nations, which the directors of the London exhibition intend to give at the opening of the same, next spring, in the Crystal Palace. All this keeps me back: it has robbed me of my autumn, and will also take a good part of next spring; but with the help of God, dear friend, I hope we shall see each other again next year, free from all cares, in the charming little town of Spa, listening to the babbling of its waters and the rustling of its old gray oaks. Truly your friend, Meyerbeer.

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