Sunday, September 5, 2021

Showered with flowers

‘In the evening to the first performance of Le Prophète. The public called me out after acts 2, 3, 4, and 5, twice in fact after act 4. At the end I was showered with flowers and garlands. The king summoned me to his box after act 4 to express his satisfaction.’ This is from the diaries of Giacomo Meyerbeer, a German composer born 230 years ago today. He became hugely popular in the mid-19th century for his spectacular romantic operas, but his reputation took a downturn after his death partly thanks to Richard Wagner. Meyerbeer kept daily diaries for much of his life, and although the originals have been lost, a transcription survives, and this was translated into English and published for the first time some 20 years ago.

Jacob Liebmann Beer was born on 5 September 1791 in Tasdorf (now part of Rüdersdorf), near Berlin, then the capital of Prussia, to wealthy well-connected Jewish parents. (He adopted the surname Meyerbeer on the death of his grandfather in 1811, and he Italianized his first name to Giacomo while studying in Italy around 1817.) He was educated by tutors at home, and his first keyboard instructor was Franz Lauska, a favoured teacher at the Berlin court. He made his concert debut at the age of 11. He studied composition in Berlin and completed his first work for the stage in 1810, the ballet Der Fischer und das Milchmädchen. Shortly after, he went to Darmstadt to study with Abbé Vogler, whose students then included Carl Maria von Weber. After nearly two years of instruction, during which he wrote two operas and numerous other works, Meyerbeer left for Munich, ready to test his skills as a composer and performer. It was there that his second opera (but first surviving), Jephtas Gelübde, was unsuccessfully premiered in December 1812. 

After a journey to Paris and London, he settled in Italy, where he produced five operas in the style of Rossini. In 1825, he moved to Paris. The following year, after the death of his father, he married his cousin, Minna Mosson. They had five children, of whom the three youngest (all daughters) survived to adulthood. Meyerbeer first French opera, written in association with Eugène Scribe, was Robert le Diable produced in 1831 on an extremely lavish scale. Its success was immediate, and became a model for French grand opera, being performed throughout Europe. Five years later he scored another triumph with his opera Les Huguenots. In 1842, he temporarily returned to Berlin, where he became music director to the King of Prussia and where he aided production of Richard Wagner’s first opera Rienzi. During this time, he wrote a German opera, Ein Feldlager in Schlesien. His third romantic opera on a libretto of Scribe, Le Prophète, was given in Paris in 1849. He then turned to a lighter style and produced two works in the tradition of the opéra comique. His last opera, L’Africaine, was in rehearsal at the time of his death in 1864.

Encyclopaedia Britannica has this assessment: ‘Meyerbeer enjoyed an enormous vogue in his day, but his reputation, based on his four Paris operas, did not survive long. Yet he exercised a considerable influence on the development of opera by his conception of big character scenes, his dramatic style of vocal writing, and his original sense of orchestration - particularly his novel use of the bass clarinet, the saxophone, and the bassoon.’ However, following his death his work was subject to sustained assault by Wagner and his supporters and this contributed to a decline in his popularity; his operas were suppressed by the Nazi regime in Germany, and were neglected by opera houses through most of the twentieth century. Further information is also available at Wikipedia and the Jewish Encyclopedia

Meyerbeer kept diaries for much of his life, and though the original manuscripts are missing, a transcription made by Wilhelm Altmann is held by the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. Between 1999 and 2004, these diaries were published in English in four volumes by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press - The Diaries of Giacomo Meyerbeer - as translated, edited and annotated by Ignatius Letellier. In his preface, Letellier states these volumes provide the ‘first full text of Meyerbeer’s diaries in any language’. He adds: ‘I hope that it can play some part in helping to rediscover the life and work of a great composer, indeed a luminary of the operatic firmament, who for too long has been misunderstood and unjustly overlooked.’ All four books can be previewed at Googlebooks, and volume two can be digitally borrowed through Internet Archive. The following extracts are taken from volume 3 (subtitled The Years of Celebrity).

30 January 1850
‘In the evening to the first performance of Le Prophète. The public called me out after acts 2, 3, 4, and 5, twice in fact after act 4. At the end I was showered with flowers and garlands. The king summoned me to his box after act 4 to express his satisfaction. After the performance a deputation from the orchestra brought me a laurel wreath. The singers were also repeatedly called out. I nevertheless felt that the public’s reception of the individual musical pieces was lukewarm, and this could not have been otherwise: the singers and the chorus were, on the one hand, exhausted, because yesterday, and the day before yesterday, there had been two dress rehearsals with the performance today following immediately - without even a day of rest. Then, on the other hand, out of the desire to do everything correctly, they were unduly anxious and self-conscious, and all of them, with the exception of Michalesi, sang untidily. This was particularly true of Tichatschek in the role of the Prophet. Michalesi, on the other hand, was marvelous and carried all the rest.’

31 March 1850
‘The funeral of my beloved brother, which was marked by a great manifestation of sympathy for the deceased: representatives of the arts, science, the civil authorities, and the magistracy, as well as the ministers Brandenburg, Rabe, and Ladenberg, all were present. Over one hundred carriages followed the procession. The king sent his personal equipage as escort; he had already, the evening before, written my mother a letter of condolence in his own hand. The preacher Auerbach read the oration over the coffin before it was carried out of the death-chamber. The funeral indicated just how much the deceased, in spite of so much hostility, had been esteemed and honored by his fellow citizens. Stayed with Mother all day.’

31 May 1851
‘Tremendous celebration for the unveiling of Rauch’s monument of Frederick the Great. I watched the event from a window of the Academy, even though the king had ordered that Cornelius and I should be part of the academic deputation. In the evening, by royal command, a gala performance of my opera, Ein Feldlager in Schlesien, with admission by royal invitation only. After act 2, the king summoned Rauch and me to his box and expressed his satisfaction in the friendliest, kindliest manner. The performance itself passed by coldly and without interest.’

26 June 1754
‘Sorrowful, inauspicious day. At noon my beloved mother’s fearful, mortal agonies began and ended only two hours after midnight. What a terrible fourteen hours! What a mother I have lost!’

28 June 1856
‘The proposal by Herr von Korff for the hand of my daughter, and the manner in which Blanca responded to this news, preoccupied me to such an extent that I was incapable of any musical work.’

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