Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Giacomo Meyerbeer and French PopOp

Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), circa 1863
Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), circa 1863

We mark the death on May 2, 1864 – 158 years ago today – of the German-born opera composer Jacob Liebmann Beer, also-known-as Giacomo Meyerbeer.  Born in Berlin on September 5, 1791, he died in Paris during the rehearsals for the premiere of his opera L’Africaine – “The African” – which turned out to be, no surprise then, his final opera.  

Let us get to know Herr/Signore/Monsieur Meyerbeer a bit even as we explore the tremendous popularity of his operas, the reasons behind that popularity, and the reasons for their fall from popularity!  

No Exaggeration: As Popular as Elvis

Incredible though it may seem to us, here today, Meyerbeer was the Elvis Presley of nineteenth century opera.  Not that he was a pelvis gyrating,  groupie groping “rock star” as we understand a rock star to be today, no; but in the world of nineteenth century opera, he was the most popular musician of not just his time but of his century: the single most frequently performed opera composer of the nineteenth century.  In terms of his singular international fame and his income, Meyerbeer was – more than Gioachino Rossini, more than Giuseppe Verdi, more than Richard Wagner –the most successful stage composer of the nineteenth century.  

Meyerbeer’s impact was not limited to the opera-going public. Au contraire, his operas were stunningly influential as well. Writes David Salazar:

“Such noted composers as Verdi, Wagner, Berlioz, Massenet, Donizetti, Halevy, Dvořák, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Gounod, Liszt, and Chopin, among others, all came under his [Meyerbeer’s] spell at one point or another in their respective careers.”

And yet, here today, we would observe the sad truth: Meyerbeer’s operas are almost entirely unknown, a fall from artistic grace almost without equal in the history of Western music.  …

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