Who is Meyerbeer?

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He was born on the Jewish date 6 Elul (September 5, 1791) in Vogelsdorf, Germany as Yaakov Liebmann Beer. His father, Judah Herz Beer was a wealthy sugar refiner in Germany and Italy. His mother, Malka Liebmann Meyer Wulff, also known as Amalia, was the daughter of Liebmann Meyer Wulff, a wealthy Berlin merchant and banker who made a fortune delivering supplies to Prussian troops, and was the director of the Prussian lottery. The family tree traces its roots to Rabbi Moses Isserles and other famous rabbis.  See Meyerbeer family genealogy (link -- will open in new frame)


Amalie Beer

Jacob Herz Beer


He was the eldest of three boys. His brother Michael Beer became a well known German playwright, author of two successful plays, Struensee and Der Pariah. His brother Wilhelm Beer became a businessman and an amateur astronomer who achieved fame by publishing the first map of the moon in the 1820's and participated in the first scientific observations of Mars. See, Martian studies link - Chapter 4 Aeorographers.

The Beer family called Berlin its home. They resided at 72 Spandauerstrasse, later moving to a residence opposite the Brandenberg Gate known as Pariser Platz. The "Beer Villa" as it was then known, was a Berlin landmark of the 19th century, with its domed roof (built for Wilhelm's observatory) making a distinctive mark on the skyline.

Jacob was first trained at the piano and became known as a child prodigy, one of the finest pianists in all of Berlin. He took training from great masters including Muzio Clementi. Later he studied composition and counterpoint with the Abbe Vogler in Darmstadt for several years; and it was there that he became friends with Carl Maria von Weber. By 1815, Jacob Beer had composed several oratorios and operas in German which showed promise. At the suggestion of Antonio Salieri, he made his way to Italy in order to develop the fine art of composing for the voice.

By 1815, the composer, now calling himself Giacomo Meyerbeer, began to compose Italian operas and other musical works. His first effort was a cantata for solo clarinet, orchestra soprano and chorus entitled Gli Amori de Teolinda, which he composed in Venice specifically for the great clarinettist Heinrich Josef Baermann and his consort, the soprano Helene Harlas.  Both were and remained good friends and supporters.

Between 1815 and 1824, Meyerbeer composed six operas in the Rossini style, each more successful than the last, and he became a serious rival to Rossini. The last of these, entitled Il Crociato in Egitto, became an international sensation, and within a few years it was performed in all the major venues. It was the opera that brought Meyerbeer to Paris.

Following his father's death, Meyerbeer married his first cousin Minna Mosson in 1826. A son and a daughter born within the next three years each died within a few months of birth.

Set for Robert le Diable, 1831, Paris Academie Royale de Musique

Between 1831 and the posthumous production of his last opera L'africaine in 1865, Meyerbeer was the most famous and successful composer of opera in all Europe. In 1831, shortly after the July revolution in France, and the establishment of the bourgeois monarch Louis Phillippe, the monumental Robert le Diable premiered. It defined French Grand Opera for the remainder of the century, and has been called the first opera that is a unified work of art.

Following Robert le Diable, Meyerbeer composed the French Grand operas Les Huguenots (1836), Le Prophte (1849) and L'africaine (1865).

Meyerbeer, in 1842, was appointed Director of Music in Berlin, and there composed the opera Ein Feldlager de Schliessen, later reconstituted as an Opera Comique L'toile du nord. He also composed the Opera Comique Dinorah.

Meyerbeer did not limit his compositions to opera. He was the composer of lieder, chanson and a unique genre called Romances, which borrowed dramatic energy from the world of opera. He also composed organ music, religious music, concerti and occasional pieces.

The chief target of Richard Wagner's infamous anti-Semitic essay "Jews and Music", Meyerbeer never responded publicly to his accuser.

Engraving says: "Final honors given to Meyerbeer at Paris in the railway station Gare du Nord"

Meyerbeer died in Paris on May 2, 1864, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery (at Schonhauser Allee) in Berlin. He had kept true to the faith of his ancestors his entire life.

The operas of Meyerbeer, though wildly successful in his time and for fifty years following his death, have virtually disappeared from the major opera venues. His Les Huguenots, for example, was performed 1,000 times at the Paris Opera before the turn of the century (in only 64 years), an unheard of total, even by the standards of our own time. By comparison, Puccini's La Boheme, which is considered the most popular opera of all time, only recently passed the 1,000 performance mark at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but only after nearly 100 years.

copyright 1997  Stephen A. Agus
Reproduction in whole or in part for educational, non-commercial, purposes with attribution to Meyerbeer Fan Club ( www.meyerbeer.com  ) permitted.  All other uses prohibited unless expressly licensed.  meyerb@meyerbeer.com 

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