Giacomo Meyerbeer

IF the ardent Gluckists and Piccinists quarreling over their wine and coffee in the Cafe de la Rotonde, with the busts of the two composers coolly looking down upon them as they exchanged their shots of “statue and pedestal,” “orchestra and stage,” and mutually lashed themselves to the pitch of frenzy in the heat of argument, could but have suddenly foreseen to what lengths the principles they discussed would be carried by composers in after times, dumb astonishment might well have put a momentary stop to their excited bickerings. Imagine the dismay of the spirit of some Gluckist,— or even of the good Christopher Willibald himself,—returned to earth and the Académie de Musique, at witnessing a modern French grand opera by Halévy or Meyerbeer; or, if it perchance traveled as far as Bayreuth, at opening its long-closed eyes and ears on Wagner’s Nibelungen, and at being told that the extraordinary works that met its bewildered gaze were the latest outgrowths of the Gluck opera! Conceive the astonishment of a Piccinist ghost at finding his idol’s lightly - warbling muse decked out in the flaunting trappings of Rossini’s Siège de Corinthe!

Yet so do things grow in this world. One man sows the seeds of dramatic truthfulness on the operatic stage; a few generations spring up and pass away, and his successor reaps unheard-of and unimagined crops of dramatic effect. Another man pins his faith to the absolute independence of music in the opera, and he is soon followed by another in whose hands music is raised to the throne of absolute autocracy.

With regard to the Rossini outgrowth of the Piccini principle little or nothing need be said now. Rossini is hardly cold in his grave, and where are his operas now ? Most of those works, so full of exquisite music, so instinct with genius, that but a generation ago intoxicated all Europe and were the cynosure of admiring crowds, now struggle painfully for even a respectful hearing. Singers will not (too often cannot) sing them, managers neglect them, the public forgets them; their grace and beauty lie shrouded in dust on library shelves.

But Meyerbeer still lives, in his works, as vigorous a life as ever. He has had no successor who can rightly claim to wear his mantle. The name of his followers, imitators, et hoc servum pecus is legion, but the Gounods, Thomases, Massenets, Bizets, cannot wield his sceptre. His example and success were too brilliant not to tempt emulation. Even his only successful rival, Verdi, could not refrain from paying him the late homage of imitation as soon as death had called him from the field of action; and, forgetful of the laurels won by Ernani and Rigoletto, the hot-blooded Italian made his bid for fresh honors in the path that Meyerbeer had so triumphantly trod. Yet from the Huguenots to Aida is a long step; Meyerbeer is still the one and only Meyerbeer.

In considering a man whose career has been so uniquely brilliant, one cannot help casting about to discover wherein the secret of his success mainly lay. He certainly had many high qualities, yet he cannot be fairly said to have possessed any especial one of them to a transcendent degree. His natural intrinsically musical endowments were small in comparison with those of Rossini. In spontaneity of inspiration, in melodic power, in what we may call the specific musical sense, he falls far behind the great Italian maestro. As a contrapuntist, in spite of his pretensions and the claims that are made for him by his French admirers, he has given nothing to the world that can entitle him to a really high rank. His mastery of musical form, his power of developing a theme into an orderly and finely organized composition of sustained interest, must be called small when judged by any high standard. His dramatic power was great, it is true, yet the instances in which it shows itself in his works as being of inherently fine and pure quality are few and far between; his gift of theatrical effect, however, was undoubted and utterly phenomenal, and it is to this that his success must be mainly attributed.

Possessed of musical genius and perceptions which, if not of the highest, nor even a very high kind, were still of sufficiently stout quality to serve as a basis for a high degree of culture, Meyerbeer had an unusually sharp eye for effect, a rare appreciation of whatever is striking and saisissant, as the French say, which has seldom been paralleled; unremitting work, eager and ceaseless observation, an easy-going, aesthetic conscience,— or, possibly, the lack of absolutely fine aesthetic perceptions, — enabled him to develop this power to the utmost. The sharpness of his observation of other composers, the rapidity with which he took the slightest hint from the works of other men, was astounding. Of plagiarism, in an invidious sense, one finds little in his compositions. He had a distinct and unmistakable individuality of his own; and if we find him borrowing ideas from others, they were first melted down in the crucible of his mind, were then recast in a mold peculiar to himself, and bore his own stamp. For a man of his unusual power of assimilating other people’s ideas, he appeared on the stage at just the right moment; the time and conditions could not have been better chosen for the display of his peculiar talents. Although what we call Meyerbeer’s third, or French, manner was something entirely unprecedented in the annals of the lyric stage, circumstances had combined to prepare the public mind for it; and notwithstanding the astonishment with which its first appearance was greeted, the public very soon found that it was nicely suited to their wants. Richard Wagner describes very well, in his figurative way, the conditions under which Meyerbeer developed his new style of dramatic writing. The account must, to be sure, be taken with a grain of salt, but it is too good not to be given here with all practicable condensation. He writes: —

“ In the fair and much-bespattered land of Italy sat the carelessly prurient Rossini, who had tried out its musical fat, in his facile, lordly way, for the benefit of the emaciated world of art, and who now looked on with a half-astonished smile at the sprawlings of gallant Parisian hunters after people’s melodies. One of these was a good horseman, and whenever he dismounted after a hurried ride one could be sure that he had found a melody which would fetch a good price. So he now rode like one possessed through all the wares of fish and costermongery in the Naples market, so that everything flew around as in a whirlwind; cackling and cursing pursued his course, and angry fists were clenched at him. With lightning quickness his keen nostrils caught the scent of a superb revolution of fish-mongers and green-grocers. But the opportunity was big with still further profit! Out galloped the Parisian horseman on the Portici road, to the boats and nets of those artless, singing fishermen, who catch fish, sleep, rage, play with wife and children, hurl dirk-knives, even knock each other on the head, and all amid incessant singing. Confess, Master Auber, that was a famous ride, and better than on a hippogriff, which only prances off into midair. — whence there is, upon the whole, nothing to be brought home but colds in the head and coughs! The horseman rode back again, dismounted, made Rossini the politest, reverential bow (he well knew, why! ), took a special post-chaise for Paris, and what he cooked up there, in the twinkling of an eye, was no less than the Dumb Girl of Portici.

“ Rossini looked from afar at the splendid rowdidow, and on his way to Paris thought it, profitable to rest awhile amid the snowy Alps of Switzerland, and to listen with perked-up ears to what musical converse the nimble lads there were wont to hold with their mountains and cows. Once arrived in Paris, he made his politest bow to Auber (he well knew, why!), and presented to the world, with huge paternal joy, his youngest born, which, in a moment of happy inspiration, he had christened William Tell.

“ Thus the Muette de Portici and Guillaume Tell became the two axes about which the whole speculative world of opera music revolved.

“ Meyerbeer had a special knack at observing closely and on the spot each successive phenomenon in the above-mentioned march of opera music; he dogged its footsteps constantly and everywhere. It is especially noteworthy that he only followed its lead, but never walked side by side with, not to speak of never leading it. He was like the starling, which follows the plowshare in the field, gladly picking out the angle-worms turned up in its furrow.

“ In Germany Meyerbeer had never succeeded in following Weber’s lead; what Weber revealed in the fullness of melodious life could not be reëchoed by Meyerbeer’s acquired, arid formalism. Tired of his fruitless toil, he at last listened only to Rossini’s siren strains, forgetful of his allegiance to his friend, and migrated to the land where those raisins1 grew. lie became the weather-cock of music in Europe, turning around undecided for a while after every change in the wind, and standing still only after its direction had been well settled. Thus Meyerbeer only composed operas à la Rossini in Italy, until the great wind began to veer about in Paris, and Auber and Rossini bad raised the new breeze to a hurricane with the Muette and Tell. How soon Meyerbeer was in Paris! There he found in the gallicized Weber (only think of Robin des Buis! ) 2 and the be-Berliozed Beethoven treasures which neither Auber nor Rossini had noticed, as lying too remote from their purposes, but which Meyerbeer, with his cosmopolitan jack-of-all-trades eye, knew very well how to value. He grasped together everything that thus presented itself to him into a wondrously gaudy, motley armful, and produced something before whose strident shriek both Auber and Rossini became suddenly inaudible; the grim devil Robert took them one and all.”

Somewhat over-sarcastic an account, and too plainly one-sided, but it throws a strong electric light on a very characteristic trait in Meyerbeer. Indeed, it is almost easy to forgive Wagner the apparently spiteful drop of vinegar with which he has seasoned his figurative sketch, for there is something in Meyerbeer’s music which almost unavoidably ruffles the temper of any one who is inclined to take the art seriously. If we would admire his high qualities unrestrictedly, we can do so only by painfully suppressing a sort of rage into which his short-comings are too apt to throw us. Although there are many pages in his works which easily command enthusiastic admiration, it is difficult to come away from a performance of a whole opera of his in an entirely pleasant frame of mind; his gold is mixed with so much alloy, and the alloy is often of very base metal.

One of Meyerbeer’s traits, which has been very loudly admired, is his power of writing characteristic music, his skill in giving it a striking local coloring. This power of his was unquestionably great, yet it rarely shows itself of much higher quality than that of the present impressioniste school of French pain ters. He could seize the salient points in a situation with a wonderful sureness of grasp, but his power of idealizing them was in general small. Take, for instance, the coronation scene in the Prophète, — a situation which could well have been made ideal use of. The ceremonial music in this scene is certainly as gorgeous as can be wished; it is a fitting expression of all the glittering pomp of a gala church ceremony. One is tempted to call it the most splendid ceremonial music that money could procure. But it stops there. As for genuine grandeur and impressiveness, it affects the listener of really lofty musical aspirations much as the rich ceremonial pomp of a feast-day high mass in St. Peter’s affects a non-Catholic observer, — as an overpoweringly brilliant display. It is, in fact, a dazzling, superb cathedral ceremony, taken bodily out of the church and put upon the stage. But in the cathedral all this theatrical pomp is ennobled and idealized (in the believer’s eyes) by the solemn fact that it is a divine service, by the more than ever sensible presence of the omnipotent God; on the stage this idealizing element falls out at once. What even approximate substitute could the composer give us, save the intrinsically noble and elevating character of his music? The church ceremony is idealized by its own lofty purpose; the stage ceremony must be idealized by the composer. Meyerbeer has not done it.3

Take, again, the much-lauded Pre aux Elèves scene in the Huguenots. The music is certainly as characteristic as possible. A man like Berlioz, who always had a keen relish for anything in the shape of local coloring in art, and who was, upon the whole, so dazzled by the brilliant aspect of Meyerbeer’s genius that his finer aesthetic perceptions became abnormally blunted whenever he was brought face to face with it, — Berlioz could write with perfect honesty of this scene, “ The quarrel of the women, the litanies of the Virgin, the song of the Huguenot soldiers, present to the ear a musical tissue of astounding richness, the web of which the listener can easily follow without the complex thought of the composer being blurred for an instant. This marvel of dramatized counterpoint,” etc. Yes, the thing is written with great skill, although its plan is not so pretentious (if we examine the score) as a verbal description of it might lead one to imagine. The rataplan is just such music as one can imagine soldiers singing; the prayer of the nuns is a good example of much of the music that is sung in Catholic convents. As 1 have said, it is all as characteristic as may be; and the effect is certainly stinking; it, has the salt, of a familiar reality. But looking at it musically, wliat absolutely miserable music it is! V hat a mere two-pence-ha’penny-worth of real inspiration there is at the bottom of it all! The scene is unidealized from beginning to end. The composer has treated a by no means lofty, yet pregnant subject in a purely photographic way; he shows us no more in the scene than the vulgarest eye could descry, and seems quite content to have been exact, without a thought, of being imaginative, or artistic in any noble sense of the word. His point of view was not a high one; one may even say that Meyerbeer never took a higher artistic stand-point than the barest necessities of the case demanded.

It would be very far from the truth to say that he was not capable of treating exalted subjects in a fitting way. Yet he needed the spur of a really lofty theme, of a highly poetic situation, to enable him to rise into a high musical atmosphere. He could not evolve really great music out of his own brain alone; and we may safely say that, of his purely instrumental works, not one has any great value.

Of these latter, his overture to Struensee probably holds the first place; but you would pierce it clean through the heart by bringing it into comparison with an overture of Schumann, Mendelssohn, or even of Weber, not to mention Beethoven.

It has been often said that Meyerbeer lacked genuine sentiment and passionateness. I think this is hardly true. In treating scenes in which sentiment and passion predominate, he has often risen to the full height of the situation. I know of no music that glows with more passionate warmth than the first parts of the great duet which closes the fourth act of the Huguenots. Of hardly less emotional power (and of somewhat higher intrinsically musical value) is the slow movement of the duet between V alentine and Marcel in the third act. Bertram’s phrase, “ De ma gloire éclipsée, de ma splendeur passéé,” in the third act of Robert, is full of the most genuine emotional power. What Meyerbeer did lack was a sense of true grandeur. We may look almost in vain for a passage of really impressive solemnity in his works. When he attempts such things he does not rise above theatrical pomposity. The invocation “Brahma, Vishnu, Siva!” in the Africaine, the betrothal scene in the fifth act of the Huguenots, the consecration music in the Prophète, all lack the true ring, in spite of their striking effectiveness. The passage in his works which savors most of really beautiful solemnity is a phrase (at first in D-major, later in B-flat major) in the priests’ march, in the fourth act of the Africaine, — a phrase only eight bars long, which is of singularly impressive beauty.

When he entered upon the domain of the terrible, Meyerbeer was more easily at home. A more trenchant expression of savage cruelty than the phrase “ Tuez les Huguenots,” in the fifth act of that opera, can scarcely be found. The terrific effect of the Benediction of the Poniards, and the ensuing phrase, “A cette cause sainte,” is not of quite so genuine quality; the thing is somewhat wanting in spontaneity, and smells a little of the lamp. Besides, it is utterly lacking in nobility of character, a want that is not felt in the “ Tuez les Huguenots,” as there all elevation of style is out of the question. Most of the infernal music in Robert is rather conventionally diabolic than really terrible. Even the highly beautiful procession of the nuns, in the fourth act, owes its unearthly character more to the tom-tom than to its inherent musical quality; and its thirds and sixths on two bassoons soli better deserve Liszt’s joke (which need not be repeated) than the admiration which their would-be ghastliness has so often called forth. Yet Meyerbeer has certainly done great things in this field.

When he attempted the graceful and fascinating, his habitual want of spontaneousness stood much in his way; he also had a tendency to fall into triviality, a besetting failing of his. Yet he has written many things that have all the airy charm of natural grace. Much of the ballet music in Robert, the familiar “ Ombre légère ” in Dinorah, Sélika’s swan song, “ Un cygne an doux ramage,” in the Africaine, are good examples of what Meyerbeer could do in the way of writing fascinating and graceful melodies.

But it is neither in the terrible, the passionate, nor the graceful and charming that Meyerbeer’s peculiar genius displays itself in its fullest power and brilliancy. In was in the realm of the heroic, the chivalric and knightly, that he was most conspicuously at home, and worked with the most unerring touch. There is an air of high-bred courtliness and Middle Age gallantry about much of Meyerbeer’s music, which we look for almost in vain in the works of his contemporaries. It is this quality that shines preeminent in such masterly pages as the septet for male voices in the third act of the Huguenots. I think that in this in every respect wonderful number, and notably in its overwhelming phrase, “ Et bonne épée, et bon courage,’’ Meyerbeer’s power reaches its apogee I know of no such perfect expression of the devil-may-care recklessness and knightly gallantry of the mediaeval cavalier in all music. Hardly less fine is the finale of the first, act of the Africaine (also for male voices) from the phrase, “ D’impie et de rebelle,” although here the somewhat overfinical harmony takes away a little of the native fire and vigor of the theme. The bacchanalian chorus, “Aux seules plaisirs fidèles,” the Sicilienne, “ O Fortune, à ton caprice,” and the soprano air and chorus, “ La trompette guerrière,” in Robert, are also fine examples of this chivalric quality in Meyerbeer; even the male quartet which closes the second act of the Prophète has something of it, notably in the phrase, “ Et la couronne que le ciel donne,” although the musical value of the piece is not very great.

Meyerbeer was not a great contrapuntist. He was skilled enough in the craft not to allow his attempts at running counterpoint to interfere with the dramatic character of his music; but the counterpoint, taken on its own merits, often makes one smile. Such passages as the introduction to the Huguenots are too puerile, from a contrapuntal point of view, to be called even respectable. His power of developing a motive into an extended composition of sustained musical interest was in general not very remarkable. The musical side of his elaborate finales and ensemble pieces is not precisely what is most striking in them. His finest efforts of this sort are probably the last terzet in Robert and the first finale in the Africaine; yet even these would have to struggle hard to win the name of masterpieces of form. But he knew very well how to sustain and gradually intensify the dramatic interest, and work up to an effective dramatic climax in his great concerted numbers. Thus the finale to the fourth act of the Prophète is one immense crescendo of dramatic effect, albeit that, as pure music, it is poor and commonplace as need be. The intensely dramatic character of Meyerbeer’s music does not always lie in itself alone, but also in the opportunities it affords singers for an impassioned or imposingly declamatory style of delivery. No amount of vocal ranting can seem out of place in some passages of Meyerbeer; they seem actually made for it. Such things as “ A cette cause sainte ” and the finale to the second act of the Huguenots (perhaps as vile a bit of musical vulgarity as Meyerbeer was ever guilty of) cannot be overdone.

And here, at last, we stumble upon the word “vulgarity.” Well, it must be admitted that it is impossible to speak at any length about Meyerbeer without using it. Of all Meyerbeer’s faults, his innate tendency toward that which is aesthetically vulgar and trivial is the most serious. His very effectiveness is often in itself vulgar and meretricious. He must have been a man of the most elastic artistic conscience; at least, it is inconceivable how a man who could write one quarter of what Meyerbeer did could have any real respect for the remaining three quarters. The ostentation of his manner is often wonderful. In spite of the generally dramatic atmosphere of his music, Rossini himself could not exceed the coolness with which he would at times stop the impassioned flow of a composition, that a singer might have a chance of displaying her flexibility of voice in the most elaborate cadenzas. Meyerbeer knew very well that singers are fond of brilliant bravura passages, as one of the surest means of reaping applause, and also that applause bestowed upon a singer is pretty sure to add an imputed lustre to the composition sung; so he put many brilliant vocal cadenzas into his scores. These cadenzas of Meyerbeer’s show much knowledge of the human voice, and are often singularly effective; yet they contrast too sharply, as a rule, with the general character of the pieces in which they occur, and seem too willfully brought in. They are not so thoroughly amalgamated With the rest of the music as those of the more naturally florid vocal writers, like Bellini and Rossini; they seem too plainly intended for display. The cadenzas for several voices, for which Meyerbeer is so famous, and of which tlieone at the close of the terzet without accompaniment, “ Cruel moment, fatal mystere!” in Robert, is a good example, are in reality nothing more than a brilliant and effective imitation of the noted passage in B-major, to the words, “ Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt,” in Beethoven’s ninth symphony.

There is one characteristic rhythmic effect which Meyerbeer uses ad nauseam and which is one of the serious blemishes in his style. His fondness for this rhythmic device (which may be described as an anapest with the ictus on the first syllable) has given rise in Germany to the only nickname that has been bestowed on him. He has been called the cuckoo of composers. As the cuckoo’s only song is a repetition of its own name, “ cuckoo ! cuckoo ! ” so Meyerbeer’s music keeps almost incessantly repeating, Meyerbeer’s habitual devices are extremely simple. A large number of his melodies are little else than variations upon the familiar bugle-calls, written on the open notes of the plain trumpet ; and he was fond of harmonizing them in two parts, as if they were to be played on a pair of bugles. Such phrases as “ Roi des enfers, e’est moi qui vous appelle,” in Robert; “ Et la couronne, qui le ciel donne,” in the Prophète; and many others, come under this head. Even the great hymn, “ Roi du ciel,” in the Prophète, might be ranked with these, were it not for its full harmony, which suggests a comparison with a certain passage in B-flat in the first movement of Beethoven’s E-flat concerto. His use of long organ-points, either plain, or varied by accessory notes above or below, is conspicuous, and often very felicitous. His rhythms are usually perspicuous, well marked, and full of verve. He was fond of surprises, and sounded all the depths and shoals of enharmonic modulation; his harmony abounds with striking subtleties and unexpected changes. Of instrumentation, effective grouping of voices, and all the various devices of musical stage effect, he was a consummate master. His patience was indomitable. He would write and rewrite Certain passages a great number of times, and have them sung or played to him by different artists over and over again, until he was completely satisfied that he could not improve upon them. Taken altogether, he was a man very difficult to imitate, but very easy indeed to parody. Nine tenths of Offenbach may be called a laughable parody on Meyerbeer; many of the ridiculous effects of the buffoon of the Variétés and the Bouffes-Parisiens can claim a sort of left-handed relationship with the music of the king of the Opéra. The boulevards reverberate with a burlesque echo of the Rue Lepelletier. In some cases, indeed, the original outbids the parody in ridiculousness: such bombast as the unison passage, “ Fais que ta grâce infinie,” in the first act of the Africaine, goes beyond Offenbach.

Meyerbeer! Meyerbeer!

Yet with all Meyerbeer’s faults, — and few great composers have had so many and grave ones to answer for, —he was indisputably great. His name is identified with that of the modern grand tragic opera. If his genius was not of the very highest, his talent was prodigious; his works form a distinct epoch in the history of dramatic music. It would be rash to predict a long immortality for him; he had too much of success during his life-time to make it probable that his glory can endure long untarnished. Yet of all opera composers since Mozart, he has been the most universally and enthusiastically admired.

William F. Apthorp.

  1. The pun on Rosinen (raisins) and Rossini is naturally untranslatable.
  2. “ The Freischütz, not in its native beauty, but mutilated, vulgarized, tortured, and insulted in a thousand ways by an arranger,— the Freischütz, transformed into Robin des Bois, was given at the Odéon. The theatre filled its coffers, and M. Castilblaze, who had pillaged the master-work, raked in over a hundred thousand francs.” (Berlioz’s Mémoires.)
  3. To this it may be replied that it is just in this want of intrinsic nobility in the music that Meyerbeer shows his accurate perception of the character of the situation ; that, of all ceremonies ever performed in a church, the coronation of John of Leyden was the most hollow and unlovely ; that John himself was a mere rascal, the three leading Anabaptists little better than shrewd theological pot-hunters, and the whole Anabaptist rabble a set of bloodthirsty fanatics. Yet do we honor the highsouled artist, especially the high-souled musician, for taking a situation by its highest or by its lowest side? Look at the statue scene in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, where the Don stands as the incarnation of human impiety struggling against inexorable fate ! Did Mozart bring his hero’s low sensuality and Impiety into the foreground ? No, but rather his chivalric courage and high-bred courtliness. And, upon the whole, when music is written, should it not be the very best and noblest that the occasion can possibly warrant?