Paul Dawson-Bowling reviews Robert Letellier’s Giacomo Meyerbeer: A Critical Life and Iconography

This is a remarkable book, a groundbreaking book, a great book, an essential book for anybody with an interest in classical music or European high culture during the nineteenth century. For too long Meyerbeer has languished in limbo, a shadowy figure eclipsed and outshone by Richard Wagner.  It was not ever thus.  In the mid-nineteenth century there was an accepted consensus that whereas music’s Rafael was Mozart, its Michelangelo was Meyerbeer. Meyerbeer, not Beethoven, was music’s supreme icon.

How are the mighty fallen! How many people reading this review could hum or remember a single phrase of Meyerbeer. Once a titan in his own right, whose position in opera and ven music itself seemed impregnable, he has subsided into a footnote, a minor planet which begins to glimmer only when its orbit draws closer towards the sun of Wagner. Robert Letellier, probably the world’s supreme authority on Meyerbeer, draws attention to some of the reasons for this decline in his opening chapter of this book, which makes it one of its most fascinating. However the chapter’s title, The Sources, does it less than justice because it actually deals with so much more. It provides a masterly account of Meyerbeer’s Jewish origins, his operatic methods, his achievements and his burgeoning status. It reveals his ‘omnivoracious’ attitude to other music and to literature; it uncovers his relationships with singers, critics and the press; it discusses his own non-operatic creations and his family life; it sets out Meyerbeer’s mindboggling capacity for hard work and for taking infinite pains; it enters the toxic waters of the antisemitism which always damaged him, both in life and forever afterwards; and it does so much else.

Above all, it sets the scene for the book’s central narrative, its account of Meyerbeer’s life. This account is meticulously laid out year by year, making it easy to pick it up at repeated intervals and yet keep a clear grip on its direction. Its many fascinating footnotes are just that, not irritating end notes which are awkward to access. As whole, this account possesses a special authenticity because the author draws constantly on the sequence of Meyerbeer’s extraordinary diaries; indeed his extensive extracts both provide a structure and allow Meyerbeer to speak for himself. At the same time Letellier weaves rich garlands of supporting and clarifying detail around his central narrative. The range of his sources is wide indeed, revealing a depth of scholarship extending far beyond Meyerbeer. Not that there is anything over-scholarly or desiccated about his account. Throughout this biography the figure of Meyerbeer is not only sensitively drawn, but three dimensional and alive. His person grows ever more vivid until he stands steadily and strongly before us, glowing with humanity and human appeal, something that would not have been possible without a corresponding humanity in the author’s personal touch.  The result is a remarkable record of remarkable man.

Even without Meyerbeer’s music, Letellier’s book leaves no doubt that an extraordinary creative force has been treated unjustly; operas of such repute as Le Prophête must amount to more than strings of musical rubbish, technical incompetence and audience tedium – which is what his detractors have virtually maintained.  Le Prophête provides corroboration for Meyerbeer’s standing and repute, the evidence coming from the circumstances of its premiere. Even in anticipation, expectations had run so high that the French Parliament did not meet on the evening of the premiere, because the deputies, the members, were all going to be away at the Opera. They had individually booked out the grand tier and all the boxes. The event itself, on April 16th 1849, was a sensation both artistically and commercially. It made the Paris Opera 10.000 francs, a sum unique for a single performance. It also brought Meyerbeer 19.000 francs, another record, along with a golden wreath. In addition he was appointed soon afterwards to the Legion d’honneur, and his opera was hailed as the opera of the century, perhaps of all time. It went on to play in 30 different opera houses within a twelvemonth, and for comparison Die Meistersinger, whose premiere was Wagner’s greatest success, was taken up in the following year by a mere eight.

Ernest Newman had nothing but contempt for Le Prophête, and nothing provoked him to greater scorn than its chorus on roller skates, but Meyerbeer left nothing to chance ovwer ensuring success, and this was all part of the Paris Opera’s astonishing ability to provide him with a spectacle and suspend disbelief as he hoped.  Audience members at the time were thrilled and amazed to see a snowbound landscape onstage and the chorus/ballet apparently skating and gliding across it. There were other coups de theatres, above all the sun rising on this same scene. It had a blinding brightness that was previously beyond experience anywhere, as it was produced by a newly developed arc lamp. Meyerbeer’s attention to every circumstance went as far as feasting the critics at dinners and providing some of them with financial subsidies. Although Letellier demonstrates that the extent of these has been grossly exaggerated, the fact of them remains; but I would add in support of Meyerbeer that this was not moral turpitude, because different standards applied. There is a revealing parallel with my parents who found it hard to accept the different standards prevalent in India. There the willingness of civil servants to offer related jobs to family members was viewed as admirable, the expression of kindred loyalty and not culpable nepotism.  Talleyrand provided another illustration of different standards that was closer to Meyerbeer’s own time.  Just 50 years earlier, as Napoleon’s right hand man, he insisted that food was an aspect of diplomacy, but his legendary hospitality could never have been funded by his statesman’s salary alone, substantial though that was; the assumption and expectation were that he would take sweeteners from foreign and domestic agents hoping to do business. Even if the terms of such transactions have always seemed outrageous to Britons and North Germans with their rigorous Protestant ethic, the Jewish Meyerbeer and the critical fraternity of Paris seem to have understood each other.

Letellier says that Meyerbeer looked Jewish because of his dark colouring and large nose, but the illustrations (which are agreeably copious but often too small), do not entirely bear this out. It is intriguing that there is a particularly fine illustration of Meyerbeer opposite one of the French Emperor, Louis Napoleon, and that it is Frenchman who has the bigger, more Jewish nose. Another failing of the book is its dimension, less than full size and not of standard proportions that fit easily among the other books on a bookshelf, Meyerbeer was short of stature but dynamic; he wanted and achieved the best. And why such small print? No matter; this splendid biography is likely to set the standard for years, and is infinitely worth acquiring. It reveals a great musician and a remarkable business man, who ended his life piled high with honours, glory and riches. He emerges as kind and tolerant; indeed, he was a much-loved man.

His genius, which should be accepted as such, can be savoured on recordings, and perhaps his time will come. Sixty years ago, Mahler was the Jewish composer whose creations were a farrago of musical rubbish, technical incompetence and longwinded tedium for audiences, but his time has indeed come. Possibly, or even probably, Meyerbeer will soon follow Mahler out into the sunlight – likewise to remain there forever.

Paul Dawson-Bowling

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