The Jewish Composer Whose Legacy Was Destroyed by Richard Wagner

Opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer enjoyed great success in the 1830s, before three words from his protégé Richard Wagner had a devastating impact. A new book seeks to reintroduce the Jewish maestro to modern audiences

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The German-Jewish composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, circa 1840.
The German-Jewish composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, circa 1840.
Rich Tenorio
Rich Tenorio

When Richard Wagner was a fledgling opera composer in the 1840s, he sought help from the reigning maestro of the day: a German Jew named Giacomo Meyerbeer, whose operas were all the rage in France. 

Meyerbeer took a keen interest in the then-unknown German, which helped propel him to success. Yet the protégé eventually turned against his mentor and helped start a campaign that led to Meyerbeer’s all-but-disappearance from history. Now, a new biography – “Giacomo Meyerbeer and his Family: Between Two Worlds,” by first-time author Elaine Thornton – aims to restore the memory of both the Jewish composer and his equally accomplished kin.

Born into a prominent family in Berlin in September 1791, Meyerbeer had become a household name half a century later with a career that peaked in 1836 with the premiere of “Les Huguenots.” It would become the first-ever opera to reach a thousand performances at the legendary Paris Opéra. 

Thornton first became interested in Meyerbeer in the early 1990s, after she had a rare chance to see one of his early works, “L’Africaine,” being performed in Bielefeld, Germany (where she was stationed at the time with the British Army). “I had never heard of him,” she recalls. “I knew nothing about him, but I absolutely loved it. 

“I started to wonder why Meyerbeer was so neglected and his operas so seldom performed,” she continues. “I thought they were so good and enjoyable. As soon as I started looking into the question, the figure of Wagner and Meyerbeer’s Jewish background came up. I started looking into his background to answer for myself why he was so neglected.”

She would discover that, during his lifetime, Meyerbeer’s operas were performed throughout the world, from Australia to the United States. “His operas were very much appreciated and performed in Germany at the time of his death” in May 1864, when he was at “the height of his power and fame.” But three words from Wagner would cast a lingering shadow over his work.

High achievers

Meyerbeer came from a family of high achievers, the Beers of Berlin (Meyerbeer changed both his first and family names en route to fame). His parents, Jacob and Amalie Beer, helped launch the Reform movement in Germany, and Amalie also ran a noted literary salon. Two of his three brothers also distinguished themselves: Wilhelm Beer in astronomy, helping produce precedent-setting maps of both the moon and Mars, while Michael Beer was a promising poet and playwright until his premature death in 1833.

“There are plenty of musical families – the Bachs, the Mozarts, the Schumanns,” Thornton notes. Yet Meyerbeer and his family “excelled in such different fields: musicians, composers, astronomers, writers ... all that is chronicled in the book.”

It’s a book the first-time author has been working on for almost a decade. A Roman Catholic herself, she says she was “absolutely gripped by the story of the German-Jewish community, a marginalized community in a time of transition. … One of the reasons why the research had quite a long path was that I really wanted to learn and understand German-Jewish history at that time,” she recounts.

Author Elaine Thornton.Credit: Courtesy

She first began writing about the composer in 2008, but at that point “had not even thought about writing a book,” she relays. That changed in 2013 after she submitted a sample chapter about Amalie Beer to the Biographers’ Club and it won their annual Tony Lothian Prize for best uncommissioned proposal of a first biography, along with a sum of 2,000 English pounds.

This helped her research and write the book on the Meyerbeers, which was published last week by Vallentine Mitchell (a British publishing house that specializes in books on Jewish-related topics). She also worked as a consultant on the eight-volume series of Meyerbeer’s correspondence, as well as separate letters from members of the family, held in archives at places like the Leo Baeck Institute in Dresden.

As Thornton sifted through the historical documents, one of the first mysteries she wrestled with was how and when the composer changed his name. “It’s quite a difficult subject,” she says, noting that people in Germany at the time “had different names within the Jewish community and [for] interacting with people outside their community.”

When the future composer was aged 10, a newspaper referred to him as Jacob Liebmann Beer. Yet according to Thornton, he referred to himself as Meyer Beer around that time. He was already showing an aptitude for music as a pianist and, as a young man, left Germany for Italy, where he adopted the first name Giacomo (Italian for “Jacob”) and started composing operas as Giacomo Meyerbeer. It was during these years, in the 1810s, that his rise to fame began.

From 1817 to 1823, he composed half a dozen operas, the last of which, “Il Crociatto en Egitto” (“The Crusader in Egypt”), brought him wider fame. “It’s the one that sort of unlocks the door to Paris,” Thornton says, calling the French capital not only “the big music center of its day” but also “the opera center of that time.”

It was here that Meyerbeer premiered “Robert le Diable” (“Robert the Devil”), which was “his first absolutely massive success,” Thornton notes, adding that it has a very macabre element: nuns rising from the dead.

“It can be quite spectacular,” she reports, saying she saw “Robert le Diable” performed at the Royal Opera House in London a decade ago. “It was actually quite shocking at the time as well,” she says. In its review of the London production, The Guardian noted that the music, “combining florid Italianate lyricism with progressive harmony and instrumentation, was considered shockingly original” when it premiered in 1831.

It clearly struck a chord with those Parisian audiences, who returned in record numbers five years later for “Les Huguenots” (only Charles Gounod’s “Faust” surpassed it). “Les Huguenots” is a dramatization of the events known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, when thousands of French Protestants were murdered by Catholic mobs in 1572. 

The composer’s works were part of a style popular at the time called grand opera – ambitious five-act works whose stories tended to incorporate political turmoil and star-crossed lovers, and whose music drew on local references and featured choruses that played integral roles in the plot as opposed to commenting from an outside perspective.

"Giacomo Meyerbeer and his Family," by Elaine Thornton. Credit: Vallentine Mitchell

Weaponizing Jewishness

By this time Meyerbeer had married his cousin Minna (in 1826) and started a family. Yet storm clouds were starting to hover over him, in the form of a young, Leipzig-born composer called Richard Wagner. 

Meyerbeer initially helped the newcomer get two operas off the ground: 1842’s “Rienzi” and the following year’s “Der fliegende Holländer” (“The Flying Dutchman”). Yet Wagner was forced to flee Germany following the unsuccessful May Uprising of 1849 in Dresden, and saw a way forward by attacking Meyerbeer – at the time enjoying success with another grand opera, “Le prophète.”

Richard Wagner. Other German composers who subscribed to Nazi ideology is indeed performed in Israel.Credit: Franz Hanfstaengl

“[Wagner] came to feel Meyerbeer had not done enough for him, perhaps even deliberately not done enough for him,” Thornton says.

“I think, sometimes, people turn against those who try to help,” Thornton reflects. “They start to resent that they needed the help. [Wagner] chose to attack Meyerbeer’s Jewishness, use Meyerbeer’s Jewishness as a weapon against him … tried to discredit him as he was on the pinnacle of success, to reach that pinnacle himself.”

It was in his 1850 essay “Judaism in Music,” first published under the pseudonym K. Freigedank but republished 19 years later under his own name, that Wagner displayed his overt antisemitism. The two Jewish composers who bore the brunt of his vitriol were Felix Mendelssohn (who was explicitly named) and Meyerbeer (who was unnamed but wasn’t hard to identify). 

And it wasn’t just Wagner who criticized Meyerbeer. Robert Schumann was a longtime critic, with Meyerbeer writing in his diaries that his fellow German composer had “persecuted” him “for 12 years with a deadly enmity.” The Jewish convert and poet Heinrich Heine also attacked him publicly, even as Meyerbeer held prestigious positions such as music director of the Prussian royal court and head of the Berlin Opera. 

"Roi du ciel" from Giacomo Meyerbeer's grand opera "Le prophete."

Meyerbeer and his family faced an uneasy situation in their native land, with Germany oscillating between acceptance and hostility toward its Jews throughout the composer’s lifetime. He would often write to his brothers to caution them against Jew-hatred, which he himself said he faced throughout his career.

“He found it easier to work in both Italy and France,” says Thornton, summing up the situation for his family. “I think the Beers loved Germany and felt German, but also felt discriminated sometimes there.” Meyerbeer’s death in 1864 revealed how much Germany loved him, though, with a funeral presided over by Prince George of Prussia, and the rabbi and philosopher Manuel Joël.

Yet Wagner’s fame would soon eclipse that of Meyerbeer’s, with the “Ring Cycle” creator dismissing his onetime mentor’s works with the stinging rebuke: “Effects without cause.”

“I find these words repeated by people, often with no understanding of the Wagner-Meyerbeer story,” Thornton says. “There were other factors as well: Certain operatic styles go in and out of fashion – grand opera has not been in fashion, really, since the Second World War.”

The Nazis banned Meyerbeer’s operas being performed in Germany, further distancing his works from the public, while simultaneously lionizing the works of the late Wagner – such an unabashed antisemite that his music remains taboo in Israel to this day.

Meyerbeer’s work, meanwhile, has been the subject of slow reappraisal in recent times. “Sometimes operas start to come back into fashion,” Thornton says. “His works are performed more in recent decades [than in] quite some time.” 

For her, Meyerbeer and his family are “wonderful, amazing people who did so much with their lives. I would love to think, through my book, that more people will find out what they did, who they were. It would make me feel very happy.”

“Giacomo Meyerbeer and his Family: Between Two Worlds,” by Elaine Thornton, is out now, published by Vallentine Mitchell & Co Ltd.

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