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Simon Schama on Meyerbeer: "Bigger, louder, more everything"

As Robert le diable opens, the historian and broadcaster takes a look at the composer, his music and Jewish identity.

By Simon Schama (Historian and Broadcaster)

6 December 2012 at 7.36pm | 2 Comments

Giacomo Meyerbeer was also, or had once been, Jacob Liebmann Beer. If the composer was the inaugurator of grand opera – those massive machines of spectacle and mega-orchestration that crowded the 19th-century stage and had fans baying for bigger, louder, more everything - then Meyerbeer’s life also described another operatic drama: that of a particular, middle class culturally-aspirational bourgeois of the 19th century cities who imagined that could live, unproblematically both as Jews and Germans (or French “Israelites”). If only they would trade in their obsession with distinctiveness, marked by the corkscrew sidelocks, beards and long gabardines for the frock coats and high hats of the rest of the citizenry. If they would replace their Yiddishy gibberish for the polished German of proper bildung, then they would, so the theory ran, they be treated like everyone else: enjoy equal civil and political rights and be fully welcomed into the national community.

To which bright hope, Meyerbeer’s protégé-turned-furiously paranoid foe Richard Wagner would respond in his essay Judaism in Music, "fat bloody chance". Die ewige Jude - the eternal Jew - whether barbered to a semblance of respectability, could never eau de cologne himself into true champion of volkish culture. He would always be what he was: a vessel of cultural poison, a walking or rather crawling, money bag, “a swarming colony of insect life” and the personification of contaminating vulgarity. Meyerbeer, the internationally successful composer who had made opera hot box office was not just the epitome of crass commercialism but a deadly threat to the mystical sublimity of authentically German music.

The idea was (and is) beautiful, nonetheless: that one could live, not just nominally but fully as a Jew, and yet just as completely, in the society of others.

The trajectory of the Beer dynasty from money to music was the usual German-Jewish success story. A first generation came up with the money needed by some pumpernickel princeling to fund his vanities, architectural and military. The second generation, represented by Meyerbeer’s father Judah Beer, moved up to the big players, of which (in at least its greed for military funds), there was none bigger than Hohenzollern Prussia.  Judah’s numbers came up in the lottery – literally – administering the Prussian State Lottery for a hefty slice. He bought and ran sugar mills and got himself a handsome house on the Spandauer Strasse, right by the Brandenburg Gate.

There Judah and his wife Amalie held a salon for the literary, philosophical and musical lights of the city, who (spellbound by Lessing’s Nathan), were prepared to see higher things in the Jews. Amalie rose to the cultural opportunity, campaigning for a modern Judaism fitting for the urban enlightenment. The Beers had their own house synagogue in which services were held in German, and organ music and choirs (a bitterly controversial innovation for the orthodox) featured too. The prodigy Jacob wrote vocal pieces for the shul. It was in such synagogues that the first crossover between cantorial emotionalism, deep rooted in Ashkenazi Judaism, and operatic melodrama was consummated - go to any Ashkenazi synagogue on the High Holy Days and you will still hear a kind of belcantorial result

So if the first generation was about court service and hard cash; the second about military bankrolling varnished with enlightenment graces; the third was bound to be pure culture. The three boys were Michael, ‘My Son the Playwright’ (and very successful too); Wilhelm ‘My Son the Scientist,’ astronomer and first cartographer of Mars and the Moon, and Jacob, ‘My Son the Musical Prodigy’, who on inheriting a nice chunk of his grandfather Meyer’s fortune became Meyerbeer, to which in 1817, he added cheekily his claim to be the new Rossini by swapping Jacob for Giacomo.

Aside from the shameless orchestration mitschlag, it was no accident that Meyerbeer hit the jackpot in a way no other opera composer other than the great Rossini, had yet managed (though his co-religionist Fromental Halévy would run him close). For it was precisely because his cultural heritage stood outside the mystical raptures of medieval Christian history and Gothic folklore, that Meyerbeer - opera’s answer to Walter Scott - knew that knights and martyrs, demons and debauched nuns were less the vehicles of metaphysical transformation than fabulous romances, unembarrassed about their capacity to entertain. He is perhaps to be thought of in the same way as the early geniuses (many of them Jewish too) of silent and not so silent movie Hollywood, the impresario-confectioner of mass spectacle, swashing and buckling his way to a smiling, roaring and cheering audience. It was not music as church draped with the sacred cobwebs of dreamland, but it was a hell of a night out.

Graceless, churlish, supremely gifted, morally repellent Wagner, whose breakthrough with Rienzi would probably have never happened without the persuasiveness of Meyerbeer, made his mentor pay for his kindness by demonizing not just him but his religion and his people as intolerable aliens in German culture. The toxin that crystallized in the alembic of his attack on “Jewish music” would be hideously fateful and destroy more than just Moses Mendelssohn’s and Judah Beer’s fondest dreams.

Perhaps it irked Wagner especially, that unlike the baptized Felix Mendelssohn and so many other epigones of the German-Jewish enlightenment, Meyerbeer, however he felt the difficulty (and he did), remained true to his religion. He died in it, and after the grandiose public sendoff including the Chief Rabbi of France from the Gare du Nord, his body was borne to the Jewish cemetery at Schaumseestrasse where it rests. Gioachino Rossini, who evidently did not feel threatened by Meyerbeer’s renown, was in charge of the musical arrangements and is said to have responded to a nephew who composed a march for the occasion. “Excellent” said the wicked Rossini, “but you must admit, it would have been better if you had died and your uncle had written the march.”

Robert le diable runs from 6 - 21 December 2012. Tickets are still available.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Grateful thanks to Simon Schama for his informative but also witty article. Surely this is a welcome model for educating and entertaining at the same time.
    Agnes Kory

  2. Stephen Agus responded on 17 January 2013 at 9:10pm Reply

    An otherwise excellent article is marred by a mis- identification of Meyerbeer's grave site. It is in the Schoenhauser-Allee Jewish Cemetery in Berlin (around the corner from Kathe Kollwitz Square)

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