Giacomo Meyerbeer

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Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864)

German composer (b. 5 September 1791 [N.S.] in Vogelsdorf or Tasdorf, near Berlin; d. 2 May 1864 [N.S.] in Paris), born Jacob Liebmann Beer.

Tchaikovsky and Meyerbeer

At first glance it might seem surprising that Tchaikovsky was such an admirer of Meyerbeer, whose operas nowadays are very rarely staged. After all, Schumann, whom Tchaikovsky looked up to in many respects, once wrote a famously scathing review of Les Huguenots (1836), in which, referring to Meyerbeer's use of the Lutheran chorale "Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott" as a leitmotif in this opera, he fulminated: "I am not a moralist, but for a good Protestant it is offensive to hear his most cherished song being yelled on the stage and to see the bloodiest drama in the history of his faith degraded to the level of a fairground farce. Meyerbeer's highest ambition is to startle or titillate, and he certainly succeeds in that with the theatre-going rabble" [1]. Tchaikovsky, in contrast, described Meyerbeer as "an artist of genius" in several of his music review articles (see e.g. TH 265), and Les Huguenots remained one of his favourite operas all his life — not just because of nostalgic memories of Désirée Artôt in the role of Valentine, but because he genuinely considered it to be "one of the finest operas in the whole repertoire", especially thanks to "its amazing love scene in Act IV — which is surely the greatest ever scene of this kind — with its marvellous choruses, its strikingly original instrumentation, and ardently passionate melodies", as he affirmed in 1873 (TH 273). Similarly, in an article of 1875, Tchaikovsky spoke admiringly of how Meyerbeer had "splendidly elaborated" the famous Lutheran chorale in the orchestral prelude to Les Huguenots and in Marcel's aria (TH 301]]).

Thus, Tchaikovsky clearly did not share Schumann's compunctions at listening to and watching the grandiose historical spectacle devised by Meyerbeer and his skilful librettist Eugène Scribe (1791–1861)! It is significant that Wagner, too, for all his ungrateful attacks against Meyerbeer (who had given the young composer moral and financial support in Paris), described Act IV of Les Huguenots as a masterpiece, marvelling at the Benediction of the Swords scene and the great love-duet between the Protestant Raoul and the Catholic Valentine [2]. Like Wagner and Schumann, Tchaikovsky was of course also aware of the crowd-pleasing element in Meyerbeer's operas, but this did not prevent him from doing full justice to their musical merits. In his first article dealing with Meyerbeer at length, which he wrote in 1872, Tchaikovsky emphasized that one had to distinguish between the two sides of this "artist of genius": the "prodigiously gifted musician" and the "slavish servant" of the Parisian public (TH 265).

Before the autumn of 1861, when he started attending Nikolay Zaremba's music classes, Tchaikovsky had been an inveterate enthusiast of Italian opera, thanks mainly to such star singers as Angelina Bosio and Enrico Tamberlik, whose performances at the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre in the operas of Meyerbeer, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi he greatly relished, according to the composer's brother Modest [3]. It is not surprising to see Meyerbeer listed together with these Italian masters, since, although he was based mainly in Paris, the melodies for the singers in his operas were very much Italianate. (In 1816, Meyerbeer had travelled to Italy to learn vocal counterpoint from Rossini.) However, even after embarking on a serious study of music, Tchaikovsky continued to admire Meyerbeer, though not so much for his vocal writing now as for his dazzling orchestration. Herman Laroche recalls in his memoirs how he and Tchaikovsky as students would attend the Russian Musical Society concerts conducted by Anton Rubinstein at which they had the opportunity to hear interesting new music: alongside Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner, Laroche mentions specifically Meyerbeer's Struensee overture [4] (from the incidental music which Meyerbeer had written in 1846 for a play by his brother on Johann Friedrich Struensee, the famous German physician who rose to great influence at the Danish court before his downfall). The Struensee overture is not heard very often these days, but in the nineteenth century it was highly regarded, and it seems that Tchaikovsky liked it especially. According to Laroche, it was partly thanks to this overture that his friend's first major endeavours at composition were in the field of programme music:

Many of my readers will be surprised when I tell them that one of Pyotr Ilyichs's most intense passions in these youthful years was Henry Litolff or, rather, his two overtures, Robespierre and Les Girondistes, especially the second of these. One can say, without any exaggeration, that Tchaikovsky's infatuation with programme music, which haunted him all his life, began precisely with these two overtures, as well as with Meyerbeer's overture to Struensee" [5].

Laroche also points out ironically that the Wagnerian theories which were then coming into vogue, even in Russia thanks to the articles of Aleksandr Serov, did not manage to dampen his and Tchaikovsky's enthusiasm for Meyerbeer's music: "in spite of Wagner and Serov, we were fascinated by Meyerbeer and considered Les Huguenots, Robert le diable, Dinorah, and especially Le prophète and Struensee, to be works of genius" [6].

In June 1868, Jurgenson published Tchaikovsky's Russian translation of an aria for Urbain, the infatuated page of Queen Marguerite de Valois in Les Huguenots. The circumstances which led Tchaikovsky to undertake this translation (TH 330) are not clear, but it may have had to do with some performance of Meyerbeer's opera which he had recently seen in Moscow, perhaps with Désirée Artôt as Urbain, assuming that she was still singing mezzo-soprano roles at the time (Artôt]] had joined the Italian Opera Company in Moscow towards the end of March 1868) [7]. At any rate, the impression which Artôt made on Tchaikovsky during her first Moscow seasons (1868–70) in the soprano role of Valentine in the same opera was truly staggering. In an article written in September–October 1875 he mused on how there was no singer capable of matching Artôt in the role of Valentine, for "this artiste of great genius had left her stamp on the role with such indelible strokes of high artistry and inspiration" (TH 308]]). Not even the formidable Adelina Patti could portray Valentine as compellingly as Désirée Artôt, in Tchaikovsky's view (TH 310]]). Later that year, in December, Tchaikovsky had the chance to hear her again in a staging of Les Huguenots at the Bolshoi Theatre, and he wrote about this to his brother Anatoly as follows, admittedly in a less reverential tone than in his articles, but still with genuine admiration for her interpretation of Valentine: "Yesterday Artôt made her first appearance [of the season] here: she has grown hideously fat and almost lost her voice, but her talent worked its magic, and she received more than twenty curtain-calls at the end of Act IV" [8]. Again, it was evidently the famous love-duet between Raoul and Valentine at the end of that act which caused such a sensation.

The only work by Meyerbeer which Tchaikovsky criticized was in fact his final opera, L'Africaine, which was given its first performance in Paris in 1865, a year after the composer's death. In an interesting article of 1872, Tchaikovsky expresses his surprise that Meyerbeer, who was otherwise "so good at choosing scenarios which were worthy of his music" had decided to write an opera based on such a preposterous plot as that of L'Africaine: Tchaikovsky notes ironically how Selika, the African captive who falls in love with Vasco da Gama, explains to him the route to India as if she had spent all her life on Madagascar studying geography! (TH 265). Tchaikovsky's remarks in this article about how Meyerbeer had nevertheless succeeded to some extent in conveying "the wild gaiety and primitive fanaticism of this so alien to us world of African savages", and his reference, in an article of 1875, to the "caricature-like scenario of this geographical tragedy, which would not be out of place in a puppet-theatre" (TH 307) are especially interesting — they clearly anticipate Tchaikovsky's insistence, at the time he was completing Yevgeny Onegin, on how he was determined to write operas which dealt with "real people, not puppets", and which expressed emotions that one could readily empathize with. All the same, despite his reservations about the plot of L'Africaine, Tchaikovsky went to see this opera on several occasions during his stays abroad [9].

During his memorable first visit to Pauline Viardot in Paris on 12 June 1886 [N.S.], Tchaikovsky may well have asked her to tell him about her creation of the powerfully dramatic role of Fidès at the premiere of Le prophète in 1849. This was an opera whose music Tchaikovsky also rated very highly, although he did not write about it in detail.

A further interesting connection between Tchaikovsky and Meyerbeer emerges, rather surprisingly, from the review written by Eduard Hanslick (1825–1904) after the first performance of Yevgeny Onegin in Vienna on 19 November 1897 [N.S.], which was conducted by Gustav Mahler, the newly appointed artistic director at the Hofoper. The fiercely conservative Hanslick, who on previous occasions, partly out of anti-Russian prejudice, had expressed himself very disparagingly about the fantasia-overture Romeo and Juliet and the Violin Concerto (see Chapter IV of TH 316), this time praised Tchaikovsky's opera quite warmly. However, ever true to his reputation as a carping critic, Hanslick could not resist firing a few barbs here and there, such as saying that the Act II waltz resembled that of Gounod's Faust, or that Lensky's aria was "not particularly original". But the main thrust of his critical ammunition was directed at the ending of the opera, which he described as "unsatisfying" due to its "lack of dramatic energy". This is what Hanslick had to say about the final scene:

The scene in Tatyana's reception room is arranged exactly like the closing scene of Act IV in Les Huguenots: first the princess's painfully agitated monologue, and then her duet with Onegin, who implores her passionately. Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky's inventiveness comes to a stall here. If one intends to close a long act, to say nothing of a whole opera, with a duet, then the latter must have the same musical richness and powerful dramatic momentum as the duet between Raoul and Valentine. The fact that Tchaikovsky was not able to deliver the goods in this decisive respect does impair the overall effect of his opera" [10].

Whatever one may think of Hanslick's critical acumen in finding fault with the finale of Yevgeny Onegin, it is interesting to speculate on whether Tchaikovsky might indeed have remembered the love-duet from Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots when he was working on the concluding scene of Onegin. For there is a certain similarity of situation: in Act IV of Les Huguenots, Valentine is now married to the Comte de Nevers, who like Prince Gremin is a high-minded man; Raoul bursts into her house when she is alone to see her one last time and they are torn between their mutual love and duty, until the latter triumphs. What happens afterwards, though, is as far removed from Tchaikovsky's opera as melodrama is from tragedy: in Act V, thanks to the gallant death of Nevers, Valentine is free to become a Protestant and marry Raoul, but they are soon slaughtered by Catholic fanatics…

Tchaikovsky's Translations of Works by Meyerbeer

  • The Lovely Page, TH 330 (1868) — a translation from French into Russian of the page Urbain's cavatina "Une dame noble et sage" from Act I, No. 12 of Les Huguenots (1836)

General Reflections on Meyerbeer

Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references,

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

  • TH 265 — Tchaikovsky emphasizes that one had to distinguish the two sides of Meyerbeer's artistic nature: on the one hand a "prodigiously gifted musician" and "artist of genius", but on the other, a "slavish servant" of the whims of the French boulevard public; whilst criticizing the exotic setting of L'Africaine, which in his view could not really inspire the composer, Tchaikovsky praises the "beautiful music" of Les Huguenots and Le prophète and stresses Meyerbeer's "remarkable technical skill".
  • TH 291 — before discussing Halévy's La Juive, Tchaikovsky makes some interesting remarks about Meyerbeer, "that mightiest pillar of the French school of opera"; notes "the elasticity and versatility of Meyerbeer's genius", which allowed him both to fulfil serious aesthetic goals and to adapt himself to the whims of the Parisian public; mentions the thorough schooling in composition he had received from "the pedantic German Abbé Vogler".
  • TH 307 — Tchaikovsky expresses his surprise that Meyerbeer, otherwise "such a great master in the selection of operatic subjects", could have fallen for such a "caricature-like" scenario as that of L'Africaine; argues that despite the technical polish of its score, this opera did not rise to "those heights of artistic inspiration which we ought to expect from the author of Les Huguenots or Le prophète".

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

  • Letter 1544 to Sergey Taneyev, 21 July/2 August 1880, one of the various letters written that summer in which Tchaikovsky sets forth his views on the significance of Bizet's Carmen in an age of decadence in music:

[I] could prove that Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Glinka, and Meyerbeer were epigones of the Golden Age of music, but that already they (together with Berlioz) represent a phase of transition leading to a period of savoury, but not good music. Now it is only savoury music which is written, and essentially even Wagner and Liszt are just high priests of savoury music…"

Views on Specific Works by Meyerbeer

Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

  • L'Africaine, opera (1865). In Letter 716 to Sergey Taneyev, 2/14 January 1878, in which Tchaikovsky defends Yevgeny Onegin against those who criticized it for not having enough effects and action, and says that for his next opera he was looking for another subject that would be as far removed from Grand Opera as possible (he mentions Verdi's Aida in particular):

A few days ago I saw L'Africaine in Genoa. How wretched this poor African Girl is! [She has to endure] slavery, imprisonment, death under a poisoned tree, and the triumph of her rival who comes to gloat over her as she is dying — and yet I don't feel sorry for her in the least. But of course there you have effects galore: there's a ship, fighting scenes, you name it! Well, I say to hell with them, to hell with these effects!

A few days ago I was at the opera; they were putting on Meyerbeer's The Northern Star, in which Peter the Great found himself transported to Finland, whereby the decorations seemed to be illustrating a Swiss landscape, but the common folk were dressed in Russian costumes. Oh yes, and there was also Prince Men'shikov selling stuffed buns [pirozhki]. It was ridiculous and awfully stupid

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Notes and References

  1. Quoted in: Casper Höweler, entry on 'Meyerbeer' in: Der Musikführer (1952).
  2. See Casper Höweler, entry on 'Meyerbeer' in: Der Musikführer (1952).
  3. See Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 115.
  4. Herman Laroche,«П. И. Чайковский в Петербургской консерватории» (1897), in Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 52.
  5. Herman Laroche, «П. И. Чайковский в Петербургской консерватории» (1897), in Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 55. Tchaikovsky discusses these two overtures by the Anglo-French composer and piano virtuoso Henry Charles Litolff (1818–1891) in an article of 1872 (TH 270).
  6. Herman Laroche, «П. И. Чайковский в Петербургской консерватории» (1897), in Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 55.
  7. See Дни и годы П. И. Чайковского. Летопись жизни и творчества (1940), p. 54.
  8. Letter 425 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 11/23 December 1875.
  9. For example, on 30 December 1877 [N.S.] Tchaikovsky went with Aleksey Sofronov to see L'Africaine in Genoa, describing it afterwards as a "very boring" opera (letter 693 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 19/31 December 1877). And during his first concert tour to Western Europe, while staying at Lübeck for a few days before his concert in nearby Hamburg, he went to see a performance of L'Africaine on 13 January 1888 [N.S.], but was recognized by some German critics and musicians during the interval, and this made him so nervous that he was unable to concentrate on the rest of the opera — see diary entry for 1/13 January 1888, Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 189.
  10. Eduard Hanslick, 'Tschaikowskys Oper Eugen Onegin', in Tschaikowsky aus der Nähe. Kritische Würdigungen und Erinnerungen von Zeitgenossen (1994), p. 205.