Giacomo Meyerbeer

Portrait of Giacomo Meyerbeer

Giacomo Meyerbeer was a German opera composer whose works were the most frequently performed during the nineteenth century although his star has since waned somewhat. He is credited with linking Mozart through to Wagner. He was born on 5th September 1791 in Berlin, Germany and died on 2nd May 1864 in Paris, France aged 72.

Major Works

“Das Brandenburger Tor” (1814)
“Semiramide Riconosciuta” (1819)
“Margerita d’Anjou” (1810)
“L’Esule di Granata” (1822)
“Il Crociato in Egitto” (1824)
“Robert le Diable” (1831)
“Les Hugeuenots” (1836)
“Le Prophete” (1849)
“L’Africaine” (1865)

Biography Timeline

Giacomo Meyerbeer was born Jakob Liebmann Meyer Beer on 5th September 1791 in Tasdorf, Berlin, Prussia. His father was Judah Herz Beer, a wealthy banker who was the leader of the Berlin Jewish community and maintained a private synagogue inside his house. His mother was Amalia Wulff, also from a rich family and the children were educated at home by the area’s finest tutors.

1801: His first keyboard teacher is Franz Lauska and he is also taught by Mario Clemenzi and Antonio Salieri. He makes his public debut playing Mozart’s D Minor Piano Concerto in Berlin.

1804: Louis Spohr organises a concert for him in Berlin.

1810: His first stage work is the ballet “Der Fischer und das Milchmädchen” (The Fisherman and the Milkmaid) which is premiered at the Court Opera in Berlin in March. He receives tuition from Abbe Vogler in Darmstadt, Germany.

1811: He adopts the surname Meyerbeer at the death of his grandfather, Liebmann Meyer Wulff. His oratorio “Gott und die Natur” (God and Nature) is performed in Berlin.

1812: His opera “Jephtas Gelubde” (Jephtha’s Vow) is performed in Munich but is not a success.

1813: On 12th February he is appointed Court Composer by Grand Duke Ludwig of Hesse-Darmstadt. “Wirth und Gast” (Landlord and Guest) is performed in Stuttgart. At this stage he does not know whether to become a performer or a full-time composer and he plays the timpani at the premiere of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony on 8th December in Vienna. 

1814: His opera “Die Beiden Kalifen”, a version of “Wirth und Gast”, is a flop in Vienna. 

1816: After travelling to France and England he settles in Italy to further his career. During a visit to Sicily he studies a number of local folksongs.

1817: He begins to use the Italian Giacomo as his first name. His first Italian opera is “Romilda e Costanza” which is given in Padua.

1819: “Semiramide Riconosciuta” (Semiramide Recognised) is performed in Turin and “Emma di Resburgo” (Emma of Resburg) is given in Venice.

1820: “Margherita d”Anjou” (Margaret of Anjou) is performed in Milan.

1821: “L’Escule di Granata” (The School of Granada) is performed in Milan.

1824: His first major success, which establishes his name, is “Il Crociato in Egitto” (The Crusader in Egypt) which is premiered in Venice and then goes on to Paris and London.

1825: His father dies.

1826: He marries his cousin, Minna Mosson. They go on to have five children together. Carl Maria von Weber dies and his widow asks him to complete her husband’s unfinished comic opera “Die Drei Pintos” but this is never achieved. (It is finally completed by Gustav Mahler much later).

1831: His first French opera is “Robert le Diable” (Robert the Devil). The lavish production is a triumph and turns him into a major figure when premiered in Paris. In audience on the night are Daniel Auber, Alexandre Dumas, Hector Berlioz and Victor Hugo amongst many others.

1832: In January he is awarded membership of the Legion d’Honneur and later he is appointed Court Kappellmeister in Berlin but not before the previous incumbent, Gaspare Spontini had trashed his reputation for the delay in producing “Robert le Diable” in Berlin. The poet Ludwig Rellstab also decries his music in an unapologetic anti-Semitic article.

1836: Meyerbeer has to pay his promoter for breach of contract for not producing his next work on the promised date of 1833 however “Les Huguenots” is a triumph at is premiere on 29th February at the Paris opera and is the first opera to be performed there more than 1,000 times.

1839: He meets Richard Wagner for the first time on 20th August in Boulogne on his way to Paris. They begin as friends but only much later does the relationship turn sour.

1841: By the end of the year he has completed the first draft of “Le Prophète” but refuses to have it staged as the Paris Opera does not agree to his conditions. Meyerbeer was in the unusual position for a musician at the time of being able to pick and choose his performances due to his wealth.

1842: He returns temporarily to Berlin, where he is appointed Generalmusikdirektor to the King of Prussia at the suggestion of Alexander von Humboldt and where he instigates the production of Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Holländer” (The Flying Dutchman) to take place. The Berlin premiere of “Les Huguenots” is arranged for 20th May. 

1843: The Berlin Opera house burns down and the building of a new one allows for a new commission to be given to Meyerbeer. 

1844: The new opera is “Ein Feldlager in Schlesien” (A Silesian Encampment) about part of the life of King Frederick the Great and its premiere has the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind taking the principal role.

1849: “Le Prophète” is finally performed in Paris.

1850: Richard Wagner, now in exile and without money is present at the forty seventh performance of “Le Prophète”. The success of the work financially and artistically annoys him and brings about his anti-Jewish denunciation of Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelssohn in his book “Das Judenthum in der Musik”.

1853: He sets the 91st Psalm to music.

1854: His mother dies which affects him dearly. His next work is the opéra-comique, “L’Etoile du Nord” (The North Star).

1859: His next work is “Le Pardon de Ploërmel” (sometimes known as “Dinorah”) and with it he becomes the most frequently performed composer at leading opera houses during the nineteenth century.

1861: He composes the Coronation March for King Wilhelm the First of Prussia,

1862: He composes an overture for the 1862 London International Exhibition of Industry and Art in South Kensington, London.

Giacomo Meyerbeer died on 2nd May 1864 in Paris. (Gioachino Rossini, who had not been told, fainted when he came to his apartment the next day and heard the news). A special train took his body to Berlin on 6th May and he was buried in the family vault at the Jewish cemetery in Schonhauser Allee. “L’Africaine”, which he had worked on since 1837, was premiered in Paris on 28th April 1865.

Further Information

List of operas by Meyerbeer.