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Barred Genius

Tolerance was the central value of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s life and work. Why are his powerful, timely operas rarely revived?
By Philip Kennicott
Illustration by Nigel Buchanan 

Barred Genius hdl 218
Illustration by Nigel Buchanan
The word anti-Semitism wasn’t in currency when Meyerbeer wrote his greatest works.

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO READ RICHARD WAGNER'S MOST ODIOUS screed, the 1850 essay “Judaism in Music,” without feeling a little dirty afterward. Wagner’s anti-Semitism is so vile, so casual in its calumny, so transparently fueled by spite and envy, that one feels embarrassed to hold the book in one’s hands. But it’s our duty to confront the real Wagner in all of his intellectual putrefaction. If we are to listen to his music with pleasure, we are obliged to acknowledge the full depths of the evil that drove the man behind it. And yet is that enough? Aren’t we all just a bit too complacent when, on our way to another Lohengrin or Meistersinger, we mutter the platitude. “He was an awful man, but…”? 

In fact, there is a more fitting restitution we can make when confronted by the intractable Wagner problem. We can get to know and perhaps even come to love the man he was attacking. The proper response to Wagner’s vicious bigotry isn’t to acknowledge ourselves sadly conflicted by the problem. Rather, it is to give reparations to Giacomo Meyerbeer—the unnamed Jewish composer at the heart of this despicable essay—not just because he was wronged by Wagner, and by history, but because the central value Meyerbeer enshrined in his work is precisely that which Wagner deprecated—tolerance.

IF YOU MAKE THE EFFORT, EMBRACING MEYERBEER will become a labor of love. Before Wagner gave a name to the dramatic ideal of opera composers throughout the nineteenth century—the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art—Meyerbeer had achieved it. Born in Germany, and with an extended apprenticeship in Italy, Meyerbeer conquered the French stage in 1831 with Robert le Diable, a five-act grand opera that integrated music, theater, dance, scenic design, bravura singing and technology with such assurance that it defined the art form for decades. Meyerbeer, criticized later for relying too much on showy effects, took in hand the full resources of one of the world’s greatest artistic machines—the Paris opera house, state-subsidized but run by entrepreneurial men during the July Monarchy. Opera became a truly synthesized form, not just combining multiple discrete arts into a collective whole but absorbing the popular arts, street theater and melodrama into its capacious aesthetic. 

Far from being a trivial entertainment aimed at jaded consumers, as Wagner and other critics alleged, Meyerbeerian grand opera took up the subject and themes of history. In his hands and those of his librettists, including Eugène Scribe, opera aimed at depicting moral complexity through conflicted characters riven by larger historical forces. While Meyerbeer may have catered to the public’s taste, he never trimmed his sails to assuage the public’s conscience. Even before he took up the subject of religion and tolerance in Parisian works such as Les Huguenots and Le Prophète, he had set one of his best Italian operas, Il Crociato in Egitto, against the spectacle of religious conflict during the Crusades. 

Meyerbeer’s music, wrote poet Heinrich Heine, “is social rather than personal,” and he “carries in his breast a heart that beats in the sacred interests of humanity.” Even Wagner, some time around 1840–41, admired Meyerbeer’s music and his dramatic ambition, especially Les Huguenots, which depicts the bloody religious conflict of France in the sixteenth century. Meyerbeer, Wagner insisted, “wrote world history.” What did Heine and Wagner mean by this? Composers had been taking up historical subjects since at least Monteverdi’s Incoronazione di Poppea. But Meyerbeer’s contemporary detected in him a moral sensibility that set him apart. He was deeply embroiled in the musical and dramatic politics of his day, but he was also admired both for his personal decency and for embodying the conscience of a tumultuous age. Wagner would even write, “This genius has preserved a spotless conscience, a lovable consciousness, even with products of vast scope and highly refined invention the chaste rays of this consciousness still shine forth demurely.” Meyerbeer knew how to play the game, to court critics and promote his own work, but in his deportment and in the particular conflicts he depicted in his dramatic works, he seemed to embody his age—which may be one reason that Wagner, who aspired to write the music of the future, worked so hard to distance himself from the preeminent opera master of the mid-nineteenth century.

MEYERBEER, BORN TO A WEALTHY JEWISH FAMILY, was temperamentally inclined to be suspicious of religious certainties, and he was repulsed by the terrifying power of sectarian credulity. His 1849 Prophète is an epic tale of religious fraud. A young man, in love and driven to desperation by the cruelty of a capricious Count, is traduced into believing himself a prophet, a role he plays with increasing megalomania. It is a work with almost no wholly admirable characters, except perhaps for the young prophet’s mother, Fidès, one of the great mezzo-soprano roles in the canon. The opera has a remarkably dark and apocalyptic libretto (by Scribe and Émile Deschamps), but Meyerbeer’s music infuses the drama with an intensity that goes well beyond the text. The score contains the inflated grandeur of the great coronation march (one of the few pieces by the composer that are still in regular circulation), the uniquely sinister music of the cynical Anabaptists who manipulate the people, and a deliciously weird comic trio in which three odious figures outdo each other in sanctimony, hypocrisy and deception. This last morsel, written in the ebullient, tuneful idiom of the boulevards, anticipates the manically bitter political irony of Shostakovich by almost a century. 

The sheer size and scale of Meyerbeer’s grand operas meant they contained an enormous amount of material—complex plots, multiple leading characters, large orchestras with variegated orchestration, and scenic variety—which in turn meant that the mood and tone were always shifting. Grand opera arose as much out of the encompassing, multivalent world of Shakespeare as it did out of the lyrical tragedies and popular music of Paris. Les Huguenots, an opera that captured the popular imagination and won the admiration of some of the most exacting critics, enfolds a world of character types and motivations, along with an astonishing range of emotional affects. It is comic and cataclysmic, sunny and sensual before it becomes brutally cruel. This emotional and theatrical range meant that even critics who loved it tended to love it piecemeal. (Verdi was a fan of Acts II and IV; Hans von Bülow remembered it as “one of the greatest moments of my life”; and Berlioz admired the orchestration and dramatic climaxes.) Some were offended by the use of the great Lutheran hymn “Ein’ feste Burg,” as a recurring Protestant leitmotif. (“I am no moralist,” wrote Schumann, but it enraged him “to hear [his] dearest chorale shrilled out on the boards”); others objected to the mix of a romantic love story with political high drama or found the seriousness of the subject (especially the depiction of the Catholic slaughter of Protestants in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre) incompatible with operatic treatment, in rather the way some critics have taken exception to John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer.

Lurking underneath much of the criticism, however, was the complex and pervasive anti-Semitism of nineteenth-century Europe. Meyerbeer embodied some of the fundamental tropes of anti-Semitism: he was rich, he was powerful, and he “wandered,” living in Germany, Italy and France and incorporating a wide range of styles and international flavors in his music. Meyerbeer also had the temerity to write “Christian” music of striking beauty. In the opening of Le Pardon de Ploërmel, his three-act opéra comique (later known as Dinorah), he composed a hymn to the Virgin that reimagines Christian sacred music as a pastoral ode, idealizing Christianity as a simple, loving and bucolic faith. He created his own Anabaptist hymn in Le Prophète and wrote smaller and occasional works on both Old Testament and explicitly Christian texts (including the Pater Noster). Unlike Mendelssohn, who converted to Christianity, Meyerbeer remained faithful to Judaism, so when he wrote “Christian” music he was reinforcing yet another anti-Semitic canard, the idea that modern or assimilated Jews were chameleons and frauds. 

To what extent is anti-Semitism to blame for the almost complete disappearance of Meyerbeer’s work? The safest guess: if Meyerbeer hadn’t been Jewish, his work would still be with us today. He was the victim not just of Wagner’s rabid bigotry but of a wide range of ancillary forms of anti-Semitism, including personal animosities and jealousy that morphed into Jew hatred, as well as aesthetic prejudices masquerading as “respectable” or philosophical anti-Semitism. Debates about the line between entertainment and art became proxies for religious intolerance (was Meyerbeer “cheapening” opera for personal profit?), and anxieties about German nationalism got expressed as phobias about Jewishness (was holy German art, after Beethoven, to be left in the hands of a Jew?). Meyerbeer suffered not just the sustained vitriol of Wagner but swipes from Mendelssohn, barbs from Berlioz and the sanctimonious contempt of Schumann, all of them retailing varied forms of anti-Semitism.

ALMOST EVERY CRITICISM RAISED against Meyerbeer could just as easily be seen as praise: he was cosmopolitan, eclectic and capable of imagining himself into the spiritual life of others. Even Wagner, in his early enthusiasm for Meyerbeer, singled out some of these characteristics. In his essay from the 1840s, he saw Meyerbeer’s eclecticism and internationalism as an infusion of vigor into the declining health of German music. Later, in “Judaism in Music,” he excoriated these exact same things as “idiosyncrasies,” noise, bluster and the “motleyest chaos.”

One of the essential cruelties of bigotry is to hate the suspect person precisely because he or she has done everything right. It’s a no-win situation for the disfavored minority: fail in any particular, and you have transgressed unforgivably; but succeed in every particular, and you are deemed inauthentic, too eager, too willing to transform your character to meet the expectations of the society that rejects you nevertheless. The word anti-Semitism wasn’t in currency when Meyerbeer wrote his greatest works, so when the composer considered the impact of bigotry on him, he used richesse, a variant of risches, Yiddish for Jew-hatred. He wrote, “Individuals can forget this word for a certain period of time (but not forever), but an assembled public can never forget it, for it takes only one to remember, and all revert to their prejudices.” In some ways, that describes the dramatic linchpin of several of his operas: someone remembers the inclination to hate, and all follow suit. Wagner served that role in the public memory of Meyerbeer’s legacy, and Wagnerites have all too often continued his work. George Bernard Shaw summarized the received opinion about Meyerbeer for a century at least: “Nowadays young people cannot understand how anyone could have taken Meyerbeer’s influence seriously.”

But centuries pass; today, we might say, “Nowadays, it’s difficult to understand how the works of someone as wildly popular as Meyerbeer could disappear so completely.” And we know the answers—Wagner, hatred and laziness. We can’t change what Wagner did or undo the toll anti-Semitism took on composers such as Meyerbeer. But we needn’t be lazy about his legacy. His work is still out there, full of drama, full of musical richness and power, and it could still hold the stage if the right singers, directors and producers would champion it. Perhaps it’s silly or sentimental to say we owe Meyerbeer this tribute; but we owe it to ourselves to rediscover the pleasure and moral seriousness of his work. spacer 

Philip Kennicott, chief art critic for The Washington Post, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. 

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