Giacomo Meyerbeer

German composer (born 1791 in Berlin – died 1864 in Paris)

Giacomo Meyerbeer was the most renowned and most performed opera composer of the 19th century. His style is a skilful blend of German orchestral technique, Rossinian bel canto and French recitative.

Jakob Liebmann Meyer Beer was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin. He was the eldest of four brothers. His family's standing in Berlin high society meant that young Jakob was in constant contact with the greatest musicians of his time. He was given private music lessons by Franz Lauska and Muzio Clementi. He gave his first public performance on 14 October 1801, playing a Mozart piano concerto. He studied composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter, who was also Felix Mendelssohn's teacher. In 1810, he began studying with the Abbé Vogler at Darmstadt, where he met and forged a lasting friendship with Carl Maria von Weber. In 1812, he joined his third first-name to his surname and started going by the name Meyerbeer. His early works in Germany were failures, however. After an initial journey to Paris in 1814, he went to Italy in 1816, where hearing Rossini's opera Tancredi was a revelation. He started travelling around Italy collecting popular songs and began composing operas in Italian.Such was the success of Emma di Resburgo (1819), Margherita d’Anjou (1820) and Il crociato in Egitto (1824) that they were translated and performed all over Europe. In return, Meyerbeer adopted the first name Giacomo to honour Italy.

In 1825, he fulfilled a long-time wish by settling in Paris. After his father's death, he married his cousin Minna Mosson. In 1827, he began working closely with the librettist Eugène Scribe. In 1831, Robert le diable premiered to a triumphant reception. It was the epitome of the French "grand opera" genre: a monumental drama set against a historical background with lavish stage settings. Paris became an opera hub that composers such as Donizetti, Verdi and Wagner could not afford to skip.Robert le diable triumphed in Europe, except in Berlin. In 1836, Meyerbeer completed and premiered Les Huguenots. It was a huge success and the first opera to reach a tally of 1,000 performances at the Opéra de Paris. However a change of management at the Opéra de Paris, coupled with his wife's health problems, prompted him to move back to Berlin in 1841. Frederick William IV's accession to the throne the year before was also a propitious factor for the emancipation of Prussia's Jews:Les Huguenots would finally be performed in Berlin. Meyerbeer was appointed General Music Director at the Prussian Royal Opera House, replacing Gaspare Spontini. He produced operas from the mainstream repertoire (Mozart, Beethoven, Bellini, Wagner) and strove to improve pay conditions for the musicians and composers. He returned to Paris in 1848, however, to prepare the first performance of his latest opera, Le Prophète, which he followed to a number of European cities. The composer was at the height of his glory. However, from 1851 onwards, his health gradually declined. In 1863, he completed his last "grand opéra", L'Africaine. He prepared the musical production, but did not live to see the opera performed. The work was finally premiered one year after his death.

Six landmark dates in the life of Meyerbeer:

1812: adopted the name Meyerbeer

1816: Discovered Italian opera through Rossini's Tancredi 

1825: settled in Paris

1827: began a collaboration with the librettist, Eugène Scribe

1841: went back to live in Berlin

1848: returned to Paris to prepare the premiere of Le Prophète

Six key works by Meyerbeer:

1820: Margherita d’Anjou, opera

1831: Robert le diable, opera

1836: Les Huguenots, opera

1848: Le Prophète, opera

1854: L’Etoile du nord, light opera

1863: L’Africaine, opera

Biography compiled from Radio France Documentation, November 2014