Swans Commentary » swans.com September 7, 2009  



The Great Meyerbeer-Mendelssohn Mystery


by Isidor Saslav





(Swans - September 7, 2009)   The year 1836 saw the first productions of what were to become their respective composers' most popular works in the 19th century but which were to practically vanish from the repertoire in the 20th: Meyerbeer's opera Les Huguenots and Mendelssohn's oratorio St. Paul. As part of Bard College's annual Summerscape Festival in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, the festival's director Leon Botstein chose to revive these two gems of converted Judaic culture in the context of this summer's featured composer, the anti-Semitic Richard Wagner.

In his book Judaism in Music of 1850, Wagner took to task those converted Jews like both Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn for corrupting true Germanism and its art with their superficiality. From about that time on Judaism became thought of in Germany and elsewhere not just as a religion or a nationality but as a race; and no amount of formal conversion to Christianity could prevent the Jews from being considered a race through their physical inheritance. This was indeed the line that became Hitlerian official doctrine in the 20th century and Hitler did become very chummy with Wagner's descendants at Bayreuth. This was a doctrine likewise highly approved of by American racists when it came time to consider whether no matter how diluted, a certain minuscule number of ancestral drops of black blood made a man a black irrespective of how many intermarriages had occurred with whites somewhere down the family tree.

Thus, though Abraham Mendelssohn, Felix's wealthy banker father, had converted to Protestantic Christianity once both his parents had died and taken the name Bartholdy, this conversion and Felix's hearty embrace of Christianity in many of his works were not to save the son from Wagnerian denigration; albeit the too-soon-departed composer was no longer around to absorb Wagner's anti-Judaic diatribes.

This was an about face in Wagner's attitude toward both composers. Wagner seemed to have created a grand opera style in his third opera, Rienzi, similar to Meyerbeer's in Les Huguenots. But this was thanks to Wagner's conducting the operas of Gasparo Spontini (1774-1851), Meyerbeer's forerunner, in Wagner's posts in Riga and Magdeburg. Meyerbeer welcomed and promoted the recently-arrived Wagner in Paris and managed to procure for the younger composer a position in Dresden which Wagner held till 1849. And when Mendelssohn's St. Paul was performed in Leipzig in 1843 Wagner, now returned from Paris, had words of high praise for this music and its aspirations.

(Robert Schumann [1810-1856] on the other hand, while reviewing both the recently arrived new works simultaneously in his article of 1836, likewise praised Mendelssohn's but chided Meyerbeer's for its, in Schumann's view, cheap commercial, sensationalistic appeal to its middle-class audiences. Much like the criticisms by staunch American classical music lovers in the early 20th century of anything smacking of jazz and its countless and ubiquitous successors in the various fields of pops entertainment.)

Up to this mid-century, negative change in attitude toward the Jews as racial inheritors their late-18th-century enlightened liberation by the German authorities still resonated strongly in many classes of Jewish society. Conversion to what seemed to them as modern progressive Protestantism appeared, as to Abraham Mendelssohn, a wise decision to promote intersocial harmony and assimilation. (Not so different from many American Jews' decision to assimilate into modern, progressive, American society.) This attitude had been pre-figured by Felix's grandfather Moses, the eminent Jewish philosopher who had been portrayed in a famous play of the day as the sympathetic Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise). (All these points of social and musical history had been brilliantly presented and elucidated by Botstein in two pre-performance lectures on August 2 and 9, respectively.)

The career of Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864, originally Jakob Meyer-Beer) took a quite parallel path to those of his equally Germanic colleagues George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), Christolph Willibald von Gluck (1714-1787), and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). All four had been born in northern Germanic regions and in their respective youths had traveled to and resided in Italy to learn and practice their compositional crafts. Once they had established their reputations and skills they migrated back to more northerly regions to reap the financial and artistic fruits of their labors, Handel to London, Gluck to Vienna and Paris, Mozart likewise to Vienna, and Meyerbeer also to Paris. (Jakob paid his obeisance to the land of his apprenticeship by changing his name to the Italianized "Giacomo.")

All four of these composers thus display two style periods (a few more for Mozart reflective of his travels to still other places): what they accomplished in Italy and what they later accomplished in their final locales of triumph. The great Giaochino Rossini (1792-1868) too had his career split between Italy and Paris but he had no Germanic roots to speak of; though he never stopped saying that the more northerly Austrian Mozart, by his study of him as well as by his inspiration and role-modeling, had done much to teach him his craft. It was only with the rise of Italian national romantic opera in the 19th century and the subsequent rise of a prosperous local middle-class market to absorb it that the great Italian composers such as Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), and Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) could afford to stay home and actually live in Italy. Their visits to the prosperous northern capitals became matters of simply touring rather than permanent residence.

Meyerbeer's Italian works are a bit of esoterica we shall leave undiscussed for the moment. What concerns us here are his sensational Parisian triumphs and their afterglow. When Meyerbeer arrived in Paris European operatic culture was just in the midst of a fascination with mysterious, romantic thematics (Carl Maria von Weber's [1786-1826] Der Freischuetz, 1821, Heinrich Marschner's [1795-1861] Der Vampyr, 1828, and Hans Heiling, 1833.) Meyerbeer was to add his contribution to this genre with his Robert le Diable of 1831. And Wagner was to cap the lot with his Der Fliegende Hollaender of 1843. (Just as he had capped the genre of the heroic opera started by Beethoven with Fidelio, 1805-15 with his own Rienzi, 1840.)

But a new genre and trend had also been in gestation since the beginning of the 19th century: the historical opera based on real historical events and figures from the more recent European past; that is, only a few hundred years in the past as opposed to things that had gone on in the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Greek gods with their myths and shenanigans and the Romans with their political infighting had served as metaphorical fodder in portraying the lives and heroics of the aristocratic ruling classes who had invented opera in the first place and who had continued to pay its bills and sponsor its events. But with the overthrow of the monarchies more democratic aspirations began to shape opera not the least of which was the celebration of national identities. These came even more strongly to the fore as a reaction to the Napoleonic conquests of various national realms and the desires of those peoples to re-establish themselves. (Of course comic opera, with its satires of the noble houses and its stress on individual loves and relationships, had started this trend of the "bourgeoisification of art" about 100 years before.)

The earliest example of the modern historical opera I can think of (If you can think of others let me know.) was Spontini's Fernand Cortez of 1809-32 (various versions). Dealing with Cortez's conquest of the Incas some 300 years previously in Peru, Spontini's opera was actually meant as a piece of Napoleonic propaganda. (Spontini was living and working in Paris at the time.) The plot concerns the reconciliation between the Incas and their conquerors, the Spaniards, through an appropriate final marriage. This was intended Napoleonically to serve the cause of Spanish reconciliation with the invading French, at the time in the midst of their Iberian campaign. Musically the opera (which I saw for the first time, as restaged in Germany, a few seasons ago) stands about halfway between the more austere Gluck (still, though dead, the operatic idol of the Parisians, later especially of Berlioz) and the later Verdi with its often unconcealed Italian emotionalism. Wagner had many good things to say about Spontini in his later writings and even corresponded with him and invited him to conduct his own orchestra in Magdeburg.

Rossini continued the trend with his Elizabeth, Queen of England of 1815. However, Elisabetta must have met with such little success and thus such unfamiliarity to its audiences that Rossini was able to use this opera's overture for a subsequent, and definitely more highly successful opera, (at least after its premiere performance) The Barber of Seville of 1816 the following year.

Daniel Francois Espirit Auber's (1782-1871) Masaniello or La Muette di Portici of 1828, was so explicit in its revolutionary political plot that upon the completion of the opera in Brussels in 1830 the entire audience rushed into the streets, overthrew the Dutch authorities, and established the modern state of Belgium right on the spot. (Not every opera can take credit for such a political transformation!)

But by far, the operatic event which re-enforced the genre in the Parisian mind was the great triumph of Rossini and his William Tell of 1829. Yet another story of the triumph of individual liberty against tyranny, still so popularly alive in the post-Revolutionary French spirit, this opera's triumph was so great that its composer, probably realizing he could never better what he had accomplished in Tell, either musically or politically, retired, after 20 years of writing operas, at the age of 37 and had a good time with his gourmet foods ("Tournedos Rossini") and minor compositions for the rest of his long life. (Their styles being so different it strikes us rather uncomprehendingly that Wagner and Rossini actually met at Rossini's home in Paris in 1860 and had a lot of good things to say about one another during their meeting.)

Rossini's example led the way for his imitators and the 1830s saw further operatizations of recent British history such as the Elizabethan trilogy of Donizetti (Anna Bolena, 1830, Maria Stuarda, 1834, Roberto Devereux, 1837) and I Puritani of Bellini, 1835. And Wagner, with his conducting posts in Riga and Magdeburg, was conducting many of these same operas from all countries in the 1830s and thus was fully exposed to the latest developments and became able to compose in any style at a moment's notice. He even interpolated an aria of his own composition into Der Vampyr in the early 1830s, much as Josef Haydn (1732-1809) used to do regularly at Esterhazy when the opera he was conducting didn't quite suit him. And Wagner himself entered the lists with Rienzi, 1838-40. Rienzi too was an actual historical personage from the Italian 13th century as portrayed in a novel of Bulwer-Lytton, (1803-1873).

Two operas which were to add further luster to the genre were Hector Berlioz's (1803-1868) Benvenuto Cellini (1836-38) and Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg (1867), the former based on the story of the eponymous goldsmith and sculptor of the Italian Renaissance and the latter based on the true-life 16th-century cobbler-musician Hans Sachs. More connects these two works than simply their genre. Wagner saw Benvenuto produced in Paris shortly after he arrived there in 1839 and later had the opportunity to study the work again after an edition in Weimar in 1853 based on suggestions for revisions by Liszt. Whether he actually studied the score I don't know but the parallels between the two operas are striking. Both end with the climactic success of a work of art, Benvenuto's casting of the gold sculpture and Walter von Stolzing triumphing with his prize song. The community spirit is evoked in Benvenuto with the chorus of the iron-mongers and paralleled in Die Meistersinger by the chorus in the final act extolling the virtues of the cobblers and the tailors. It strikes me that Benvenuto served Wagner as a model when he went to create Die Meistersinger.

Meyerbeer, having paid his dues to the romantic opera with Robert le Diable saw where opera was heading and, so richly supplied with the examples by the Italian composers mentioned above, not to mention by his countryman Auber, proceeded immediately to begin his post-Tell/Masaniello contribution to the genre of the Parisian grand opera, Les Huguenots. The opera's plot is set in the midst of the St. Bartholemew's eve surprise massacre of the French Protestants (the "Huguenots") by their Catholic fellow countrymen in 1572. A fictional pair of cross-denominational lovers, (a sort of French Romeo and Juliet) lends much action to the plot. Meyerbeer, the assimilated Jew, seemed bent on re-emphasizing to his French audiences the horrors to which religious bigotry and intolerance could lead. Practically simultaneously, Meyerbeer's compositional colleague and fellow assimilated Jew, Fromental Halevy (1799-1862), joined in with his La Juive (The Jewess), (actually produced one year before Les Huguenots in 1835) to add the Jews to the list of peoples who needed defense against intolerance. (Assimilated French Jewry continued its operatic triumphs in the persons of Jacques Offenbach [1819-1881] and Georges Bizet [1838-1875], but French society could never quite shake off its anti-Semitism as witnessed by the Dreyfus affair in the 19th century and the Petain Nazi-collaborative regime in the 20th.)

So what will one see if one is lucky enough to attend a performance of the rarely staged Les Huguenots? One heck of an exciting opera, that's for sure. (It took me only about 60 years in the operatic performance business to see this, my very first Meyerbeer opera!) One is now very much at home, thanks to the movies, with spectacular exciting productions full of heroic, sometimes violent events, full of "casts of thousands." These excitements of the Parisian grand opera, though less seen on the operatic stages of today, have certainly made their way to the Hollywood and international screens. Those sensationalistic goings-on, which Schumann decried in his original review, are certainly alive and well on movie screens around the world playing before audiences at which Schumann might well have also turned up his nose.

But it was not just spectacular stagings that made Les Huguenots Meyerbeer's most famous work around the world for all of the 19th century, but rather solid musical values and innovations some of which other composers set about copying. For example, when the hero sings an aria in the first act about the enchanting lady he once saw he is accompanied in the orchestra by the aptly named viola d'amore. (This is one innovation that no other composer seems ever to have copied.) The hero's ultra-Protestant sidekick gets an accompaniment in his recitatives consisting neither of keyboard nor the orchestra but of solo cello. Both viola d'amore and solo cello accompaniment harken back to the days of the Baroque opera when such practices were more common. Meyerbeer is here trying musically to evoke the period, namely the 16th century, in which the events on stage take place. Thus Meyerbeer was among other things a period instrument pioneer as well! And when a solo instrument accompanies an aria in the 5th act it's the bass clarinet, the first time this instrument had ever been used like this in the operatic pit.

Meyerbeer's constant musical references to the Protestant hymn Ein Feste Burg as an identification marker for his Protestant protagonists certainly served Wagner as a model for his Leitmotiv system, even up to the religiously saturated Parsifal of 1882, which used another famous Protestant musical quotation, the "Dresden Amen." (Mendelssohn had of course already used the "Dresden Amen" and Ein Feste Burg at great length in his Reformation Symphony of 1832, which was, however, not published till 1868. And to be sure Wagner had already pre-figured the Leitmotiv technique in his Das Liebesverbot of 1834, thus roughly simultaneously with Meyerbeer.)

Verdi too drank from the Meyerbeerian well. When the ballet music of Les Huguenots appears illustrating the episode of the Gypsies, we hear unison passages in cello and viola that remind us irresistibly of the ballet music in Aida, 1871. And when the two opposite-denomination lovers sing their climactic love duet we want to start singing along with them the similar music from the second act of La Traviata, 1853, whose melodic line it so strongly suggests. Verdi too went on to write more of these operas, like Les Huguenots based on actual more recent European historical events, such as I Lombardi, 1843, I Due Foscari, 1844, I Vespri Siciliani, 1855, Simon Boccanegra, 1857, Don Carlo, 1867, etc.

And the final slaughter of the Protestants (including the pair of lovers: the heroine has converted to Protestantism) culminating the 5th and final act of the opera reminded me of the similar ending to Modest Mussorgsky's (1839-1881) Khovanshchina, 1880, in which a mass slaughter likewise takes place, the voluntary, though under political pressure, suicide of the nuns. (Not to mention Francis Poulenc's [1899-1963] Dialogues of the Carmelites, 1957.)

So why, other than an inspired revival by Leon Botstein and his festival, is this wonderful opera not regularly seen on the world operatic stages of today? True, the Metropolitan Opera did revive Meyerbeer's Le Prophète for Marilyn Horne in the 1970s. But once every 40 years is not enough for operatic treasures like this. The usual excuses run that the sets, costumes, and production costs are too expensive and that it takes five of the greatest singers in the world on the stage at the same time. However, what I heard recently in Les Huguenots showed the need for excellent singers, true, but not singers so unprocurable given the high worldwide standards of today. As to costs, before the recent economic downturn there was plenty of money to go around and many a spectacular production had been achieved for many other composers.

I'm afraid that Wagner's unjustified putdown of Meyerbeer in 1850 still serves as background noise in the minds of people who are in a position to make these decisions as to programming even though the power and popularity of Les Huguenots carried on well toward the end of the 19th century and a bit into the 20th. But if you're so inclined to support a Meyerbeer revival as I am check out the composer's webpage and join some of your fellow fans in the effort at http://www.meyerbeer.com/

As to Mendelssohn's disappeared work, St. Paul, it too proved spectacular and exciting in performance. St. Paul was to be the first of a series of three Mendelssohn oratorios, the second Elijah, and the third Christus, sadly left unfinished. Elijah in the 20th century took the lead in the popularity that St. Paul had enjoyed in the 19th. And one can see and hear the reasons for the first oratorio's erstwhile popularity. It is at once loud, noisy, and brilliant in its more celebratory moments and sweetly and touchingly calm in its more intimate. When I heard that aggressive and assertive mass chorus go at it accompanied on so many occasions by blasting trumpets and thundering tympani it occurred to me that the impression its contemporary audiences must have received might have been similar to what our modern audiences get from John Williams in his noisier film moments. Very popular!

Mendelssohn in his St. Paul must have been the king of the poetasters of music history, surpassing even Stravinsky in his passion for composing in the style of Pergolesi and Tchaikovsky. St. Paul is a combination of a Handel oratorio and a Bach passion, with the uninhibited choruses of the one and the narrative and chorale-quoting style of the other, topped off by numerous contrapuntal and fugal passages throughout to show that the composer knew his music history and his compositional theory quite soundly and in depth. (One of his contemporaries sneered derisively that he had been poking his nose into too much old music.) Mendelssohn had studied both composers at great length and had even contributed to the revival of the popularity of J.S. Bach by producing and conducting the St. Matthew Passion in 1828 about 75 years after the death of Bach at a time when only professional composers and their students even remembered who Bach had been, and what his music had been like. C.G. Neefe (1748-1798) taught his young student Beethoven Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier.

It is interesting to contrast what Handel and Mendelssohn did with the same texts, for the biblical quotations do overlap somewhat in both Messiah and St. Paul. Where Handel chose an aria to set a text Mendelssohn preferred a chorus ("The people that walketh in darkness," "Arise! Shine! For thy light has come"). One of the absolute highlights of St. Paul is an aria accompanied by an extensive, elaborate, and sensitive cello solo. It gives us a hint as to what the lost Mendelssohn cello concerto might have sounded like.

So why has this magnificent work, like Les Huguenots, sunk practically into obscurity? (Botstein, in one of his incomparable pre-concert lectures, told us that he had looked up the recent performance history of St. Paul and discovered that the last time anyone had performed this work it had been he himself back in 1992!) One reason might be that Jewish musical supporters, so numerous and generous in America's concert life, might not have been so eager to support a musical work about an apostate who had rejected the Jewish religion and be come a Christian (and in a very spectacular musical fashion!) Elijah of the Old Testament is more their style. But why St. Paul's Christian devotees haven't taken up the slack remains a mystery. It's just as religiously inspiring as Messiah, which is so ever-present in American concert life.

Thus the great Meyerbeer-Mendelssohn mystery persists. We need more Leon Botsteins to restore to us our lost musical heritage, as Botstein and his colleagues at Bard College continue to do during their annual Summerscape Festival, probably the most intellectually stimulating and musically brilliant festival in the world. Each year's Summerscape is devoted to a single different composer "and his world." Next year it will be Alban Berg; in two years Jean Sibelius.


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Published September 7, 2009