In December 1863 the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer wrote a melancholic letter to his wife in Berlin, stating that the new year was unlikely to bring peace.[1] The experience of 1848 still on his mind, in every corner of the world, nationalism was leading to bloodshed. The show-off between Prussia and Denmark about Schleswig-Holstein was giving way to another European war. The world was mesmerized by the events of the American Civil War, where members of the same nation were killing each other in the hundreds of thousands. There was a civil war in Mexico; and civil war still overshadowed the Unification of Italy in the South, where thousands paid for “liberation” with their lives.[2] In this sinister atmosphere, in May 1865, the composer died, leaving his greatest operatic project L’Africaine incomplete. “Music is without its master”, the Ménestrel of Paris commented, a master who had succeeded “in writing cosmopolitan art”.[3]

Giacomo Meyerbeer

Giacomo Meyerbeer

The Prussian father of French grand opéra; a Jewish Kapellmeister and director of music at the Prussian court; a highly regarded member of Berlin’s social elite; a composer celebrated all over Europe, Meyerbeer’s life and work stands for an idea of European culture that does not easily fit the concept of an Age of Nationalism. The influential Austrian-Bohemian music critic Eduard Hanslick admired the cosmopolitan language of a composer, who had started out in Berlin, learned from Italian beauty during his travels, and made his greatest career in the Paris of the Second Empire.[4] Many of Hanslick’s contemporaries perceived Meyerbeer’s music as a synthesis of styles, which had the powerful capacity to communicate across national boundaries. Others – most famously Richard Wagner and Robert Schumann – rejected Meyerbeer’s cosmopolitanism as untimely for an age of national romanticism. Anti-Semitism was a recurrent motive of the critique against Meyerbeer’s cosmopolitanism, long before Wagner compiled his tirades of hatred.[5]

In May 1864 thousands of people attended the funeral cortège from Meyerbeer’s home on the Champs-Elysées to the Gare du Nord, where his body was transferred onto a train, which would bring him home to Berlin.[6] Black horses pulled the carriage, accompanied by the National Guards and their corps de musique. Heading the procession were the Prussian ambassador Robert Heinrich Ludwig von der Goltz, Marshall Jean-Baptise Philibert Vaillant representing the French Emperor, the composer Daniel Auber as director of the Conservatoire, and Émile Perrin, director of the Opéra. The Gare du Nord – the building still incomplete – was covered in black draperies, decorated with the composer’s initials. Extracts from his operas were played and the chief rabbi of Paris spoke.

Meyerbeer's Funeral. 2.5.1864

Meyerbeer’s Funeral. 2.5.1864

A few days later, on its arrival in Berlin, Prince Georg von Preußen (admittedly a minor Prince of the Hohenzollern, but with literary and musical inclinations) greeted the funeral train. The Prussian King and future German Emperor Wilhelm I and the Queen, together with other members of the royal household, headed a procession to the opera house Unter den Linden and from there to the Jewish cemetery in Schönhauser Allee. Similar to the scenes in Paris a few days earlier, the streets were again flocked with mourners. Within months of the composer’s death, the French Emperor and the Empress attended the premiere of Meyerbeer’s last incomplete opera L’Africaine, in the presence of many German dignitaries, as well as the composers Franz Liszt, Giuseppe Verdi, Charles Gounod, Anton Rubinstein, and many more. After the last act, the theatre’s curtains went up once more to reveal a generously decorated bust of Meyerbeer. The audience honoured the composer with fifteen minutes silence – not an easy undertaking after having sat through a monumental opera in five acts. On the occasion, the future French Prime Minister Émile Ollivier wrote in the Revue et Gazette Musicale that Meyerbeer had created a “harmonic connection” between France and Germany, an ever-lasting bond between “sister nations”.[7]

The commemoration of Meyerbeer at the Opéra became the last great cultural manifestation of the Second Empire, which was to disappear five years later as a consequence of the Franco-Prussian War. It was also one of the last European manifestations of a truly cosmopolitan understanding of operatic culture, a manifestation that stood above national rivalries. While Ollivier’s assertion regarding the harmonic connection between France and Germany was to be proved wrong by political events, Meyerbeer’s grands opéras remained the works most frequently performed on the stages of nineteenth-century Europe, leaving a lasting legacy in techniques of orchestration, dramatic form and the art of conducting. Their role in the European repertoire invites us to examine the relationship between a period of history frequently described as an Age of Nationalism and the appeal of an operatic genre widely appreciated for its cosmopolitan language. Meyerbeer’s music revealed passions, which connected people across borders. Reducing nineteenth-century opera to expressions of national culture risks overlooking those passions.

© Axel Körner, 2015

(This text will form part of an article on the Italian première of Meyerbeer’s opera L’Africaine for the Cambridge Opera Journal.) On transnational opera see also https://www.ucl.ac.uk/european-institute/media/video/2014-2015/in-search-of-europe-korner)

[1] Quoted in Reiner Zimmermann, Giacomo Meyerbeer. Eine Biografie nach Dokumenten. Berlin: Parthas, 1998, 319

[2] For a transnational perspective on the Italian and American civil wars see Enrico Dal Lago, The Age of Lincoln and Cavour. Comparative Perspectives on nineteenth-century American and Italian Nation-Building. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, ch. 5

[3] Quoted in Zimmermann, Giacomo Meyerbeer, 321.

[4] Eduard Hanslick, „Meyerbeer“, in: idem., Die modern Oper. Kritiken und Studien. Berlin: Hofmann, 1875, 138-173

[5] Sabine Henze-Döhring / Sieghart Döhring, Giacomo Meyerbeer. Der Meister der Grand Opéra. München: Beck, 2014, 143 sq, 209 ff

[6] For a document-based description of the funeral see Heinz Becker, ed., Giacomo Meyerbeer in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten. Reinbeck: Rowohlt, 1980, 131 ff

[7] Quoted in Heinz and Gudrun Becker, Giacomo Meyerbeer. A Life in Letters. London: Helm, 1989, 14

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