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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 4 Nations, States, and Peoples
Richard Taruskin


There was another route to nation through opera. The musical stage became the favored site, in the age of burgeoning nationalism, for the idealized or allegorical reenactment of every nation's history. If largeness of conception automatically meant significance of achievement, historical opera would rank first in the history of opera, since history-in-music became the overriding preoccupation of the venerable Paris Opera (the Académie Royale de Musique). In the period of the so-calledJuly Monarchy (1830–1848), the Académie Royale became the site of the hugest opera spectacles ever attempted anywhere. Never was art more directly involved with or inspired by politics, and never was politics more directly concerned with national destiny.

The Parisian predilection for the “monster spectacle” was a direct reflection of France's self-image as the great political monolith of Western Europe. It had been so under the Bourbon monarchy, when the French court opera had flourished, and so it remained after the revolution. At a time when the maps of Germany and Italy were crazy quilts of little principalities and city-states, and the multinational Hapsburg (“Holy Roman”) Empire was slowly crumbling under its own dead weight, France was the same large centralized entity it had been since the fifteenth century, the only continental European country that looked on an early nineteenth-century political map pretty much the way it looks now.

Its political fortunes may have been volatile, what with three revolutions in little more than fifty years and a perpetual pendulum swing during the nineteenth century between republican and imperial rule. But its territorial integrity was stable, and its military was mighty. It took the whole “concert of Europe,” the massed armies of every other major European country, even Russia, to beat its armies back during the Napoleonic Wars. Even when subdued, France remained a giant and “the one to beat,” and its arts establishment continued to reflect that traditional self-image.

The Paris Opera's post-Napoleonic recovery was signaled by the building of a new home for it in 1821, the Salle Le Peletier (named after the street on which it stood), with a seating capacity of around two thousand. That was indeed large for the time, even if the Metropolitan Opera House in New York (both the old house in use from 1883 to 1966 and the one at Lincoln Center that replaced it) accommodated almost twice that number. The difference is that for all its size, the Paris Opera was in 1821 still a government-subsidized enterprise that, while encouraged to recoup its expenditures, did not have to do so.

Even after the July Revolution, government involvement with the theater remained strong and decisive, reflecting the even more fundamental fact that in nineteenth-century France (and, to a considerable extent, in many European countries even today) opera was considered a national asset and an instrument of national policy, while in twentieth-or twenty-first-century America it is considered a luxury product and is expected, therefore, to earn a profit—not that it can really do so without philanthropic and (to a small and incessantly contested degree) public support.

The new house was not only large, it was also superbly equipped. In 1822 it became the first opera house to use gas lighting instead of candles, around 1830 the first to use limelight, and in 1849 the first to use electricity. Its stage machinery was comparably advanced. Composers and librettists were encouraged to exploit it in consultation with a specially appointed stage manager (metteur en scène), the first such official in the history of opera, who from 1827 supervised a staging committee consisting of specialists in machine construction, lighting, set-design, and costumery.

This renewed emphasis on the visual reflected, just as it did in Weber's Germany, a deliberate modernization and popularization of an ancient and aristocratic art. All the design and mechanical innovations on which the Académie now prided itself had long since been standard equipment for the melodramas, peepshows, dioramas, and vaudeville comedies displayed at the so-called boulevard theaters visited by the bourgeoisie. The Académie Royale now wanted to attract that audience, not only because its patronage was lucrative, but also because the bourgeoisie increasingly defined the concept of “nation” in France, even after the post-Napoleonic Restoration, and the Académie now thought of itself, in a way it could never have done under the old regime, as a national theater.

The first opera to benefit from this state-supported grandiosity in production was a five-act monster titled La muette de Portici (“The mute girl of Portici,” 1828, sometimes called Masaniello or Fenella after its leading characters), by Daniel-François-Esprit Auber (1782–1871), to a libretto by Eugène Scribe (1791–1861). Some said (and say) that Scribe was the greatest librettist of the nineteenth century, some that he was the worst. What all must agree is that he was the century's most prolific and influential dramatist. As the arbiter of the so-called pièce bien faite (well-made play), and creator of literally dozens of libretti set by every composer of the period (some more than once), Scribe was the nineteenth-century Metastasio.

Even his admirers admit that Scribe's librettos are full of hackneyed language and theatrical clichés. What he was uniquely gifted for doing, however, was what librettists were paid to do—that is, exploit resources and create opportunities. In the words of Louis Véron (1798–1867), Scribe's nominal boss as director of the Opéra in its glory days:

For a long time people have thought that nothing was easier to compose than a poem for opera. What a huge literary error! An opera in five acts can only come alive by means of a very dramatic scenario bringing into play the grandest passions of the human heart and strong historical interest. This dramatic action, however, ought to be able to be comprehended by the eye like the action of a ballet. It is necessary that the chorus play an impassioned role in it and be so to speak one of the interesting characters of the play. Each act ought to offer contrasts in settings, costumes, and above all in ably prepared situations. The librettos of M. Scribe offer this abundance of ideas, these dramatic situations, and fulfill all the conditions for variety of setting (mise-en-scène) that the construction of an opera in five acts demands. When one has at one's disposal the most enormous theater, an orchestra of more than eighty musicians, nearly eighty chorus members male and female, eighty supernumeraries [“spear-carriers” or “extras,” walk-on actors who do not speak or sing but augment the spectacle], not counting children, a company of sixty machinistes [highly skilled stagehands] for moving sets, the public listens and expects great things from you. You fail in your mission if so many resources only serve you to put on comic operas or vaudevilles!10

And that is why there were five acts: it was the standard format for tragedies, “great” plays. In collaboration with Véron, with Charles Duponchel (1794–1868) and Pierre Cicéri (1782–1868), metteurs en scène, and with a pléiade of gifted composers, beginning with Auber and also including Jacques Fromental Halévy (1799–1862) and especially Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791–1864), Scribe masterminded a new and epoch-making genre called “grand opera,” or (since it was associated specifically with the Paris Opera house) grand opéra. The enduring repertoire of late nineteenth-century opera—above all the operas of Verdi and Wagner (falsely supposed to be antipodes)—is fundamentally beholden, both musically and dramatically, to grand opéra, and historically incomprehensible without knowledge of it.

La muette de Portici, slightly predating both the July Revolution and the advent of Véron, set the tone for these mighty collaborative efforts, and became their model. Just as Véron described, a passionate love intrigue is played out in it against a vast historical panorama, with intense dramatic confrontations alternating with immense crowd scenes and extravagant scenic effects. It was to motivate the crowd scenes that the historical background initially became so important, and it was his skill at aiming acts unerringly toward grandiose dénouements that made Scribe such a successful librettist for the genre.

To get crowds moving on stage, popular uprisings were handy, and so La muette de Portici is projected against the background of an insurrection led by the Neapolitan fisherman-revolutionist Tommaso Aniello (called Masaniello) against Spanish rule in 1647. It was a popular subject at the time. A stirring literary account of it, Raimond de Moirmoiron's Mémoires sur la revolution de Naples de 1647, published in 1825, had already been turned to theatrical account in an opéra comique with music by the transplanted Neapolitan Michele Carafa, a friend of Rossini, which in turn restimulated literary endeavors: several “book versions” (commercial spin-offs from the opera) like the pseudonymously authored Masaniello, histoire du soulèvement de Naples en 1647 (“Masaniello: The Story of the Naples Rebellion of 1647”) were being hawked in the Paris bookstalls.

In addition, a spectacular “diorama” (pictorial projection with lighting effects) called the “Eruption of Mount Vesuvius” was being displayed on the boulevard, at the theater of Louis Daguerre, the future photographic pioneer. To compete with all of these at once, a tragic twist was envisioned, and that made necessary the five-act tragédie lyrique format that would henceforth become standard once again, as it had been in the days of Louis XIV.

A three-act opéra comique libretto on the subject of Masaniello, by a staff hack named Germain Delavigne, was already the theater's property. It was to “play-doctor” that version into a “well-made” lyric tragedy that Scribe was engaged. The tragic treatment meant replacing spoken dialogue with fully accompanied recitative; that already meant lengthening the piece, since singing takes so much longer than speaking. It also meant interpolating ballet into at least two of the acts as had been de rigueur at the Académie Royale since Lully's time. These requirements were even applied to existing operas when staged by the Académie Royale. The production of Weber's Der Freischütz that Wagner described (and, for home consumption, derided) in 1841 had been fitted out with orchestrally accompanied recitatives, composed on commission by Berlioz, who also orchestrated a well-known piano piece of Weber's—“Invitation to the Dance” (Aufforderung zum Tanze), a rondeau brilliant in waltz time (1819)—to serve as the interpolated ballet.

Above all, tragedy implied an ill-fated love intrigue. In meeting this last requirement Scribe was faced with a quandary. Owing to the unexpected departure of one of the Académie's leading ladies, only one dramatic soprano was available for the new opera, not enough to populate a traditional love triangle. Scribe's inspired solution was to raid the ballet (another genre that was having a popular rebirth at the Académie Royale), where miming to music had long since been brought to a high degree of expressive precision. The use of a mime character as operatic protagonist was not completely unprecedented (there is one, for example, in Silvana, an early opera by Weber). But the idea was novel enough, and the Académie's stable of attractive ballerinas popular enough, to stimulate advance interest in the new work among the social classes the theater now wanted to woo. And so the “mute girl” was not only included in the cast but even made the title character.

Thus arrived at, the love triangle in the opera's foreground became that of Alphonse, the Spanish viceroy's rakish son, who is betrothed to the Spanish princess Elvira, but who has seduced and abandoned the mute fishermaid Fenella, whose spunky pantomimes provide not only piquant entertainment—especially as played at the premiere by the ballerina Lise Noblet (1801–52), a famous beauty reputedly “kept” by Count Claparède, a wizened military hero who was the crony of the Vicomte de Martignac, the Minister of the Interior (whose office oversaw all theaters), and consequently a focal point for gossip (Fig. 4-4)—but also the primary incitement for the background matter, her brother Masaniello's rebellion.

Scribe's technique for relating libidinous foreground to historical background is shown off to perfection by his scenario for the opera's culmination, the fifth act. It is essentially a refinement (if that is the word) on the “entrance opera” technique described in chapter 1 in connection with Donizetti, in which characters accumulate on stage as the plot thickens. Set at the gateway to the Viceroy's palace, now occupied by Masaniello's victorious troops, and with an ominously smoking Mount Vesuvius visible at stage rear, the act proceeds in two great waves.

II. History (France)

fig. 4-4 Lise Noblet as Fenella in Auber's La muette de Portici (1828). Lithograph by Lemercier after a drawing by Achille Deveria.

Wave the first: the act begins, just as act II had begun, with a barcarolle, a decorative, seemingly innocent “genre” number for Pietro, one of Masaniello's henchmen, and his companions, wine cups in hand. Between the barcarolle's stanzas, however, Pietro reveals that Masaniello has betrayed the revolution he has set in motion, that he (Pietro) has punished Masaniello with a slow poison, and that Masaniello will soon be dead. Borella, another revolutionist, rushes in with a crowd of fishermen and issues a call to arms against Alphonse's forces, who are poised to attack. The crowd responds with panic, not only at the threatened bloodshed but also at the volcano's impending eruption. They call for Masaniello. He arrives, clearly deranged from the effects of the poison, singing an incoherent reprise of the act II barcarolle (i.e., a “mad scene”), while Vesuvius and the Viceroy's advancing army both rumble in the orchestral background. Fenella rouses him from his reverie and, becoming aware of the situation, Masaniello leads everyone off but Fenella, who is left alone onstage, miming prayer.

Wave the second: the first to enter this time is Elvira, who warns Fenella to flee. Next Alphonse arrives with news that Masaniello has perished at the hands of his own followers, incited by Pietro. As the massed choruses (fishermen, fisherwomen, revolutionists, Spanish soldiers) reenter the stage, Vesuvius erupts. On learning of her brother's death Fenella is overcome with grief. To general horror, she throws herself into the burning lava that has begun to inundate the stage.

Musically speaking, what is most remarkable about this act is its breakneck dramatic tempo: a matter not of clock time or of musical tempo as normally defined, but of structure. As listed in the score, there are only two “numbers”: the opening barcarolle and a colossal unbroken finale that takes in all the rest of the action. As established in the days of Mozart and Da Ponte, a finale is a section in which musical numbers never close with full cadences (i.e., signals to applaud), but are subsumed into an unbroken continuity, further emphasized by frequent, sometimes remote, harmonic modulations reflecting the vicissitudes on stage.

We have previously seen the ensemble finale, long the exclusive preserve of the comic opera where it originated, adapted to tragic ends in the Italian operas of the 1830s (Bellini) and 1840s (Donizetti). Rossini, in his late opere serie for Naples, had also adapted it in this way. Having come to Paris and produced some of these operas in French translation, Rossini was part of the background to the Scribian finale as well. But before Scribe there was no precedent for a whole act that was in effect a continuous finale, which is to say a fluid dramatic or “organic” continuity uninterrupted by individual “numbers.” As Wagner wrote in wonder, spectators perceived La muette de Portici as “something completely novel,” because “one was always kept in suspense and transported by a complete act in its entirety.”11 This will be a very important point to remember when considering the various operatic “reforms” of the later nineteenth century, most of which (but particularly Wagner's own) were attempts to achieve precisely this “numberless” continuity. Remembering this is all the more pertinent in view of an implicit, often forgotten, irony. Idealistic reformers of opera were wont to look back derisively on the French grand opéra, giving it in retrospect a reputation for opportunistic, exploitative commercial cynicism that is certainly supported by many of the details in this account of its origins and of the genesis of La muette de Portici. Surely no operatic genre was ever devised with a more constant and fretful eye toward its public reception. And yet two of the principal tenets of late-century “reformist” opera—the emphasis on uniting all media (poetry, music, setting, spectacle) in mutually reinforcing collaboration, and the achievement of “numberless” continuity—were powerfully anticipated by the grand opéra not in opposition to public taste but in the very act of courting it.

And yet public taste—a protean, discrepant thing—has rarely if ever been successfully controlled or anticipated from “above”; nor does public reception ever completely match creative intention. The adventures of La muette de Portici provide one of the most pointed illustrations of these truths. That story, the story of its reception, is its truest claim on our attention.

The opera was planned during the period of the so-called Bourbon Restoration, toward the end of the stormy and reactionary reign of Charles X, the brother of Louis XVI, the last monarch of the old regime (beheaded during the Reign of Terror). Charles had succeeded his other brother, Louis XVIII, who had been placed on the throne by the “concert of Europe” following Napoleon's defeat. By 1827 the political atmosphere was tense and theatrical censorship was severe. In such circumstances an opera about a revolution, even one as removed in time and place as Masaniello's, might seem the very last thing the Académie Royale, France's most official musical stage, would consider offering for public view. In fact, however, the opera was planned by the theatrical directorate in direct collaboration with the king's chief minister, the Vicomte de Martignac, in an effort to sway liberal opinion away from renewed revolutionary action.

The revolution depicted in the opera is not only abortive but disastrous for all concerned. By the fourth act it has gone out of Masaniello's control and descended into mob rule. Masaniello turns against his former companions (even offering his protection to Alphonse and Elvira) in an effort to stop the senseless bloodshed. He becomes, improbably enough, the embodiment of order, and is condemned by the senseless mob for his moderation. It is only Fenella's final act of suicidal desperation that brings everyone to their senses. The opera's last lines, spoken “in one voice” by all the surviving characters and choruses, suggest that the natural disaster (the eruption of Vesuvius) was a divine punishment for the civil disaster they had wrought:

Grâce pour notre crime!

Grand Dieu! protège-nous!

Et que cette victime

Suffise à ton courroux!

Mercy for our crime!

Great God! Protect us!

And let this one victim

Appease your anger!

As Karin Pendle, a historian of the grand opéra, observes, the intended moral of the opera was that in Masaniello's revolution, and by implication in all revolutions, “the losers are not primarily the leaders but rather the masses of people who have been taken advantage of by both sides.” It was “the mood of the times,” she adds, that “dictated the content of La muette de Portici,” and “its warning was there for all who had ears to hear.”12 And yet as Jane Fulcher, a rival historian of the grand opéra, points out, many among the public had ears for another message altogether, and managed to find it in the opera by “reading” the work opportunistically and selectively, the way large, heterogeneous modern audiences always interpret works of art.

The outcome of the drama finally mattered less to the public than the manner in which the crowd, with which the public identified, was portrayed. “In the end,” writes Fulcher,

the depiction of the people was the work's most gripping aspect: the people depicted as grand and heroic, through most of the work, on the first royal stage…. The blocking of the crowd scenes presented them as an active and self-assured group, now themselves in a position to inspire fear and awe in the authorities. Moreover, their choral scenes, by far the most musically powerful parts of the work, similarly projected a sense of dignity and pride that clashed openly with what occurred at the opera's end.13

So completely did bourgeois audiences identify, against official expectation, with the powerfully portrayed peasant revolutionaries, as to turn the opera into a virtual “accessory before the fact” to the revolution of 1830, the so-called July Revolution, in which political power was decisively wrested by the bourgeoisie from the aristocracy for good and all.

This reading of the opera against the official grain was much abetted by the means of its public dissemination. Operas were published and popularized not only as complete works, but in separate “numbers” as well. Individual numbers were encoded in barrel organ cylinders and became street music. They were issued in sheet music and enjoyed independent sales as home music. One item from La muette de Portici that became an instant, runaway best-seller was the act II duet for Masaniello and Pietro, “Amour sacré de la patrie” (“Sacred love of fatherland,” Ex. 4-6).

Detached from its original context, this exhilarating marchlike number could serve as many contradictory purposes as could patriotism itself, teaching government and governed alike that works of art could be freely appropriated, in an age of mass dissemination, for use as political weapons. It became customary for audiences to applaud the revolutionary duet with special show-stopping fervor, turning the occasion into a virtual antigovernment demonstration. What the nineteenth century learned from the grand opéra was that works of art could be dangerous. They were dangerous not necessarily by design but by virtue of their ambiguity—and, consequently, the different ways in which they could be used. In an age of emergent mass politics, music had become a potential rabble-rouser. Opera could now not only mirror but actually make the history of nations. In extreme cases it could even help make the nation.

Just how literally this was the case was driven home when La muette de Portici was exported, first to Germany, next, and fatefully, to Belgium. The political situation in the Low Countries, particularly among the French-speaking Belgians or Walloons, was much closer to that portrayed in the opera than the situation in France, where the opera had already proved politically explosive. Like Masaniello's Neapolitans, the Belgians had been living under Hapsburg domination since 1815, when the Congress of Vienna had peremptorily assigned the Belgian provinces to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, a de facto Austrian protectorate. The July Revolution in France had emboldened Belgian patriots to seek independence. They demanded a performance of La muette de Portici, banned by the nervous Austrians, as the price of their participation in birthday celebrations for the Dutch king, William of Orange, scheduled for 24 August.

La muette, heavily cut, opened the very next day, Wednesday, 25 August 1830, at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. As usual, the authorities cut the wrong numbers. The scenes of mob violence were gone, but “Amour sacré de la patrie” remained. Having circulated for two years in sheet and street music, it was widely known by heart. By the end of the number, the whole audience seemed to be on its feet, singing along. The chief of police sent a scout outside to assess the mood of the mob that had collected on the theater square. The scout returned and reported that the chief was to be assassinated in his box at the end of the performance.

By the end of the fourth act, most of the audience had left the theater and had joined the crowd, which swept into and occupied the offices of the main Brussels newspaper, the city courthouse, and the Hôtel de Ville, the seat of government. The decisive moment came with the storming of the municipal armory and the distribution of weapons to the rioters. Over the next few days the revolt spread to other cities. Unable to contain the crowds, the Dutch forces withdrew. By the next year, with the connivance of the anti-French coalition of “powers,” Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (uncle of the soon-to-be-crowned Queen Victoria of England) had been elected King of the Belgians. His descendants reign to this day.

II. History (France)

ex. 4-6 Daniel-François-Esprit Auber, La muette de Portici no. 8, duo, “Amour sacrée de la patrie,” mm. 48–56

Historians debate the spontaneity of the Belgian uprising, and its precise relationship to the operatic performance that seemed to spark it. Was the demonstration an unpremeditated reaction to the patriotic duet or was the duet the prearranged signal to begin the demonstration? The latter, admittedly, seems more likely to be the case, since according to all reports the police anticipated the demonstration (if not its strength) and had put the theater square under guard.

Yet how much of a difference, finally, do these admissions and qualifications make? Unaffected is the status of the musical performance—and, secondarily, of the work performed—as a political act. It is clear, moreover, that the effect of the performance on Belgian history had nothing at all to do with the conception of the work or the intentions of its creators. But again, what difference did that make to the Brussels demonstrators, and what difference should it make to us?


The Belgian insurrection of August 1830 differed very significantly from its French counterpart of the previous month (the so-called July Revolution), to which it is often likened. The one was a revolt of patriots against an imposed foreign regime. The other was a revolt by an aristocracy of wealth (the haute bourgeoisie or upper middle class) against an aristocracy of birth. It put an end to the Bourbon dynasty once and for all, but, remembering the post-revolutionary Reign of Terror and fearful of the “proletariat” (the industrialized and newly populous urban working class), the victors, headed by the venerable Marquis de Lafayette of American revolutionary fame, held back from redeclaring republican rule. Instead, a liberal constitutional monarchy, respectful of individual rights (and particularly the rights of private property), was declared by the newly empowered legislature or Chamber of Deputies, a stronghold of bourgeois interests.

At its head stood Louis Philippe (1773–1850), the gray-suited, umbrella-toting “citizen king,” whose father, the Duke of Orléans, had been an active revolutionary (under the name Philippe Egalité) but had been martyred by the Terror. The new king stood for the protection of bourgeois interests against aristocrat and proletarian alike. Especially after a number of variously motivated attempts were made on his life, the France his reign represented became a bastion of “conservative liberalism,” a strong secular state committed to economic growth and the securing of all attendant rights and privileges. The “July Monarchy” was thus at once a beacon of religious and civil tolerance and bulwark of political stability, bitterly opposed in the name of these values to all clericalism and aristocratic resurgence, but to all revolutionary or socialist tendencies as well. It was a brief European foretaste of “Americanism,” the sort of capitalistic economic liberalism that only became a world force much later with the emergence of the United States as a world power.

And its art exhibited traces of precocious Americanism as well; it is hard nowadays to overlook the many parallels between the luxuriance and the implied values of the July Monarchy's most exalted art product—the grand opéra, which reached its zenith under Louis Philippe—and those of the Hollywood movie industry: the same basis in popular spectacle, the same emphasis on high-tech “production values” and “special effects,” the same preoccupation with richly appointed semi-fantastic historical settings, and the same enthusiastic, anachronistic reinforcement of contemporary middle-class values by means of epic dramaturgy.

And by no means least: the same social tolerance in the name of economic expansion, exemplified in the hospitality shown both by Hollywood and by the Académie Royale under Louis Philippe to enterprising Jewish talent. Both Halévy and Meyerbeer, the grand opera's leading lights, were Jews (and Meyerbeer was a foreigner to boot). But both were welcomed as creators of artistic showpieces of a specifically national type, in which the French nation in its most militantly bourgeois phase took an intense patriotic pride.

Indeed, Halévy's most successful opera, La Juive (“The Jewess”, 1835), to a book by Scribe, is an impassioned indictment of religious bigotry. That is not what packed them in, though. It was, rather, the staging by Duponchel and Cicéri that bowled audiences over with its conspicuous consumption and its “cast of thousands,” causing one reviewer to exult that “the Opéra may become a power capable of throwing its armies into the balance of power in Europe.”14 The gold standard for opulence, however, was set the next year by Les Huguenots, Meyerbeer's masterpiece, which also clothed a liberal bourgeois plea for religious tolerance in raiment of unbelievable, Versailles-rivaling splendor.

The composer of Les Huguenots was born Jakob Liebmann Meyer Beer to a wealthy Berlin family, comparable to the Mendelssohns but if anything even richer and more acculturated. It was a mark of his sense of security that the composer's father, Juda Herz Beer, a sugar merchant and an elder in the municipal synagogue, never converted or had his children baptized. His mother, Amalia, the daughter of perhaps the most prosperous banker in Berlin, actually made her son swear never to renounce his hereditary faith; and while the composer was a totally assimilated and cosmopolitan citizen of Europe, and never religiously observant, he honored his pledge and was eventually brought back to Berlin for burial, amid huge publicity, in the city's Jewish cemetery.

II. History (France)

fig. 4-5 Meyerbeer, photographed in 1855 by Félix Nadar.

His career is if anything an even more impressive illustration than Mendelssohn's of the opportunities that opened up to “emancipated Jews” in the early optimistic decades of the nineteenth century. Trained first as a piano virtuoso, he was able to perform Mozart's D-minor Piano Concerto at the age of ten. Two years later he enrolled in the Berlin Singakademie where, a couple of decades ahead of Mendelssohn, he studied theory and beginning composition (counterpoint) with Carl Friedrich Zelter. In 1810, having embarked on a professional career and contracted his last two names into “Meyerbeer,” he began two years of lessons (alongside Weber, from then on a friend) with Abbé Vogler.

Meyerbeer landed a court Kapellmeister's post in 1813, the same year that his second German singspiel was produced to indifferent success. Wishing to devote himself to theatrical composition, and therefore unhappy with the prospect of a life spent in small-time court service, he took the advice of Antonio Salieri (still the Vienna court composer), quit his job, and went to Italy to learn the tricks of the opera trade. Actually, it was not much of a gamble. Thanks to his family's fortune, Meyerbeer was financially independent throughout his life. Indeed, he was one of the richest men in Europe, and in later years knew how to use his money to manipulate the press. (His biographer, Heinz Becker, credits him with the invention of “the modern press conference with refreshments.”)15

He spent eight miraculously successful years (1816–24) in Italy (Venice, Padua, Milan) much as Handel had done a century before him, Italianizing not only his style but even his first name (to Giacomo). By the time of his last Italian opera, Il crociato in Egitto (The Crusader in Egypt, 1824), a melodramma eroico on the Rossini model (and the last important opera, incidentally, to feature a major role for a castrato), Meyerbeer was recognized as Rossini's most viable rival. (His viability was most effectively, if backhandedly, acknowledged by Rossini himself, who never tired of denigrating Meyerbeer's work, especially after he had quit the scene and Meyerbeer continued to thrive.) Il crociato was a deliberate bid to attract the attention of the Paris opera houses, by then regarded (thanks precisely to their status as an official national establishment) as the Mecca of the operatic world. After a trial Paris production of another of his Italian operas in 1826, he was at last favored (a year later than Rossini) with an actual Paris commission. The commission came not from the Académie Royale but from the director of the Opéra Comique, with whom the composer had struck up a friendship. For that house one was expected to write three-act operas with spoken dialogue and happy endings: by then it was a firmly established principle that a tragic opera ended with at least one death and a comic opera with at least one marriage. Before he could embark on the project, however, he was sidetracked by a request from the widow of Weber, who had just died unexpectedly in London, to complete his friend's singspiel, Die drei Pintos.

There are probably the makings of a psychological novel in Meyerbeer's lifelong failure to keep this promise. (He finally returned the still-unfinished score to the Weber family a quarter of a century later, appeasing them with a large indemnity; the opera was eventually completed—in 1887!—by a young opera conductor named Gustav Mahler, who went on to become a major composer of symphonies but never wrote an opera of his own.) The temporary delay had a fateful and, for Meyerbeer, a very happy consequence, however. While he was ostensibly occupied with the abortive Drei Pintos project, the success of Auber's Muette de Portici created a demand for more operas on a like heroic scale, and Meyerbeer thus got in on the ground floor, so to speak, of the nascent grand opéra.

The original Opéra Comique commission—Robert le diable (“Robert the devil”), vaguely based on an old Norman legend—would have been something of a chip off Der Freischütz, already popular at the Opéra Comique in a free adaptation called Robin des bois (“Robin Hood”). Robert, one of several knights set to compete for the hand of Princess Isabelle, is tempted by his sinister friend Bertram, just as Max is tempted in Der Freischütz by his friend Caspar, to enhance his chances of success with supernatural aid. Bertram turns out to be not a man but a demon, and not Robert's friend but his father. He comes within a hair's breadth of claiming Robert's soul, but is defeated in the end by Alice, Robert's foster sister.

In the five-act grand opéra version eventually presented at the Académie Royale, Bertram is swallowed up in an earthquake at the very end, and Robert is led off to the altar, where Isabelle is waiting. (Thus the marriage survived from the opéra comique conception, but what is actually shown on stage is Bertram's hellish Don Giovanni-ish demise.) The obligatory third-act ballet is a counterpart to Weber's “Wolf's Glen,” with a fiery “Valse infernale” representing a demoniac orgy in a deserted cave, and most spectacularly (as well as most obviously indebted to the phantasmagoria shows) a swirling dance for a whole convent-cemetery's worth of risen nuns’ corpses. This was as much an opera to see as to hear, and it has been argued that the real hero behind Robert le diable was Cicéri, the designer. But it made Meyerbeer the toast of Paris (and the object of furious resentment back home). The Jewish parvenu became the bourgeois king of the opera, to match the one at the helm of government. He maintained his preeminence with three more grand opera scores, each with an elephantine gestation period and a behemoth of a production, spaced out over a period of thirty years.

II. History (France)

fig. 4-6 Edgar Degas (1834–1917), The Ballet from “Robert le Diable” (1871).

While maintaining Robert le diable's colossal scale and reliance on awe-inspiring spectacle, the operas that followed differed significantly from the prototype as dramatic conceptions. It was not an artistic difference alone, but one that matched the changes in the political climate. Owing to the snail's pace at which the cumbersome Paris production machine had to operate—whereas Italian productions typically went from contract-signing to opening night in a matter of weeks, the process normally lasted from three to twelve years in Paris—a grand opera production could sometimes be curiously out of joint with the times by the time it reached the stage.

Robert le diable was a case in point. Although first presented in 1831, in the first year of the July Monarchy, the score was commissioned and supplied in the waning years of the restoration. However thrilling, it was at heart a frivolous diablerie (“deviltry,” to use the term current at the cheap boulevard theaters) with a facile, unproblematic moral and a rather smugly happy end, in which good and bad characters alike receive their just deserts. The works actually created in the period of the ascendant bourgeoisie, in contrast, employed the same dazzling theatrical rhetoric to produce uniformly horrifying dénouements, investing them, however artificially, with a gripping moral urgency.

M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet, a historian of the Paris musical stage, has caught their common denominator with succinct precision. In the grand operas of the July Monarchy, she writes, “sympathetic characters are crushed by forces beyond their control.”16 The portrayal of these forces as human rather than supernatural was the reason why every grand opera commissioned after 1830 had to have an explicit historical setting, usually a well-defined “time of troubles” brought about by irreconcilable factional strife. And the forces being human, they are subject to moral judgment and can serve as cautionary examples. The moral is always the same: “Don't let things get out of control! Resolve your differences!” Naked conflict, intransigence, prejudice, as every grand opera shows us time and again, lead inevitably to destruction.

Rarely if ever does the opera appear to take sides within the conflict portrayed. It sides, ostensibly, against conflict itself. As George Sand was quick to discern (and to approve), however, there was an implicit political bias in grand opéra. It proceeded, she noted, from a “new liberal theory of history according to which, far from being the exclusive property of revolutionists, terrorism was attributed primarily to the aristocratic nobles, kings, princes and gentlemen.”17

In Les Huguenots (1836) these political morals are drawn with particular clarity thanks to the trusty Romeo-and-Juliet formula. A pair of star-crossed lovers, Raoul (Protestant) and Valentine (Catholic), are caught in the Reformation's web. They meet their doom in the course of the infamous St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572, in which many hundreds of Huguenots (French Calvinists) were shot dead in the streets of Paris at the behest of Catherine de’ Medici, the Italian-born queen mother. The entire fifth act of the opera was given over to a reenactment of the horrible event, at the end of which the auditorium famously reeked of gunpowder and buckshot, adding yet another sensory element to the media-saturation for which the grand opéra was famed. Like La Juive, which preceded it by a year, Les Huguenots is an indictment of religious fanaticism and an implicit declaration of bourgeois liberalism.

In Le prophète (1849), the setting is sixteenth-century Holland and Germany, where another fanatical religious movement, that of the Anabaptists (“Rebaptizers” rejecting infant baptism), held sway. The Anabaptists, whose main tactic was fomenting peasant revolts, could be looked upon as the extreme left wing of the early Reformation movement. The title character is John of Leiden (Jean in the opera), who declared himself the resurrected King David and declared a theocratic “kingdom of Zion” in the town of Münster in 1534. After presiding over this self-created polygamous religious commune for about a year, John was defeated by the Catholic prince bishop whom he had deposed and was publicly tortured to death along with his followers.

In the opera, Jean is portrayed as a good-natured innkeeper gulled by crafty thieves posing as Anabaptists into becoming their religious figurehead. He is disillusioned in the end, with tragic results for himself, Berthe his betrothed (who stabs herself when she learns the tyrannical “prophet's” identity), and his mother Fidès, who dies with Jean in the catastrophic explosion of his palace, which he himself has engineered as an act of expiation. In this opera the political subtext is especially obvious. As the poet and critic Théophile Gautier (1811–72) wittily observed, “the Anabaptists and the peasants have dialogue that one could believe to have been drawn from the prose of communistic journals” such as were proliferating in the period leading up to the abortive proletarian revolutions of 1848.18 Again there was an irony engendered by delayed production. By the time it was staged, the revolution of which it sought to forewarn had already taken place and France was again a republic.

L'Africaine (“The African girl”), the last Scribe-Meyerbeer collaboration, was not produced until 1865, a year after the composer's death. Once again the historical setting is the sixteenth century, the “age of exploration,” but the exotic geographical setting (“an island in the Indian Ocean”) is semi-fantastical. And once again religious fanaticism (this time the Iberian inquisition) is cast as a destructive force, though this time it has a rival in the collision and mutual corruption of European and African mores.

The two main characters are the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama and Sélika, an “African” (actually Hindu) queen he has brought back to Portugal as a slave and concubine. Taking her back with him on a subsequent expedition, Vasco is defeated and captured by Sélika's tribe. In the end, though, she demonstrates her superior magnanimity by first marrying him rather than having him killed, and then letting him go back to Portugal with Inès, his European betrothed. In a final scene reminiscent of the Dido-and-Aeneas theme so beloved of the opera seria composers of yore, Sélika, like Dido (also an African queen), poisons herself on a promontory overlooking the sea as Vasco and his fleet depart.


As Wagner's appreciation of La muette de Portici has already suggested, a grand opéra cannot be fairly sampled as a musical achievement at any level short of an entire act. The fourth act of Les Huguenots is the inevitable choice, not only because it has long been acclaimed as the greatest, if not the “grandest” single act in all of grand opéra, but also (if paradoxically) because it is an interestingly atypical work that reveals the genre's conceptual Achilles’ heel even as it suggests the ways in which its virtues would later be absorbed into the international operatic mainstream.

It is often said that grand opéra killed the bel canto, just as bourgeois pretension and “conspicuous consumption” killed aristocratic grace. As evidence, its amazing paucity of solo numbers is often cited. Arias, the dramatic as well as the musical focal points in Italian operas, became merely occasional and decorative, often sung ad libitum. Single characters rarely got to occupy the stage long enough to sing one. And while every grand opera score contained its share of “detachable” numbers (numbers intended for a life outside the opera on the recital stage and in homes), they are often throwaways, used for the purpose of narrative exposition rather than emotional effusion, and are written in a simple ballad (strophic) style more often than in the gripping sequence of accelerating tempos that one gets in Italian opera.

In Les Huguenots only two characters are given real arias to sing. Both of them are decidedly minor characters, and their big moments come early in the evening, before the plot has had a chance to thicken much. One is Marguerite, the Queen of Navarre, who gets a traditionally regal coloratura aria at the beginning of act II to establish it, in keeping with the “act-oriented” principle of Scribian librettos, as the “feminine” act (replete with a then-licentious bathing scene) to contrast with the all-male cast of act I. The other is Urbain, Marguerite's gawkily flirtatious page, a “trousers” role often compared with that of Cherubino, the Countess Almaviva's androgynous lover-boy in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. (There is also a blustery musket song in act I called “Pif paf pouf!” for the basso profondo role of Marcel, an old Huguenot; it was often detached, and became famous, but it is hardly an aria.) It is a superb commentary on the values of grand opéra that it should have been Urbain, the most incidental of the major roles in Les Huguenots, who was given the opera's most famous aria to sing. But even as an element of décor, the Cavatine du Page (“Nobles seigneurs, salut!” [“Greetings, Noble Lords”]) is a sumptuous and revealing tidbit. It deserves a peek for the way it brought a note of frank sexual suggestiveness into operatic music, making winkingly overt what had always been an implicit component of opera's appeal.

Marguerite has sent Urbain into the stag party that is act I with a summons for Raoul, the male lead. The demonstratively male atmosphere of the act makes the travesti character's sexual ambiguity all the more piquant. The character is a boy, but the singer is a woman among men, and the composer plays the gag for all it is worth. Urbain is marked as “exotic” (i.e., sexy) by his vocal range, to be sure; but also by his coloratura flourishes at the beginning and the end, which provide a musical equivalent to the ironically obsequious courtly bows that surely accompanied them in the stage business. His lascivious allure is also underscored by Scribe: the Count of Nevers (the host on whose party he has intruded) pointedly addresses Urbain as “beau page”—literally “handsome page,” but to be understood as “pretty boy.”

But all of these (and the gorgeously sensuous orchestration besides) are secondary to the main attraction, the lilting waltz rhythms in which Urbain's creamy cantabile phrases are cast, as close to a belly dance as a meter could get within a strictly European setting. It is a compound waltz, in fact, implying in its meter two levels of curvaceous ternary movement, whirls within whirls (and still more whirls when the writing includes sixteenth-note triplets). Urbain's melody behaves like a veritable ballerina—pirouettes (twirls) cynically placed on the word “honneur,” jetés (leaps) on “Chevaliers,” spectacular fouettés en tournant (whip-arounds) to characterize the coquettish series of “nons” in the middle section.

II. History (France)

fig. 4-7 Autograph score of the Page's cavatina from act I of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots (1836).

Most coaxing of all are the battements (flutters) alternating with tendus (stretches)—the staccato repeated notes alternating with languorous “sighing” pairs (marked dolce e legato in the composer's manuscript)—in the middle section, where the page promises “glory and bliss” to the lucky recipient of her mistress's summons. There is technical interest here in the composer's apparently superfluous use of the words staccato and legato to denote what might already seem sufficiently explicit in the dots and slurs (Fig. 4-7). Spotlighted in this way they tell the conductor to reinforce the distinction by adjusting the tempo—something that was becoming more and more the rule in romantic orchestral practice, now that baton conducting was coming in. A new kind of virtuoso—the podium virtuoso—was emerging.

And he was emerging amid controversy. That Meyerbeer asks for the conductor's intervention here is evidence that he saw the innovation as useful. Others affected disapproval, especially where the sacralized repertory of “absolute music” was concerned. There is a passage in a treatise on conducting by Felix Weingartner (1863–1942), who saw himself as a reformer of the art, in which he protested what he described as the distortions wrought by the podium virtuosi of his student days. The chief culprit was Hans von Bülow (1830–94), probably the late nineteenth century's most celebrated maestro. The passage Weingartner chose for illustrating von Bülow's sins was one from Beethoven's Egmont Overture that exhibits exactly the same contrast in articulation that Meyerbeer called for in Urbain's cavatina (Ex. 4-7).

II. History (France)

ex. 4-7 Ludwig van Beethoven's Egmont Overture, second theme

Weingartner carped that Bülow “leaped at once from allegro into an andante grave” at this point, “thereby destroying the uniform tempo” marked by the composer. The historical evidence (including Meyerbeer's notation) suggests that Weingartner's protests were actually bent not toward the restoration of a lost propriety but at a new ideal of regularity most appropriately associated with twentieth-century modernism. Ironically enough, the tradition of tempo fluidity Weingartner was trying to stamp out (and which was effectively eliminated from most twentieth-century performances) was a tradition largely instituted by the very figure whose unsullied texts Weingartner was trying to restore. For Beethoven was one of the first baton conductors, and all who have given ear-witness testimony on his performances agree, to quote one of them, that he was “much concerned to achieve a proper tempo rubato.”19 It is altogether possible, even likely, that Meyerbeer, German by birth, was trying through his notation to acquaint French musicians with the freewheeling “Beethovenian” approach to tempo he had imbibed in his youth.

But it was a new expressive purpose to which Meyerbeer sought to put the style. His page's cavatina is worlds away from the Innerlichkeit of German romanticism, and Meyerbeer's use of coloratura is equally far from that of his Italian contemporaries, Bellini and Donizetti. The page's delivery is not self-revealing. It is a facade. The only affect projected (if one can call it an affect) is that of coquetry. For high romantic emotion one must turn, in a grand opéra, to the “production numbers”: the morceaux d'ensemble, as they were called.

Vocal virtuosity will certainly not be lacking. Not for nothing were performances of Les Huguenots billed as les nuits de sept étoiles—“nights of seven stars”—and ticket prices raised. With seven roles demanding singers of the absolute first rank it was the highest-priced of all operas for all concerned, including the management. But it was a new kind of virtuoso singing that Meyerbeer required in dramatic (as opposed to decorative) roles: a forceful rather than graceful virtuosity that demanded an extension of the full (or “chest”) voice almost to the top of the range, with a concomitantly lessened dependence on refined falsetto (“head-voice”) singing. This is the kind of heroic singing style we know today as “operatic.” For better or worse, we owe it, in the first instance, to Meyerbeer.

The fourth act of Les Huguenots contains just three big numbers. First there is a “scene,” a hectic recitative number in which Valentine, now married and unavailable, hides her illicit Protestant lover Raoul from her father St. Bris, the mastermind of the St. Bartholomew's Day plot. After the first performances, Meyerbeer added a brief romance for Valentine alone so as to give the opera's female lead a lyrical moment to balance Raoul's little air at the beginning of act V. Its two to three minutes’ duration, believe it or not, is the only span of time in the entire four-hour show when the stage is occupied by a single soliloquizing character expressing strong emotion. This was indeed a new kind of opera!

What follows next is one of Scribe's most powerful “dramatic tableaus,” to which Meyerbeer composed his most famous morceau d'ensemble: the Conspiracy and Blessing of the Daggers (Conjuration et bénédiction des poignards). Here is where the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre is plotted. The first section, the conjuration, is baritone St. Bris's big moment. He leads the taking of the oath with a big rabble-rousing tune (“Pour cette cause sainte”/“For this holy cause”) whose resemblance to La Marseillaise, whether calculated or not, is patent—and potent (Ex. 4-8).

II. History (France)

ex. 4-8 Giacomo Meyerbeer, Les Huguenots, “Pour cette cause sainte,” compared with La Marseillaise

Treated at first as if it were the beginning of an aria, its second half is immediately taken up by St. Bris and Nevers (now Valentine's husband), as a duet accompanied by shouts of assent from the chorus of Catholic lords, and a pair of countermelodies (in contrary motion, of course) for Tavannes, an ardent coconspirator, and the horrified Valentine (sung “aside” to the audience, cadenza and all). Having thus been given a monumental exposition, the tune will come back as a kind of rondo theme (or “double return”) to bind up the whole tableau. In between its appearances Nevers, realizing that it is not a battle but a craven massacre of innocents that is being planned, angrily withdraws. With fine irony, Meyerbeer gives him the hushed yet nevertheless crowning reprise of the tune so bumptiously put forth by St. Bris, as Nevers claims the honorable position that St. Bris in his cowardice has abdicated.

After Nevers has stalked off the stage, and Valentine has been shooed away by her father, the actual plot is hatched, following which three monks enter, bearing baskets full of white scarves that will serve on the morrow as identification badges for Catholics during the bloodbath. (During their entrance, Valentine, having escaped from her room, returns unnoticed to the stage and sings an arioso reminding the audience about the concealed presence of Raoul.)

The preparation for the blessing of the daggers is a moment of brutally degraded pomp, characterized musically by the dotted rhythms of the old French overture. The actual blessing (Ex. 4-9) is intoned to a weird chord progression that shows Meyerbeer to have been paying attention to the latest developments in German music: the tonic, A♭, is shadowed by major thirds below (E major) and above (C major), completing an uncanny “thirds cycle” before the C-major chord resolves as a dominant to F.

II. History (France)

ex. 4-9 Giacomo Meyerbeer, Les Huguenots, Act IV (blessing scene)

After an anathema has been pronounced on the Huguenots, and an oath taken to spare no one, be it graybeard, woman, or child, the stage erupts in a bloodthirsty allegro furioso that functions as a sort of choral cabaletta. Meyerbeer's virtuosity in the scoring of this sonorous explosion (still using “natural” brass instruments) was widely admired and emulated, perennially cited in orchestration treatises beginning with Berlioz's in 1843. What seems almost a greater achievement, though, is the way in which the composer managed to scale the sonority down by degrees to pianissimo as the conspirators disperse.

Here, the most fully populated moment of the tableau, was where Scribe thought the act was over. And so it was when the opera went into rehearsal in June 1835. It was Adolphe Nourrit (1802–39), the leading tenor of the Opéra, playing Raoul, who demanded that he and his leading lady—Cornélie Falcon (1812–97), his protégé and mistress, in the role of Valentine—be given a proper love scene. It was not an easy thing to rationalize, and Scribe refused to supply it. Meyerbeer turned to a friend, Émile Deschamps, for the requisite text.

In the end, the strangely motivated Grand Duo went like this: Raoul emerges from hiding and immediately makes for the door, so that he can warn his fellow Huguenots of the impending catastrophe. The desperate Valentine, losing her head and trying to detain him, blurts out that she loves him. Thunderstruck (“Tu l'as dit!”/“You said it!”), Raoul asks to hear her say it again, over and over. This provides the slow “cavatine” portion of the duet, set in the exotically “remote” key of G♭ major and marked andante amoroso (Ex. 4-10). But finally, hearing the local church bells give out the fatal signal (on F, followed by a blast of brass on a jarring C that may remind us of Weber's Wolf Glen tritones), he tears himself away and runs to his coreligionists’ aid, thus providing the pretexts for a concluding “stretta” or fast finish.

What seemed to Scribe a contrived situation, improbable to the point of absurdity, became irresistible theater when realized. The freezing of the action into “aria time” at this terribly fraught juncture—just long enough for the two doomed characters to catch a moment's “inward” bliss before being predictably crushed by the inexorable march of external events—brought audiences to a frenzy of empathy. It was instantly the most successful number in the opera, chiefly responsible for the work's becoming the first grand opera to reach a thousand documented performances (in Paris in 1900); and it has retained its reputation as a masterpiece even as Meyerbeer's music has fallen out of the active repertory and his name has sunk, in many quarters, into low repute.

What brought the opera up to this self-surpassing level was the introduction of a new member into the planning board, so to speak, to join the composer, the librettist, the theater manager, the stage director, and the designer. Or rather, it was the readmittance to lost privilege of an old member, the oldest one of all, namely the singer. Never before in a grand opera, and never since, did a solo singer's voice dominate the work's most memorable moment. That made Les Huguenots at once the greatest grand opéra and an atypical one. It fused the novel, timely values of grand opéra with the foundational, “eternal” verities of all public music drama, as set in stone in Venice almost exactly two hundred years before. Opera has always thrived—and, it seems, can only thrive—on voice-inspired empathy.

II. History (France)

ex. 4-10 Giacomo Meyerbeer, Les Huguenots, Act IV (“Cavatine,” andante amoroso)

Until then not particularly known for its intimacy, Meyerbeer's music, especially in the cavatine that capitalized on Nourrit's extraordinary range and timbre, set a standard of tenderness that long remained a touchstone. In the witty words of Hugh Macdonald, a historian of French opera, “‘Tu l'as dit’ is a classic love duet: at least it is of a type that immediately became a classic,” owing to its many imitators. “Echoes of this duet are heard throughout the nineteenth century, not just for its orchestral and vocal style but for its key. I doubt if any composer familiar with Les Huguenots (and what composer was not?) was free to use G♭ in any other way.”20


Macdonald's long list of Meyerbeer's debtors and emulators has its ironies. For one thing it shows that, whatever the enabling conditions that brought forth Meyerbeer's work, its artistic and historical significance is not at all tantamount to, or exhausted by, its now-forgotten political significance. Even in its own time, the opera circulated in a variety of guises thanks to the many touchy government censorships that held sway in post-Napoleonic Europe. It was banned outright in French Protestant cities; in Vienna, and later in St. Petersburg, it became The Guelphs and the Ghibellines with the action transferred to thirteenth-century Italy; in Munich the setting was changed to seventeenth-century England and the warring factions became Anglicans and Puritans.

But whatever the ostensible subject, a composer's colleagues, rivals, and progeny constitute an audience in their own right, one that (like all audiences) receives its impressions selectively and reads opportunistically, according to its predilections and its needs. So the other irony—that the list of Meyerbeer's debtors contains some who were far from his professed admirers—is in the end not so surprising. Most noteworthy is the prominence among them of Richard Wagner, whose hostility to Meyerbeer was of a piece with his denigration of Mendelssohn.

In Das Judenthum in der Musik, Wagner steered clear of naming Meyerbeer's name as well as his own (probably because Meyerbeer was then technically an employee of the Prussian court and enjoyed its protection), but nobody had any trouble guessing the identity of “a far-famed Jew composer of our day” who “has addressed himself and his products to a section of our public whose total confusion of musical taste was less caused by him than exploited by him to his profit.” This charlatan “writes operas for Paris, and sends them touring round the world.” His is an art designed to titillate “that section of our citizen society whose only reason for attending the opera is utter boredom.” His success, Wagner argued, is “proof of the ineptitude of the present musical epoch,” since “the Jews could never have taken possession of our art until our art began to show signs of what they have now demonstrably brought to light—namely, its inner incapacity for life.”

To clinch the point, Wagner triumphantly asserted that “so long as the art of Music had a real organic life-need in it, down to the epochs of Mozart and Beethoven, there was nowhere to be found a Jew composer,” just as “at the time when Goethe and Schiller sang among us, we certainly knew nothing of a poetizing Jew.”21 In other words, Wagner claimed, it was not a change in the legal and social status of affluent Jews (their so-called emancipation) that made possible their participation in the arts, but rather the degeneration of the arts themselves, which had degraded them to a level susceptible to Jewish infiltration.

This diatribe did not go unanswered. One answer, appearing in the same journal as the original screed, went beyond the defense or vindication of individuals. Instead, it managed to engage Wagner's (or “Herr Freigedank's”) arguments at a profound and culturally significant level. The author, Eduard Bernsdorf, was a member of a distinguished German family of diplomats. (His nephew, who called himself Johann-Heinrich von Bernstorff, served as German ambassador to Washington in the years immediately preceding the First World War.) Bernsdorf's main point was that Wagner's diagnosis of the state of contemporary art and society was accurate, but that it was merely witless scapegoating to attribute it all to Jewish influence. “What he says about Meyerbeer is in many respects true,” Bernsdorf allowed, “but not because Meyerbeer is a Jew but because Meyerbeer is a man of the nineteenth century.”22

A man of the nineteenth century—a “modern man,” that is, in the eyes of contemporaries—meant a beneficiary of progress in commerce and technology. The works of Meyerbeer—or rather their success—epitomized this benefit. Nineteenth-century improvements in transport and communications (e.g., the railroad, the telegraph) shrank distances dramatically, and enabled a truer cosmopolitanism than ever before. Of this, too, Meyerbeer had been a conspicuous beneficiary. A great deal of romantic ideology—especially where it involved the purity of nations and ethnicities (and particularly where it took on an exclusionary or xenophobic tinge, as it did with Wagner)—was a direct reaction to this new cosmopolitanism born of urbanization and improved communications. In many ways, then, romanticism had become antimodern and reactionary. This was the kind of romanticism Wagner's tract espoused.

And to such romantics, the Jew—who had achieved civil rights and emerged as a force in gentile society concurrently with (and partly as a result of) urbanization as well as the technological and commercial modernization of Europe—became the symbol of everything they found threatening in modern life. Defenders of German Kultur began to see Jews not only as tainted by commerce (“merchants”) and as spreaders of “modernity,” but as the henchmen of the hated French with their cosmopolitan mores and their unregenerate Enlightened “civilization.” What better focal point for such a phobia, then, than “a far-famed Jew composer” who “writes operas for Paris, and sends them touring round the world”?

These ancient debates would hardly merit airing in a book like this if they were merely ancient debates. Sadly, however, aspects of Wagner's anti-Semitic diatribe (motivated partly by personal spite, Meyerbeer having been his indispensable benefactor but having ceased his financial support in 1846) continue to surface, sometimes unwittingly, in present-day discussions of Meyerbeer, and continue, often unwittingly, to influence contemporary thinking about art. The most influential music history text of the mid-twentieth century (and still in print), Paul Henry Lang's Music in Western Civilization, paraphrases Wagner almost word for word, imputing the same “boredom” to Meyerbeer's audience (in a quote cribbed from Voltaire): “One goes to see a tragedy to be moved, to the Opéra one goes either for want of any other interest or to facilitate digestion.”23

Then comes a fusillade of dated antibourgeois rhetoric, presented (one hopes) in naive ignorance of its former status as anti-Semitic code: Meyerbeer's operas were “written and composed for the use of merchants”; his work represented “the invasion of the bourgeois spirit, the pursuit of money and pleasure,” which “abolished the sincere atmosphere of the first fervors of the romantic movement”; they represented the sinister intrusion of “a foreigner” into the domain of French art, when “a certain Jacob Liebmann Beer came to France” and “deliberately set out to utilize the weaknesses of the French character”; they are not a legitimate genre because they lack “a foundation in nature.”24 The only thing missing is Wagner's magnificent string of epithets summing up what he (and many since) perceived as the cynicism of Les Huguenots, the opera to which he was most indebted, and that consequently caused him the most distress: “a monstrous piebald, historico-romantic, diabolico-religious, fanatico-libidinous, sacro-frivolous, mysterio-criminal, autolytico-sentimental dramatic hotchpotch.”25

But the worst of it, for the Germans, was the fact that so much of the music in Les Huguenots seemed to be deliberately ugly. “The horrible is Meyerbeer's element,” wrote Robert Schumann, another composer-turned-journalist, when the work was given in Leipzig in 1837.26 That made Meyerbeer, in German eyes, not a romantic but another base realist, willing to sacrifice art's transcendent domain to the depiction of grim, filthy, or (worst of all) ordinary reality. The other side of realism was the importation into art of the musical artifacts of “external reality,” made all the more intolerable in the case of Les Huguenots by the fact that one of these artifacts was a Protestant chorale—indeed the most famous of all chorales, Luther's own Ein’ feste Burg, invoked not for its spiritual content but as a trademark to identify the Protestant faction.

Literally from the beginning of the opera (the Overture) to the end (the act V massacre), Ein’ feste Burg haunts the opera (see Ex. 4-11), sometimes merely quoted (for example, by the doughty old Marcel in act 1), sometimes “developed” (as in the massacre). All parties to the device—composer, audience, critics—were aware that it was not historically “true” to use a Lutheran melody to represent the Calvinist Huguenots. The melody was selected not for its literal truth but for its “verisimilitude”—a distinction that is crucial to an understanding of artistic realism.

What is “verisimilar” is what seems true (vraisemblable in French), not necessarily what is true. When it came to musical “semiosis”—the creation of musical “signs”—what counted above all was legibility: not “is it the literal truth?” but “can it be read?” Only Ein’ feste Burg, Meyerbeer realized, would instantly and automatically register with uninitiated audiences as “Protestant.” Within the context of the artwork it alone, consequently, would elicit a “true” response. That is why another name for verisimilitude is “artistic truth.” What is most important to realize is that artistic truth was as “real” a truth as any other kind. For one thing, it immediately set at nought all political censorship. Hearing Ein’ feste Burg ring out in an opera retitled The Guelphs and Ghibellines immediately erased the censor's cover and revealed the work's “true” and original intent.

So it was not the actual, factual falsity of the symbol that made it anathema to German romantics, but rather the profane use to which Meyerbeer had put it, as well as the potentially corrupting effect such a usage might have on the audience. “I am no moralist,” Schumann wrote, moralizing “but it enrages a good Protestant to hear his dearest chorale shrieked out on the boards, to see the bloodiest drama in the whole history of his religion degraded to the level of an annual fair farce, in order to raise money and noise with it.” And even more pointedly, “one is often inclined to grasp one's brow, to feel whether all up there is in the right condition, when one reflects on Meyerbeer's success in healthy, musical Germany.”

This time, however, there was no question of anti-Semitic code, because the work with which Schumann invidiously contrasted Meyerbeer's degrading spectacle was Mendelssohn's Paulus, “a work of pure art,” in which “the resumption of the chorale,” as Schumann put it, served the purposes of true religious feeling and, beyond that, the expression of das innerliche Herz, “the inward heart,” romantic art's only true domain.27


(10) Quoted in Karin Pendle, Eugène Scribe and French Opera of the Nineteenth Century (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1979), p. 50.

(11) Richard Wagner's Prose Works, trans. W. Ashton Ellis, Vol. V (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 896), p. 39.

(12) Pendle, Eugène Scribe and French Opera of the Nineteenth Century, p. 397.

(13) Jane Fulcher, The Nation's Image: French Grand Opera as Politics and Politicized Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 40–41.

(14) Quoted in Hugh Macdonald, “Juive, La,” in New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. II (London: Macmillan, 1992), p. 926.

(15) Heinz Becker, “Meyerbeer,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. XII (London: Macmillan, 1980), p. 253.

(16) M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet, “Grand Opera,” in New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. II, p. 514.

(17) Quoted in Pendle, Eugène Scribe and French Opera, p. 470.

(18) Quoted in Pendle, p. 566 n20.

(19) Ignaz von Seyfried, quoted in Thayer's Life of Beethoven, ed. Elliott Forbes (rev. ed., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 371.

(20) Hugh Macdonald, “[G flat major, 9/8 time],” Nineteenth-Century Music XI (1987–8): 227.

(21) Richard Wagner's Prose Works, Vol. III, p. 96.

(22) Eduard Bernsdorf, “K. Freigedank und das Judenthum in der Musik,” in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Vol. XXXIII (1850), p. 168; quoted in Sanna Pederson, “Enlightened and Romantic German Music Criticism, 1800–1850” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1995), p. 258.

(23) Quoted in Paul Henry Lang, Music in Western Civilization (New York: Norton, 1941), p. 826.

(24) Lang, Music in Western Civilization, pp. 830–32.

(25) Richard Wagner's Prose Works, Vol. II, trans. W. Ashton Ellis (Opera and Drama) (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1900), p. 94.

(26) Robert Schumann, On Music and Musicians, ed. K. Wolff, trans. P. Rosenfeld (New York: Pantheon, 1946), p. 196.

(27) Schumann, On Music and Musicians, p. 194.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Nations, States, and Peoples." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 29 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-004002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 Nations, States, and Peoples. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-004002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Nations, States, and Peoples." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-004002.xml