Tuesday 20 October 2020

The case against Wagner - David Faiman's Meyerbeer: The deliberately forgotten composer

David Faiman Giacomo Meyerbeer: The deliberately forgotten composer; Gefen Publishing House

David Faiman Giacomo Meyerbeer: The deliberately forgotten composer; Gefen Publishing House

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 October 2020 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
A popular introduction to the composer's work which casts light on the way anti-Semitism affected his reputation

The case of Giacomo Meyerbeer is a strange one. One of the most popular composers of the 19th century (perhaps the most popular in Paris), his music fell out of favour in the 20th century alongside most of the operas of his almost exact contemporary Gioachino Rossini. But with the post-war Italian bel canto revival, there was no parallel Meyerbeer revival. The 2018 production of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at the Paris Opera [see my review] was the first new production there since the 1930s, yet between 1836 and 1936 the company gave over 1000 performances of the opera. The new book from David Faiman, Giacomo Meyerbeer: The Deliberately Forgotten Composer published by Gefen Publishing House, is a deliberate attempt to explore the reasons why Meyerbeer fell from view.

At the core of the book is a valuable summary of Meyerbeer's life, career, and operatic works, something that is badly needed. Whilst there is plenty of learned coverage of Meyerbeer (notably Robert Ignatius Letellier's writings), there is little in the popular line. Faiman provides a very effective summary, extensively quoting the composer's contemporaries to give us a sense of how highly regarded Meyerbeer and his music were. 

We also get a handy summary of the operas and whilst many will at least know of one or two major operas there are plenty of others!

This is firmly an opera book, there is little about Meyerbeer's songs and choral music. Faiman does not really consider the most recent scholarship about Le Prophete so his summary of that opera fails to take account of the new edition which restores the music Meyerbeer cut because the first Jean de Leyde, Gustave-Hippolyte Roger, found the role too taxing. And Faiman's suggested recording of Le Prophete goes back to Marilyn Horne. Similarly, with Les Huguenots, Faiman regards Joan Sutherland's recording as the epitome, failing to mention the valuable one conducted by Cyril Diederich on Erato with a substantially Francophone cast.

But, as I have said, Faiman has an agenda and a significant part of the book deals with anti-Semitism. It is salutary to have it pointed out the way Judaism threads its way through Meyerbeer's life (he never converted to Christianity), and to have it made plain quite how virulently anti-Semitic Richard Wagner's attacks were. Faiman does this by comparing Wagner's writings with the views of his musical contemporaries such as Schumann whose anti-Semitism was just not in the same league as Wagner's. It all makes for highly sobering reading.

What Faiman fails to really do is take this further. Did Wagner's attacks really bring about the quick decline in performances. In Paris, this decline does not seem to have happened until the end of the 19th century when Wagner's mature operas were performed in the city and became popular. What Faiman also fails to discuss is the changes in vocal style in the early 20th century; the decline in Meyerbeer in the face of the popularity of Wagner's operas and the change in vocalism needed to perform them is similarly paralleled in Italian opera with the advent of Verismo and the consequent decline in the bel canto style.

Where anti-Semitism explicitly enters Meyerbeer's story is in the 1930s, Nazi occupied Paris ceased all performances of Meyerbeer's operas at the Paris Opera, and they were never resumed after the war. In the 1980s and 1990s, Opera Rara did valuable service reviving and recording Meyerbeer's Italian operas but there was no parallel revival of his French works, and it seems strange that the French have taken so long to turn back to the composer. A discussion of this would have been useful addition to the book.  In fact, the modern Meyerbeer revival is very much led by German opera houses, with significant productions (and recordings) coming out of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Karlsruhe, Essen and many others. 

Faiman has one final chapter, 'Meyerbeer in Israel' which does not really fit in with the rest of the scheme of the book except to show that this Jewish composer does not seem to have had his operas accepted in Israel either.

Faiman is an enthusiast (he is, in fact, a distinguished theoretical physicist) and he wants you to enjoy Meyerbeer's music, he even suggests musical samples on YouTube. We still need a popular book about Meyerbeer and his work, one which puts the composer in context as well as discussing his non-operatic projects. David Faiman's book goes part of the way, and makes salutary reading for anyone interested in the thread of anti-Semitism running through 19th century music.

David Faiman - Meyerbeer: The Deliberately Forgotten Composer
Format: Paperback
ISBN 13: 9789657023150
Catalogue Number: g7315 7023-15
Number of Pages: 256
Year Published: 2020
Gefen Publishing House

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