Friday 1 October 2021

Giacomo Meyerbeer and his family: Between two worlds

Elaine Thornton Giacomo Meyerberr and his family: Between two worlds; Valentine Mitchell

Elaine Thornton Giacomo Meyerbeer and his family: Between two worlds; Valentine Mitchell

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 September 2021
A book which steps back from Meyerbeer the composer to place him in his family and society context, looking at what it meant to be part of a distinguished German Jewish family

Born in Berlin, trained in Germany and Italy, a friend and fellow student of Carl Maria von Weber, an almost exact contemporary of Giacomo Rossini, a composer who helped to reinvent French grand opera, one of the most performed composers of the 19th century. There is much about Giacomo Meyerbeer that is fascinating, but the above list omits something very important. Meyerbeer was born to a distinguished Jewish family in Berlin and throughout his life remained true to his Jewish faith.

Elaine Thornton's book Giacomo Meyerbeer and his family: Between two worlds from Valentine Mitchell places Meyerbeer firmly in context. This is not so much a biography of the composer as a group biography of Meyerbeer and his family. And quite a family it was, his parents played a significant role in the development of Jewish people's position in Prussian society, whilst many of Meyerbeer's brothers were distinguished in their own right. Whereas a conventional biography of Meyerbeer the composer takes us to Italy and then to Paris, Thornton keeps the book firmly anchored in Germany. Meyerbeer might be travelling but it is clear from his own writings that he retained incredibly strong personal links both to family and to Berlin.

We begin with Meyerbeer's Jewish ancestors in Berlin and end with his own death, and throughout there is an exploration of the whole family. Born into the Beer family in Berlin, Meyerbeer and two of his three brothers would achieve fame, Meyerbeer as the first Jewish composer to achieve world wide fame, Wilhelm as an amateur astronomer who, with a colleague, produced the first accurate maps of the surfaces of the moon and Mars, and Michael as a talented playwright whose early death robbed him of a chance to see whether he could develop on his early promise.

Meyerbeer's parents were also important, albeit mainly on the Berlin stage. This was a period when the lives of Jewish people were heavily proscribed, and Meyerbeer's parents Jacob and Amalia Beer were determined to find a way to live both as Jews and Germans. They became pioneers of Reform Judaism, and though the Beer Temple in Berlin only lasted eight years before it was closed down, the ideas it generated would lead to the modern denomination of Reform Judaism. And what Thornton really explores is the complex balance between Enlightenment and antisemitism, as the ideals of the Enlightenment came up hard against people's prejudices leaving families like the Beers to undertake a complex and dangerous negotiation, and needless to say many of Meyerbeer's contemporaries converted (at one point at a religious event in Berlin, the Jewish families could not find enough practising Jewish men to provide the necessary quorum, so many of the younger generations had converted).

In a way, the early chapters dealing with the Beer's complex negotiations with the position of their faith in Prussian society are the most interesting and perhaps worthy of book in their own right. Later on the story gets somewhat bogged down in the various strands which Thornton needs to keep together, that of Jacob and Amalia Beer, Wilhelm, and Michael, as well as the composer himself. But each chapter deals with a particular facet and she is adept at, for instance, parking Meyerbeer in Italy and going off to look at what else is happening.

At times quite dense and with great stories to tell, this is an important book as it enables us to look at Meyerbeer's life in its real context. Throughout his career, family was clearly important to him and we cannot really put his music in its true context if we forget about the Berlin Jewish connection. 

If you are interested in the music of Meyerbeer or in 19th century opera, then this book provides some important background, but it also illuminates the role of Jewish people in 19th century German society. As his contemporaries converted to Christianity for ease of passing in society, Meyerbeer and his wife remained Jewish.

Elaine Thornton - Giacomo Meyerbeer and his family: Between two worlds
Valentine Mitchell

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