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8.572367 - MEYERBEER, G.: Songs, Vol. 1 (Rotem, Zak)

Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791–1864)


Giacomo Meyerbeer was born into a wealthy German- Jewish family in Berlin. A trip to Italy as a young man resulted in five operas written in the Rossinian style, followed by his first major success, Il crociato in Egitto (1824). Meyerbeer retained close links to Berlin throughout his life, occupying several important musical posts there, but it was in Paris that he achieved his greatest successes, becoming the leading composer of French grand opéra. Following the sensational Paris première of Robert le Diable (1831), Meyerbeer’s works dominated the operatic scene and gained him international fame; Les Huguenots was performed 1,126 times at the Paris Opéra alone between 1836 and 1936. However, his reputation suffered an eclipse in the twentieth century as grand opéra fell out of fashion, and the anti-Semitic sentiment that had motivated Richard Wagner’s attacks on him culminated in the banning of his works in Nazi Germany. There have been signs, however, in recent years, of a resurgence of interest in Meyerbeer’s operas.

Throughout his life Meyerbeer also wrote songs that reflected the German, French and Italian cultural milieux in which he moved. These songs helped to keep his name in the public eye in the wake of his operatic successes; many of them were composed for performance in the fashionable salons of Paris, and sung by the stars of his stage works. The result was a series of short pieces, often composed very quickly, but of a standard quite distinct from the ubiquitous sentimental parlour songs of the time. Their formal simplicity and pared style are very different from the rich complexity of his operatic writing, but the composer’s melodic gift, elegant sense of rhythm and affecting harmony are consistently in evidence, as is the often startling sharpness of his response to specific words and images. The piano plays a crucial role, providing a substantial commentary to the voice, highlighting colour, mood and details in the text. The majority of these songs were composed between 1828 and 1860. He used a variety of texts; verses from famous poets (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Heinrich Heine) and lesser literary figures (Wilhelm Müller and Michael Beer) appear alongside texts by a librettist (Gaetano Rossi), lawyer (Adolphe de Custine), journalist (Henri Blaze de Bury), and schoolteacher (August Ludwig Lua). Musically, the French mélodie is at the centre of Meyerbeer’s song compositions, but they cover a spectrum of genres: Italian ariettas and grand scenas, strophic German Lied patterns, French romance lyrics, extended interior monologues in several movements, and dramatic ballads. Meyerbeer’s innate dramatic instincts often led him to expand the traditional romance and prayer forms into short theatrical scenes.

This collection of songs captures the wide variety of musical genres. Most are reflections on the joys and pains of love, but there are several songs with a religious flavour.

Nine of the pieces are Italian. Rossi’s Le ricordanze, in the style of a formal three-part operatic scena, is a melancholy sigh for past happiness recalled in a saddened but also hopeful present. F. N. de Santo Mango’s Délire, with its contrasting binary couplets, is a near-delirious outpouring of longing for her lover from a deserted woman who cannot let go of vain hope. The gentle canzonetta Il nascere e il fiorire d’una rosa, with its exquisite introduction, compares the nascent beauty of a rosebud at dawn to its overwhelming loveliness in full bloom. The early Sei Canzonette Italiane form a short cycle—light, intimate, even playful reflections to texts by the great librettist Pietro Metastasio on the trials of love: the pain of betrayal; the dependence on the beloved’s moods; the inability to leave a painful situation; the need for trust; the ruination of an affair by suspicion, and the destructiveness of jealousy. Their consciously archaic style captures a Classical simplicity, but with subtle changes of tone, and emblematic imagery in the accompaniments.

Eight of the songs are set to French words. Amédé Thierry’s La dame invisible presents a psychological duo-drama: a passer-by is entranced by the voice of a hidden, captive woman whom only he can free by lending her the wings of his love. The Romantic poet Émile Deschamps provides two texts: Rachel à Nephtali, an extended lyrical scene, dramatizes the Biblical story of the agonised rejection of Nephtali by his sister-in-law Rachel, who secretly loves him—the moral unease reflected in the disturbing syncopations. In La Ballade de la Reine, with its ‘antique’ ritornello and sophisticated flattened chords, Queen Marguerite slyly laments the demands that being a true Christian makes—the rejection of all the fleshly pleasures and joys. In Thierry’s Sur le balcon, with its smooth amorous arpeggios and affecting piano harmonies, two lovers retire from a noisy ball to contemplate the moon and stars as symbols of their mutual devotion. Maurice de Flassan’s straightforward religious piece Le baptême is an appeal to God to purify and bless a newly baptized infant, couched in an intensely apprehended, hymnlike simplicity. The pain of love is depicted in de Custine’s La folle de St Joseph: insane with grief, the madwoman longs for the man who deserted her to return to witness her tears and her death—an inner tension reflected in the play between tonic minor and major of G, the declamatory and the lyrical. In Blaze de Bury’s Chant de mai the whole of nature sings the same song in May—the sweet outpouring of love, captured in the bright treble piano figures and the smooth and delicate lyrical decoration of the line. The chansonette Nella is the tale of a beautiful Venetian girl who rejects a rich marquis in favour of the poor page she loves, the drama reflected stylistically in the propositions and answers of the two characters.

The nine German Lieder include three by Heine. Komm, du schönes Fischermädchen is a slightly eerie G minor song of enticement, a fleet, graceful but sinister attempt to lure a pretty fisher-maid from the sea to her aspiring lover’s side. In Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube these beauties of nature that the poet once loved have been eclipsed by the superior charms of his beloved, the qualities of both captured in breathless hushed phrases and delicate pauses. In the solitary verse of Hör Ich das Liedchen klingen, weighed down by a dragging G minor ostinato, the poet is moved to an outburst of grief on hearing the song that his lost love used to sing. In Goethe’s Suleika, a young woman, over pulsing A major chords, sings rapturously of her trust in her absent lover and her dedication of herself to him. There are two contributions from Meyerbeer’s brother Michael Beer: the first is Mina or the Lied des venezianischen Gondoliers, another song of enticement as an amorous gondolier invites his beloved into his boat, the happy situation underlined by its jolly dotted rhythms. Albert Knapp’s Luft von Morgen is a prayer begging for grace, the divine air of life, to bring release from the pain of sin likened to the agony of a mortal illness; the serious intention is reflected in the solemn triads and low octaves of the accompaniment that function like a ground bass. In Wilhelm Müller’s Der Garten des Herzens the poet, with quicksilver staccato lightness, encourages his beloved to pick the flowers that grow in the garden of his heart. Scirocco, the second poem by Beer, is an evocation of the desert wind that brings a sense of desolation and yearning, captured in the chain of chromatic thirds that feature in the accompaniment. In Lua’s song Frühling im Versteck spring is personified as a handsome youth hidden beneath winter’s blanket, who breaks his bonds and invites all nature to bloom again; a real sense of expectation and rapture is captured in the passionate piano part with its subtle echo effects, and the excited vocal line rising constantly to g″.

The selection on this disc reveals something of the variety, reflection, lyrical charm, and dramatic verve of a hardly explored aspect of Meyerbeer’s art.

© Robert Ignatius Letellier, 2009

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