Your RDA of Irony

No Good Deed….

September 5th

Today is the birthday of the most popular composer of his time: Jacob Beer. Of course, you do not recognize the name. Well, he may have been the first Jew in show business to change his name. He is better known as Giacomo Meyerbeer…and most of you still have not heard of him.

But in his day (1791-1864) he was indisputably the most popular composer. He put the grand in opera. Meyerbeer had a string of hits–“Robert le Diable”, “Les Huguenots”, “Le Prophete”–that would have made him rich…except for the fact that he was born rich into a banking family. (Envious composers accused him of bribing the music critics.) His friend Heinrich Heine quipped that Meyerbeer’s mother was the second Jewish mother in history to see her son proclaimed a God.

Rich, talented, and adored, he did have what turned out to be one disastrous flaw: he happened to be a generous and kindly fellow. He was always willing to help younger artists, both with his connections and with direct financial support. In 1840, one struggling composer, his debts far more impressive than his compositions, appealed to Meyerbeer. The young man had composed an opera entitled “Rienzi.” The work was highly imitative of Meyerbeer but showed genuine talent. Meyerbeer provided money to support the penurious composer and arranged for his opera to be produced.

“Rienzi” was the composer’s first success, and he never forgot Meyerbeer’s help–and he never forgave it. In fact, Richard Wagner demonstrated the nature of his gratitude by writing in 1850 the essay “Judaism in the Arts.” The self-anointed high priest of Holy German Kultur denounced Jews for their foreign, polluting influence on the arts. Of course, the most popular Jewish artist of the time was the greatest danger. Meyerbeer had incriminated himself by the fact that his operas had French librettos. In hindsight, Jacob should have called himself Thor instead of Giacomo.

Meyerbeer shrugged off the attack. He was still popular and was used to a certain degree of Anti-Semitism. Wagner was unusually shrill by the standards of the time, but this was 19th century Germany. How bad could things become?

(His friend Heine had a prescient suspicion. Sensing the direction of the nascent nationalism of Germany, the poet wrote, “Christianity has not converted the Germans. It merely constrains them. But the talisman of the Cross is weakening and it will break. Then we will see that the old Gods were not dead but sleeping. The day will come when Thor rubs the sleep from his eyes, reaches for his hammer and, with one blow, brings down a thousand years of civilization….What will happen in Germany will make the French Revolution seem like an idyllic day in the country.”)

Wagner’s growing reputation would eclipse Meyerbeer’s. The parasite and bigot is acknowledged as a genius, while Meyerbeer is relegated to the quaint. But Meyerbeer probably would not begrudge the judgment of history. After all, as both patron and victim, Meyerbeer was the first to recognize Wagner.

  1. Hal Gordon says:

    It has been said, with considerable justice, that “Rienzi” is “Meyerbeer’s greatest opera.”

  2. MARY ANN JUNG says:

    Mr. Heine should have been titled “the Prophet”-how eerily accurate. Thanks for another lesson on someone who should not be left to the prejudiced dust of history!

  3. Mary Ann:

    Heine was indeed a prophet. He also said, “Where they first burn books, in the end they burn people.”

    And Heine’s writings were the first to be burned when the Nazis took power. (The German voters had memorable taste in chancellors.)

  4. Joan Stewart Smith says:

    And then of course there is his other patron – Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria. But that’s another story. I’m sure you’ve covered that tale, as it’s just irresistible.

  5. Mary Pattock says:

    And why would we celebrate Wagner? A hateful man possessed of a certain talent — does that give him a pass on being a human being? by what code?

    His sounds can be seductive, but are they any more than sentimental, when we all know they do not reflect respect for humanity at its most fundamental level?

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      I can’t disagree with your judgment of Dick Wagner, but you have picked a sadly ironic place for it: the essay on Meyerbeer. Even here the goodhearted schlemiel is being eclipsed and bludgeoned by Little Richard.


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