Posts Tagged ‘Heinrich Heine’

No Good Deed….

Posted in General, On This Day on September 5th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – 8 Comments

September 5th

Today is the┬ábirthday 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.