- Meyerbeer's Music of the Future
I cannot exist as an artist in my own eyes or in those of my friends, I cannot think or feel without sensing in Meyerbeer my total antithesis, a contrast I am driven loudly to proclaim by the genuine despair that I feel whenever I encounter . . . the mistaken view that I have something in common with Meyerbeer.—Richard Wagner, letter to Franz Liszt, 18511
Richard Wagner's well-known words to Franz Liszt of 1851 pose the problem of grand opera for posterity. The genre's historiography begins, as Thomas Grey noted, with a disavowal in four parts—Wagner's denial of a Meyerbeerian affiliation in The Artwork of the Future, Judaism in Music, A Communication to My Friends, and Opera and Drama.2 The writings have left a mark, even if current scholarly respectability dictates a certain distance from the words of the master in addressing the subject. We know that the author of Rienzi was a Meyerbeerian, and long after he cast Meyerbeer in the role of his antithesis, musicologists still find Wagner secretly engaged in a more respectable and properly Hegelian path of artistic sublation. In this spirit, John Deathridge has written on the commonalities that bind the allegories of revolution in the earlier Robert le Diable and the later Götterdämmerung, and Thomas Grey has annotated various exemplary moments in which Wagnerian drama discreetly takes on grand operatic themes, procedures, and a sense of theatricality.3 These are recent additions to a long established Wagnerian theme of affiliation, a subfield of musicological inquiry that has contributed a salutary sense of time and place to the Wagnerian project. My concern here is less with this ongoing historicist exercise, than with its largely unrecognized flip side: the obscure and marginal position that the once dominant culture of grand opera—and most particularly Meyerbeer's oeuvre—holds in contemporary histories of opera. This peripheral positioning is largely a Wagnerian effect. Playing the historiographic game of precedence and consequence—wherein the artistic promise of the Parisian genre comes to historical fulfillment in the hands of Wagner and Verdi (Verdi himself a more recent alternative)—has made narratives of nineteenth-century opera impervious to the notion that grand opera once held its own promise for modernity. [End Page 169]
Did Giacomo Meyerbeer ever busy himself with the future? This is, by no means, an innocent query. Teleologies never are, and music futurology is a distinctly Wagnerian ploy, born out of a well-documented political and aesthetic program for modernity, and one that is still potent today, still remarkable for its kaleidoscopic refracting efficiency. Over the years, Wagner's radical agenda for the future has included the dissolution of tonality, music semiotics, symphonic opera, the fusion of dramatic arts, the claim to absolute music, a return to nature, decadent artificiality, political art, and aesthetic solipsism, to mention but a few. The same cannot be claimed for Meyerbeer, who in the role of Wagner's antithesis has been consistently relegated to the role of the unambiguous representative of the status quo. Carl Dahlhaus articulated this prevalent historiographic view with characteristic terseness when he wrote, "Scribe and Meyerbeer dominated the 'zeitgeist' by subjecting themselves to it."4 In scholarly practice this has meant a peculiar understanding of Meyerbeer's historical relevance and of his artistic acuity, seen as strongly rooted in its present, a period that now seems so distant. Sieghart Döhring wrote of Meyerbeer's music as "a moment of realism belonging to the pre-history of new music".5 More recently, Anselm Gerhard has made the strongest case for a "presentist" Meyerbeer, emphasizing the rootedness of his art in tangible elements of experience and discourse of nineteenth-century liberal modernity.6 Complementarily, the composer has also become known as a "visualist," an artist uniquely committed to shoring up a solid frame of representation for music in opera.7
The one quality lacking in this historical Meyerbeer is a yearning for utopia, and to this extent my concern for "Meyerbeer's vision" departs from the established historiographical argument. "Future" and "utopia," the two terms I wish to mobilize on behalf of...