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Among the Great Masters of Music: Scenes in the Lives of Famous Musicians
Meyerbeer
by Walter Rowlands


Among the chief mourners at Chopin's funeral was Meyerbeer, who, though German by birth and training, passed the most important years of his life in Paris, as did the gifted Pole. In our picture Hamman has represented the composer enthroned amid the characters of his chief operas, doubtless as real to him as creatures of flesh and blood.



In the foreground, at Meyerbeer's right hand, are seen Nelusko and Selika, from "L'Africaine," his last opera, which was not produced until the year after his death. "Vasco da Gama, the famous discoverer, is the betrothed lover of a maiden named Inez, the daughter of Don Diego, a Portuguese grandee. When the opera opens he is still at sea, and has not been heard of for years. Don Pedro, the president of the council, takes advantage of his absence to press his own suit for the hand of Inez, and obtains the king's sanction to his marriage on the ground that Vasco must have been lost at sea. At this moment the long-lost hero returns, accompanied by two swarthy slaves, Selika and Nelusko, whom he has brought home from a distant isle in the Indian Ocean. He recounts the wonders of the place, and entreats the government to send out a pioneer expedition to win an empire across the sea. His suggestions are rejected, and he himself, through the machinations of Don Pedro, is cast into prison. There he is tended by Selika, who loves her gentle captor passionately, and has need of all her regal authority - for in the distant island she was a queen - to prevent the jealous Nelusko from slaying him in his sleep. Inez now comes to the prison to announce to Vasco that she has purchased his liberty at the price of giving her hand to Don Pedro. In the next act Don Pedro, who has stolen a march on Vasco, is on his way to the African island, taking with him Inez and Selika. The steering of the vessel is entrusted to Nelusko. Vasco da Gama, who has fitted out a vessel at his own expense, overtakes Don Pedro in mid-ocean, and generously warns his rival of the treachery of Nelusko, who is steering the vessel upon the rocks of his native shore. Don Pedro's only reply is to order Vasco to be tied to the mast and shot, but before the sentence can be carried out, the vessel strikes upon the rocks, and the aborigines swarm over the sides. Selika, once more a queen, saves the lives of Vasco and Inez from the angry natives. In the next act the nuptials of Selika and Vasco are on the point of being celebrated, with great pomp, when the hero, who has throughout the opera wavered between the two women who love him, finally makes up his mind in favour of Inez. Selika thereupon magnanimously despatches them home in Vasco's ship, and poisons herself with the fragrance of the deadly manchineel tree."

Behind Selika appear Robert and Bertram, from "Robert le Diable," the first work of the composer's French period, produced in 1831. Its libretto, by Scribe, tells how "Robert, Duke of Normandy, the son of the Duchess Bertha by a fiend who donned the shape of man to prosecute his amour, arrives in Sicily to compete for the hand of the Princess Isabella, which is to be awarded as the prize at a magnificent tournament. Robert's dare-devil gallantry and extravagance soon earn him the sobriquet of 'Le Diable,' and he puts the coping-stone to his folly by gambling away all his possessions at a single sitting, even to his horse and the armour on his back. Robert has an âme damnée in the shape of a knight named Bertram, to whose malign influence most of his crimes and follies are due. Bertram is in reality his demon-father, whose every effort is directed to making a thorough-paced villain of his son, so that he may have the pleasure of enjoying his society for all eternity. In strong contrast to the fiendish malevolence of Bertram stands the gentle figure of Alice, Robert's foster-sister, who has followed him from Normandy with a message from his dead mother. Isabella supplies Robert with a fresh horse and arms; nevertheless, he is beguiled away from Palermo by some trickery of Bertram's, and fails to put in an appearance at the tournament. The only means, therefore, left to him of obtaining the hand of Isabella is to visit the tomb of his mother, and there to pluck a magic branch of cypress, which will enable him to defeat his rivals. The cypress grows in a deserted convent haunted by the spectres of profligate nuns, and there, amidst infernal orgies, Robert plucks the branch of power. By its aid, he sends the guards of the princess into a deep sleep, and is only prevented by her passionate entreaties from carrying her off by force. Yielding to her prayers, he breaks the branch, and his magic power at once deserts him. He seeks sanctuary from his enemies in the cathedral, and there the last and fiercest strife for the possession of his soul is waged between the powers of good and evil. On the one hand is Bertram, whose term of power on earth expires at midnight. He has now discovered himself as Robert's father, and produced an infernal compact of union, which he entreats his son to sign. On the other is Alice, pleading and affectionate, bearing the last words of Robert's dead mother, warning him against the fiend who had seduced her. While Robert is hesitating between the two, midnight strikes, and Bertram sinks with thunder into the pit. The scene changes, and a glimpse is given of the interior of the cathedral, where the marriage of Robert and Isabella is being celebrated."

Next to the evil Bertram is portrayed, in his coronation robes, John of Leyden, the chief character in "Le Prophète," which had its first representation in 1849. "John, an innkeeper of Leyden, loves Bertha, a village maiden, who dwells near Dordrecht. Unfortunately, her liege lord, the Count of Oberthal, has designs upon the girl himself, and refuses his consent to the marriage. Bertha escapes from his clutches and flies to the protection of her lover, but Oberthal secures the person of Fidès, John's old mother, and, by threats of putting her to death, compels him to give up Bertha. Wild with rage against the vice and lawlessness of the nobles, John joins the ranks of the Anabaptists, a revolutionary sect pledged to the destruction of the powers that be. Their leaders recognise him as a prophet promised by Heaven, and he is installed as their chief. The Anabaptists lay siege to Munster, which falls into their hands, and in the cathedral John is solemnly proclaimed the Son of God. During the ceremony he is recognised by Fidès, who, believing him to have been slain by the false prophet, has followed the army to Munster in hopes of revenge. She rushes forward to claim her son, but John pretends not to know her. To admit an earthly relationship would be to prejudice his position with the populace, and he compels her to confess that she is mistaken. The coronation ends with John's triumph, while the hapless Fidès is carried off to be immured in a dungeon. John visits her in her cell, and obtains her pardon by promising to renounce his deceitful splendour, and to fly with her. Later he discovers that a plot against himself has been hatched by some of the Anabaptist leaders, and he destroys himself and them by blowing up the palace of Munster."

In front of John of Leyden are the leading personages in "Les Huguenots." Raoul is kneeling to Valentine, while the wounded Marcel stands by, sword in hand. Eugene Scribe was the author of the words of this opera, which dates from 1836, and is thus summarised: "Marguerite de Valois, the beautiful Queen of Navarre, who is anxious to reconcile the bitterly hostile parties of Catholics and Huguenots, persuades the Comte de Saint Bris, a prominent Catholic, to allow his daughter Valentine to marry Raoul de Nangis, a young Huguenot noble. Valentine is already betrothed to the gallant and amorous Comte de Nevers, but she pays him a nocturnal visit in his own palace, and induces him to release her from her engagement. During her interview with Nevers, she is perceived by Raoul, and recognised as a lady whom he lately rescued from insult and has loved passionately ever since. In his eyes there is only one possible construction to be put upon her presence in Nevers's palace, and he hastens to dismiss her from his mind. Immediately upon his decision comes a message from the queen, bidding him hasten to her palace in Touraine upon important affairs of state. When he arrives she unfolds her plan, and he, knowing Valentine only by sight, not by name, gladly consents. When, in the presence of the assembled nobles, he recognises in his destined bride the presumed mistress of Nevers, he casts her from him, and vows to prefer death to such intolerable disgrace. The scene of the next act is in the Pré aux Clercs, in the outskirts of Paris. Valentine, who is to be married that night to Nevers, obtains leave to pass some hours in prayer in a chapel. While she is there she overhears the details of a plot devised by Saint Bris for the assassination of Raoul, in order to avenge the affront put upon himself and his daughter. Valentine contrives to warn Marcel, Raoul's old servant, of this, and he assembles his Huguenot comrades hard by, who rush in at the first cliquetis of steel and join the general mêlée. The fight is interrupted by the entrance of the queen. When she finds out who are the principal combatants, she reproves them sharply, and en passant tells Raoul the real story of Valentine's visit to Nevers. The act ends with the marriage festivities, while Raoul is torn by an agony of love and remorse. In the next act Raoul contrives to gain admittance to Nevers's house, and there has an interview with Valentine. They are interrupted by the entrance of Saint Bris and his followers, whereupon Valentine conceals Raoul behind the arras. From his place of concealment he hears Saint Bris unfold the plan of the massacre of Saint Bartholomew, which is to be carried out that night. The conspirators swear a solemn oath to exterminate the Huguenots, and their daggers are consecrated by attendant priests. Nevers alone refuses to take part in the butchery. When they all have left, Raoul comes out of his hiding-place, and, in spite of the prayers and protestations of Valentine, leaps from the window at the sound of the fatal tocsin, and hastens to join his friends. In the last act, Raoul first warns Henry of Navarre and the Huguenot nobles, assembled at the Hôtel de Sens, of the massacre, and then joins the mêlée in the streets. Valentine has followed him, and, after vainly endeavouring to make him don the white scarf, which is worn that night by all Catholics, she throws in her lot with him, and dies in his arms, after they have been solemnly joined in wedlock by the wounded and dying Marcel."

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