Henrietta Wriothesley on the diaries of Meyerbeer, a Jewish composer savagely attacked by Wagner
The Diaries of Giacomo Meyerbeer, Volume One: 1781-1839, translated, edited and annotated by Robert Ignatius Letellier, Associated University Presses £52
THIS IS A LABOUR of love, if ever there was one. The diaries of the composer Meyerbeer have been translated in full by Fr Robert Letellier, well known to Herald readers, working (presumably) from a photocopy of a handwritten transcript of the original MSS, which have disappeared. The work is done with a painstaking thoroughness that is a reproach to superficial and shoddy scholarship.
The result is, however, a curious book: of its 575 pages, only 217 are given to the diaries themselves; the rest is all introductions, annotations, indexes, and a Register of Names (from Aeschylus to Zingarelli) occupying fully 150 pages. I suppose it would be churlish to complain that an index is too thorough, but the indexes here verge on it.
The years 1813 and 1815 have full diaries, replete with interest. I could wish that Fr Letellier had begun his publication with a slighter work, Meyerbeer in Paris and London, with copious illustrations. But that would not have suited his serious
purpose. At times his annotations can be almost too helpful: on arrival in England, Meyerbeer complains of the exigencies of "the English postmaster"; Fr Letellier adds the word "-general" in square brackets; but the reference is obviously to the man who managed the post-horses between Dover and London, not to the high Government official.
To most of us, Meyerbeer is little more than a name in the history of music, remembered chiefly for being the victim of savage attacks by Wagner. Yet, as the Intro
duction reminds us, "the composer most frequently performed in Covent Garden and at the Paris Opera during the nineteenth century was neither Mozart, nor Verdi, but Giacomo Meyerbeer". It seems hard to believe.
The public taste for his work has completely died away. As it happens, I have been to a performance of L'Africaine: my recollections are of magnificent stage spectacle, especially a scene on shipboard, a preposterous plot, set mostly in India, and a shortage of hummable tunes.
Nowadays we can all sing or hum a few arias and choruses by Verdi, and we love to lie back and wallow in the lush harmonies of Wagner; we do not care for the Parisian operas, of which Meyerbeer's works and Rossini's Guillaume Tell are the exemplars, with their lavish scenery, huge choruses, and obligatory ballets.
0 WHO IS going to buy
and read Fr Letellier,s magnum opus? The committed Meyerbeer enthusiast, of whom he is obviously one, and every serious musicologist, who will be grateful that the work has been done, once and for all. And it should, of course, be on the shelves of every musical library. It is good to see a job so well done.