Born: December 1, 1823
Died: January 15, 1909
French composer Ernest Reyer was quick to shine and slow to fade. In spite of the fact that he composed virtually nothing for the last forty years of his life, French music-lovers still cherished him when he died in early 1909. Reyer was born Louis-Étienne-Ernest Rey on December 1, 1823, and attended the Free School of Music in his hometown of Marseilles until he was 16 years old. His parents had no desire for him to make a musical career forRead more himself (they had doubts about his talents -- doubts that have frankly been shared by many musicians over the years: he has been described as a "genius without talent"), and Reyer was thrust into an administrative job. But he continued to compose, and after his 1847 Messe pour l'arrivée de Duc d'Aumale à Alger (Solemn Mass for the Arrival of the Duke of Algiers) was well-received at the Algiers Cathedral, he abandoned his administrative life for good.
Over the next decade and a half, Reyer, who had added the Germanic "-er" at the end of his name in an apparent effort to connect himself with the Germanic line of composers that he admired so much, made a name for himself as a composer of theater music -- operas and ballets. His one-act opera Maître Wolfram was praised by Berlioz at its 1854 premiere, and his first full-length opera, La Statue, which draws from the 1001 Arabian Nights, was a blockbuster success in 1861. Reyer was a famous man, and from 1862 on he had the decoration of the Legion d'honneur to prove it.
However, after the 1862 opera Erostrate (whose dedication to the Queen of Prussia caused some discomfort for Reyer when the Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870), Reyer's output quickly slowed to a trickle. His next major work did not appear until midway through the 1880s (the opera Sigurd of 1884), and after that there is really only the five-act opera Salammbô (1890) to mark him as a composer. Reyer kept himself busy, however, writing music criticism, and he became as famous in this second vocation as he was in his first.
Reyer drew upon an interesting and even motley crew of composers in the development of his own style. He admired Wagner a great deal, but it has often and rightly been pointed out that very little of Wagner's influence can be heard in Reyer's work. He loved Weber, and here the influence does shine through, as does that of Berlioz and Schumann, though the latter to a much lesser degree. Reyer was a master orchestrator -- a far better orchestrator, it must be said, than a composer in the pure sense. Reyer composed very little music not for the theater; there are a few piano pieces and some cantatas and scenes for voices and orchestra (which are in some ways nearly theater pieces); there are a handful of chansons, and there is a single very rarely heard orchestral item, the March tzigane of 1865. Read less