Jules Massenet

(12 May 1842 - 13 August 1912)

Jules Massenet was a French composer who dominated the genre of French opera around the turn of the 20th century, producing more than 20 operas and many other works for the stage.

Massenet was born in 1842 in Saint-Etienne to a musical family. His mother was a pianist who also dabbled in composition; she gave Massenet his first piano lessons, in which his vast musical talent was obvious. At the age of 10, Massenet was accepted to the Paris Conservatoire to study piano and solfège. He studied with Ambroise Thomas among others, and won numerous awards including the premiere prix for piano in 1859 and the second prix for counterpoint and fugue in 1862.

His biggest accomplishment was winning the premiere grand prix, the school’s highest composition prize, with his cantata David Rizzio in 1863. During his studies he also published a fantasy on the themes of Meyerbeer (1861) for piano.

Massenet supported himself financially – and became well-versed in operas – by  playing in the orchestra of the Théâtre Lyrique as a timpanist. There he became particularly familiar with the works of contemporary French composers such as Gounod and Reyer, along with the works of Gluck, Mozart, Beethoven and Weber.

While in Italy for two years, Massenet met his wife, Mlle de Sainte-Marie, also known as Ninon. He also wrote some songs, the first of many suites and a requiem. It was his meeting, back in Paris in the late 1860s, of Georges Hartman, who became his publisher and mentor for 25 years, that propelled his career forward from that moment on.

In 1855 he was deeply affected by a performance of Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ and in 1867 he began his operatic career with La grand’ Tante, a one-act comedy, at the Opéra-Comique. Incidental music for two plays followed, along with the two oratorios Marie-Magdeleine (1873) and Eve (1875). Several years later, with Le Roi de Lahore (1877), Massenet first gained international recognition; this was one of the first new works to be heard in the Palais Garnier. While these works were quite successful, his four-act Don César de Bazan (1872) was only shown a mere 13 times at the Opéra-Comique.

In 1873, Massenet heard the music to Leconte de Lisle’s Les Erinnyes and the sacred drama Maria Magdeleine, which both impressed him greatly and prompted him to write his own sacred drama. Though his biblical opera Hérodiade (1879) was rejected by the Opéra for its biblical theme, it was accepted by the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, where it was tremendously successful.

Manon (1882), inspired by Prévost’s novel Manon Lescaut, was premiered at the Opéra-Comique. In an attempt to inspire himself, Massenet visited the rooms of Prévost in The Hague, though he did not write much there. The 1884 premiere “launched the opera on a dazzling career” and has remained popular ever since. The success of this opera allowed Massenet to hand pick his librettists, singers and venues with a discerning eye. Encouraged by its popularity, Massenet wrote 20 more operas over the next 25 years.

His next successful opera was Le Cid (1884), which premiered in 1885 at the Paris Opéra and is very reminiscent of Hérodiade, which tells the story of Salome being in love with John the Baptist and also being the long-lost daughter of Herodias. Tragedy ensues when Salome learns who she is and kills herself. This work is a precursor to Thaïs, especially in the relationship between Salome and John the Baptist.

Werther was premiered at the Vienna Court Opera and also later at the Opéra-Comique. Though the idea for the opera was conceived in 1880, nothing was written until 1885. A trip to Wetzlar, where the novel was conceived, helped stimulate him further to complete the work. Though rejected by the Opéra-Comique for its tragic style, the premiere took place successfully in Vienna.

Other operas include the more personal Sapho (1897), which tells the story of an artist’s model having a tragic affair with a young man and Cendrillon (1899) based on Perrault fairy tales. Several of his operas, including Le jongleur de Notre-Dame (1902), Chérubin (1905) and Don Quichotte (1910), were premiered at the Monte Carlo Opera.

An infatuation with soprano Sybil Sanderson, and an admiration for her voice, led him to revise the lead role of Manon to fit her voice. He also wrote Esclarmonde (1889) and Thaïs (1894) with her voice in mind. An later interest in mezzo-soprano Lucy Arbell sparked a stream of compositions tailored to her voice, including Ariane (1906), Thérèse (1907), Bacchus (1909), Don Quichotte and Roma (1912). Arbell also took part in the premieres of Cléopâtre (1914) and Amadis (1922) after Massenet’s death. It is with Thaïs that his dramatic specialty of crossing religion and love was established.

By the 1890s, many new trends were appearing in music, such as those in Russia, Vienna and even in Paris, however, Massenet remained unaffected by these changes and continued composing in his own successful style; he did not feel threatened by Debussy or Strauss, as some composers, such as Saint-Saëns, did.

His late Piano Concerto (1903) was performed by Louis Diémer at the Conservatoire in 1903. This work is one of his few large-scale instrumental works, and it never really became popular.

Header image courtesy of artlyriquefr.fr
Other images courtesy of public domain

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