Personalities | Jules Massenet | Late Romantic | Classical

(Jool Mas-na’) 1842–1912
French composer

Shortly after his first operatic success with Le roi de Lahore (‘The King of Lahore’, 1877) Massenet became professor at the Paris Conservatoire; he was subsequently elected to the French Academy instead of his rival Saint-Saëns. Massenet’s 28 operas include several enduring masterpieces: Manon (1884) remains one of the most popular French Romantic operas, while Werther (1892), after Goethe, arguably his finest work, is intensely dramatic. Thaïs (1894) displays a post-Wagnerian exoticism, described by D’Indy as ‘semi-religious eroticism’, illustrated in the seductive lyricism of its famous ‘Méditation’, often played as a violin encore. The gutsy verismo style of Bizet’s Carmen infuses La Navarraise (1894, aptly set in Spain) and Sapho (1897) with expressive power, while the medievalism of his later operas (Esclarmonde, 1888 and Grisélidis, 1894) – for which he requested pre-Raphaelite sets – foreshadows Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902). Don Quichotte (1910), based on Cervantes, is an elegiac romance of appealing simplicity.

Recommended Recording:
Manon, soloists, Capitole Chorus & Orchestra, Toulouse (cond) Michel Plasson (EMI/Erato)

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