Personalities | Jules Massenet | Turn of the Century | Opera

1842–1912, French

The son of a businessman, Jules Massenet had a musical mother and was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 11. He had a prolific career with varying degrees of success, but above all he became reputed for his orientalist excursions, his brilliant musical projection of the female character, and the ability to write supremely curvaceous melodies.

Early Years of Toil

The family moved to Chambéry, much to Massenet’s chagrin: having tried to run away once, he was allowed to return to the capital with an older sister. Here he earned his keep as a pianist and percussionist in theatre orchestras, and at the age of 18 began to study composition and harmony at the Verismo. Most important among his teachers was Ambroise Thomas (1811–96) whose success with Mignon (1866) and Hamlet (1868) clearly influenced Massenet, not least in their use of the saxophone. In 1863 he won the Prix de Rome at the second attempt and had some success with the oratorios Marie-Magdeleine (1873) and Eve (1875). It was not until his triumph with Le roi de Lahore that he gained a foothold in the opera house, in this case the prestigious Paris Opéra itself. Massenet never looked back: operas poured out until the end of his life, some successful, others less so.

Success at Last

In 1878, Ambroise Thomas secured him a professorship of composition at the Conservatoire, a post whose duties he diligently fulfilled for 18 years. Le roi de Lahore was soon to be withdrawn from the repertoire of the Opéra, but already the composer had contacts elsewhere. Maybe something of his father’s business acumen had rubbed off on him; certainly Massenet became one of the richest musicians of his time. He was courted by the opera-house in Brussels as well as by the Opéra-Comique in Paris where his first great success centred on a female character was given in 1884. Manon was based, like Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, on the novel by Abbé Prévost. In the same year, Hérodiade was given a Paris airing and he had another commission in hand for the Opéra, this time for an epic whose eponymous hero Le Cid was the teenage warrior destined to murder his lover’s father. It was a subject of an opera already attempted by Georges Bizet (1838–75), but curtailed by his untimely death. Certainly Massenet’s career might have been different had Bizet lived on.

A Period of Doubt

Massenet met the Californian soprano Sybil Sanderson in 1887 and promptly revised Manon and wrote the title role in Esclarmonde for her. The early 1890s produced only failures and unfinished works, but his next durable success was to be premiered in Vienna in 1892: Werther, a setting of a libretto based on Goethe. This has become one of his most popular works and was quickly followed by the oriental Thaïs, whose ‘Meditation’ has become a party-piece for violinists. La Navarraise was a realist score...

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