Jules Massenet (Composer)|
Jules Massenet (May 12, 1842 – August 13, 1912) was a French composer best known for his operas. His compositions were very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and he ranks as one of the greatest melodists of his era. Soon after his death, his style went out of fashion, and many of his operas fell into almost total oblivion. Apart from Manon and Werther, his works were rarely performed. However, since the mid-1970s, many of his operas have undergone periodic revivals.
Massenet was born in Montaud, then an outlying hamlet and now a part of the city of Saint-Étienne, in the Loire. His first music teacher was his mother (Adélaïde Massenet, née Royer). When he was eleven his family moved to Paris so that he could study at the Conservatoire there, but his education was temporarily interrupted by the sickness of his father (an iron-worker) and the resultant necessity to move elsewhere. To support himself during his studies, he worked as timpanist for six years at the Théâtre Lyrique, playing also other percussion instruments in other theatres, and working as a pianist in the Café de Belleville.
Although, at first, some of his teachers had not predicted for him any career in music, this changed in 1862 when he won the Grand Prix de Rome and spent three years in Rome. His first opera was a one-act production at the Opéra-Comique in 1867. Nevertheless it was his dramatic oratorio Marie-Magdeleine (first performed in 1873) that won him praise from the likes of Tchaikovsky, Vincent d'Indy (who afterwards turned against him), and Charles Gounod. His real mentor, though, was the composer Ambroise Thomas, a man with important contacts in theatrical milieux. Another important early patron was his publisher, Georges Hartmann, whose connections with journalistic circles aided him in becoming better known during the difficult initial years of his composing activity. Even Massenet's marriage to Louise-Constance de Gressy (1866) helped him a great deal in social circles, which was important during this time.
Massenet took a break from his composing to serve as a soldier in the Franco-Prussian War, but returned to his art following the end of the conflict in 1871. From 1878 he was professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory where his pupils included Gustave Charpentier, Reynaldo Hahn and Charles Koechlin. His greatest successes were Manon in 1884, Werther in 1892, and Thaïs in 1894. Notable later operas were Le jongleur de Notre-Dame, produced in 1902, and Don Quichotte, produced in Monte Carlo 1910, with the legendary Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin in the title-role.
In addition to his operas, Massenet composed concert suites, ballet music, oratorios and cantatas and about two hundred songs. Some of his non-vocal output has achieved widespread popularity, and is commonly performed: for example the Méditation from Thaïs, which is a violin solo with orchestra, as well as the Aragonaise, from his opera Le Cid and Élégie for solo piano. The latter two pieces are commonly played by piano students.
Massenet died in Paris at the age of 70, after suffering from a long illness (cancer).
Being a very prolific, hard-working composer (over 25 extant operas, with his daily schedule starting frequently from as early as 4 a.m.), he created his pieces not "at the piano" (as so many other composers do), but entirely from his imagination. That ability greatly helped him to achieve his high standards as an orchestrator: even in his loudest passages, the instrumental texture is always lucid. It is curious that he was also known to avoid all public dress rehearsals and performances of his works; often he would have to be informed by others of his own operatic successes.