Jules Massenet | Biography

Biography

When the world flocked to Paris in 1900 for the Exposition Universelle, few visitors could have doubted that Jules Massenet was France’s greatest living opera composer. The Paris Opéra had revived his earlier triumph, Le Cid. Across town at the Opéra-Comique there was Cendrillon, and Massenet’s most popular work, Manon. Ahead lay what promised to be ten more glory years as Prince Albert of Monaco’s composer of choice, and a sequence of new operas for Monte Carlo. Massenet was identified with the musical age in which he lived more than any French composer, with the possible exception of Camille Saint-Säens. Today just two of his operas hold a regular place in the repertoire outside France, Manon and Werther. Born in 1842, the son of a metalworker, Massenet was a meticulous musical craftsman and a workaholic. In the last three decades of the 19th century he composed songs, orchestral suites, oratorios and cantatas, and some 30 operas. Having studied composition with Ambroise Thomas at the Paris Conservatoire, Massenet won the prestigious Prix de Rome when he was just 21. He would return to the Conservatoire as Professor of Composition in 1878, still in his early thirties. By then he had beaten his great rival Saint-Säens to a coveted seat in the Académie des Beaux Arts. On hearing the news, Massenet sent Saint-Säens a conciliatory telegram: ‘My dear colleague, the Institut has committed a grave injustice.’ Saint-Saëns promptly replied, ‘I entirely agree!’ Some early successes at the Opéra-Comique indicated that Massenet’s star was rising as a composer. The success of his oratorio Marie-Magdaleine in 1872, with the redoubtable Pauline Viardot as the penitent Mary, showed that he had arrived. Two years later another Biblical woman was given her own oratorio, Eve. Massenet had found his favourite subject, the fallen woman, and would return to it frequently over the next 40 years. Many of his heroines are sinners who aspire to be saints: the courtesan, Thaïs, whose celebrated ‘Méditation’ precedes a life of penitence in the desert, and Manon, who strives to establish herself as a glittering social success but dies a squalid death on the road to Le Havre. Massenet is particularly sensitive to sentiments of grief, as in the haunting saxophone solo played as Charlotte re-reads Werther’s letters, and in Manon’s sentimental aria ‘Adieu, notre petite table’, as she leaves her young lover for a wealthy older man. The composer Vincent d’Indy described Massenet’s music as ‘discreet and pseudo-religious eroticism’. Hérodiade (1881), Manon (1884), Werther (1892) and Thaïs (1894) were hugely successful with audiences, particularly, it was said, with women. For Massenet that was what mattered. ‘I don’t believe in all that creeping Jesus stuff,’ he replied to d’Indy. ‘But the public likes it and we must always agree with the public.’ Massenet was never more than one step ahead of his audience’s tastes. If that now seems an artistic vice it was a virtue at the end of the 19th century. The culture then endorsed the making of money as well as art. A rough estimate suggests that in a quarter of a century of successful composing Massenet’s royalties amounted to a massive 1.8 million francs. This was enough to maintain him and his family in grand Parisian style, complete with country chateau. As a young man Massenet had found temporary work as a percussionist in the orchestra of the Paris Opera. This gave him an insider’s knowledge of opera, which matured into a gift for orchestration. But his greatest gift was for melody. As his nickname ‘la fille de Gounod’ (‘the daughter of Gounod’) implies, it was the composer Charles Gounod who suggested how Massenet might deploy his sweet-toothed melodies to best effect. Having fallen partly under the spell of Wagner, Massenet developed a free-flowing vocal style. As in the German composer’s later music dramas, this becomes a type of sung narration, with the orchestra weaving an unending series of melodic fragments below. Massenet’s later scores even contain leitmotifs, in another nod to Wagner. But ultimately, the most successful opera composer in Paris was to be left behind. The premiere of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902 propelled French opera in a new direction. Where Debussy’s music looks forward to the 20th century, Massenet’s is rooted in the 19th. In his last years, Massenet found success not in Paris but in Monte Carlo, on the periphery of the French operatic world. Monte Carlo premiered a string of his late operas: Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, Chérubin, Thérèse and Don Quichotte. And in 1914, two years after Massenet had died, it premiered his last: Cléopâtre.