In This Article Jules Massenet

  • Introduction
  • Correspondence, Manuscripts, and Iconography
  • Massenet and His Contemporaries in France
  • Massenet and His Students
  • Massenet and His Performers
  • Staging Massenet

Music Jules Massenet
by
Lesley Wright
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0242

Introduction

Between 1867 and 1912, Jules Massenet (Émile Frédéric) (b. 1842–d. 1912) completed some twenty-five operas that dominated the stages of France. Widely performed around the world, they influenced his contemporaries and successors. Two of his intimate dramas, Manon and Werther, have always maintained a secure place in the international repertory, but with the “Massenet revival” in the later 20th century, numerous other works have been staged, performed, and/or recorded. Born near St. Étienne and given his earliest music lessons by his mother, this talented pianist entered the Paris Conservatory (1853) and won a first prize in piano (1859). Earning his way through school, he also served as a church organist and café pianist, gave piano lessons, and accompanied Gustave Roger’s voice students. As a percussionist at the Théâtre-Italien and Théâtre-Lyrique, he met important singers and heard new repertory. A relative latecomer to composition, Massenet began formal study with Ambroise Thomas in October 1860 and won the Prix de Rome shortly thereafter (1863). While at the Villa Médicis he met his future wife, thanks to Liszt’s introduction. And when he returned to Paris, his composition teacher arranged for a debut at the Opéra-Comique (La Grand’ Tante, 1867). The following year Georges Hartmann became his publisher, friend, and loyal supporter. Initially noticed for songs and orchestral suites, Massenet received even more attention in 1873, with stage music for Leconte de Lisle’s Les Érinnyes and especially the drame sacré, Marie-Magdeleine. The latter mingles the sacred and the sensual, as would his next oratorio, Ève (1875), and several later operas. Massenet turned principally to opera after the success of Le Roi de Lahore at the Paris Opéra (1877). In 1878 Ambroise Thomas welcomed him as professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory, and the Académie des Beaux-Arts elected him to membership over his rival Saint-Saëns. An impressive series of operas followed: Hérodiade (1881), Manon (1884), Le Cid (1885), Esclarmonde (1889), Le Mage (1891), Werther (1892), Thaïs (1894), Le Portrait de Manon (1894), and La Navarraise (1894). In 1896, his career at its zenith, Massenet refused the directorship of the Paris Conservatory and resigned from his post there. Perhaps feeling bitterness in the late 1890s, he even thought of abandoning composing for the theater. Indeed, the later years brought both failures and successes. Though his students and an adoring public remained loyal to him, some critics, among them fellow composers and their supporters, scorned Massenet’s constant efforts to renew and expand his style as simple concessions to fashion motivated by an obsessive need to please. At the time of Massenet’s death, however, the critic Louis de Fourcaud made a prediction: “For all that is moving and charming in his dramas, for the seductive and sometimes passionate character of his melody, for the sometimes dazzling brilliance of his orchestration, and finally, for all that was distinctive, unique and French in his very nature, Jules Massenet will cut a great figure in the future.” His words were not echoed by all in 1912 and might have been thought misguided in the mid-20th century, but judging by the quantity and quality of recent scholarship and performances, they now have a certain ring of truth.

Reference Works

Although Massenet has no thematic catalogue, his extensive oeuvre has recently been inventoried. For general orientation, larger music dictionaries also provide good worklists after an introduction to the life and works, while specialized dictionaries for opera and other vocal genres offer focused discussions of specific works that introduce topics like genesis, style, and reception.

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