Massenet, Jules Frederic Emile



The most popular of modern French composers of opera. He was born at Montaud, near St. fitienne, and was given his first music lessons by his mother. Later he went to the Paris Conservatory, where he won the first piano prize in 1859, the second fugue prize in 1862, and the first fugue prize, and the great Roman Prize, which he obtained through his cantata, David Rizzio, in 1863. Up to this time he had been very poor and had earned a scanty living by playing in a restaurant orchestra, but he married a wealthy woman about this time, and spent two years at the Villa Medici, which awakened in him his greatest genius. When he returned to Paris his comic opera, La Grand' tante, was performed at the Opera Comique in 1867, but was not much of a success. It was followed in 1872 by Don Cesar de Bazan, which gave him his first prominence. His other works were brought out in quick succession. In 1873 he wrote the overture and incidental music to Les Erinnyes; in the same year Mary Magdalen, a sort of sacred drama, modeled on the oratorio, appeared, and five, another piece like it, was given in 1875. His first great opera, Le Roi de Lahore, was performed in 1877, and later the same year his cantata, Narcisse; in 1880 he presented his oratorio, La Vierge, in 1881 his biblical opera, Herodiade, in 1884 Manon, and in 1885 Le Cid. During this time he had written incidental music to Sardou's dramas, Theodora, and Le Crocodile. He served in the Franco-Prussian war, taught advanced composition in the Paris Conservatory from 1878 to 1896, was decorated with the cross of the Legion of Honor in 1878, and became an officer in 1888; and also in 1878 was made a member of the Academy. He replaced Bazin and was the youngest man who had ever been admitted at that time. His later works are the operas, Esclarmonde; Le Mage; Werther and Le Carillon; Thais; Le Portrait de Manon; La Navarraise; Sapho; and Cendrillon; the oratorios, La Terre Promise; the opera, Griselidis, and incidental music to the drama, Phedre; and the operas, Le Jongleur de Notre Dame; Cherubin; and Ariane. He has also written many very popular orchestral suites, among them Scenes Pittoresques; Scenes Dramatiques, based on Shakespeare; Scenes Hongroiseo; and Scenes Alsaciennes.


Hervey says that Massenet is " typical of his epoch and nation." Elson says " He is essentially French in his music, in his personal temperament, in his operatic subjects." These statements are as true as applied to his biblical works as to Manon or La Navarraise, which are as characteristically French as anything he has produced.


Le Roi de Lahore, his first distinct success, is a subject of much glamor and romance, and the spectacular part of this piece probably had as much to do with its success as the music. Manon, which is generally considered the composer's masterpiece, has be come a classic. It is based on Abbe Provost's novel of that name, and the music and text are admirably suited to each other. In this opera Massenet brought out the entirely new idea at that time of having an orchestral accompaniment to the dialogue. Le Cid was a failure, but Esclarmonde, which appeared next, was very successful. It belongs to the romantic school, and shows unmistakable signs of Bayreuth influence. Le Mage, another Oriental subject, was not successful, and Werther, based on Goethe's novel, was not popular with the masses, because it lacked action and was monotonous in places, though it was full of sentiment and had some beautiful passages. It resembles Esclarmonde in form, but the idea is like that of Manon. Thais, the story of the conversion of an Egyptian courtesan by a hermit, who afterwards fell in love with her, gained a permanent place at the Opera Comique. La Navarraise, which was given at Covent Garden and at Brussels and Paris, was intensely melodramtic. The music is noisy and martial and the story goes well with it. The libretto is really better than the music. Griselidis was fairly successful, as was also Le Jongleur de Notre Dame.


Massenet continued the work of Gounod, but used his own methods or style in doing it, and all of his works bear the stamp of his individuality. His greatest power is representing the tender passions, and he is also especially successful in portraying the eternal feminine. However,   his women can hardly be called individuals, for they are all alike whether biblical characters, fairy creations, or modern French women, all resemble the Parisienne of the present, and most of them are the extremely weak type as in the case of Manon. He has adopted no one particular form, but takes sentiment in general and the taste of the Parisian public for the basis upon which he works.