Massenet, a respected and popular Parisian composer, wrote some 25 light and popular operas which had great public appeal at the time. His works are characterised by their sensuous and charming orchestration, and their easily sing-able melodies. He also wrote several oratorios. Of his own work he said, dismissively: 'I don't believe in all this creeping Jesus business, but the public likes it'.
Jules Emile Frederic Massenet was born in Etienne, France on 12 May, 1842. His mother was musical, and he studied piano with her from an early age. When he was six years old, his family moved to Paris. In 1853, aged 11, he successfully auditioned for a place at the Paris Conservatoire. Less than two years later, his family moved away from Paris, but Massenet absconded back to the Conservatoire, to continue his studies. He went to live with his older sister, and supported himself by giving piano lessons and by playing the kettledrum in several theatre orchestras. In 1861, he studied composition with Ambroise Thomas, and in 1863, supported by Berlioz, he won the prestigious Prix de Rome.
This prize, a three-year working scholarship based in Rome, with visits to other European cities, saw him working in the Villa Medici, composing numerous non-operatic works. Through Liszt, he met Louise-Constance de Gressy, whom he married in 1866, after which he returned to Paris with his bride.
Over the next four years, he undertook many ambitious projects. Only the opera La Grand' Tante was a success, of the others, few were completed, and none were performed. In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, he joined the National Guard, patrolling the ramparts of Paris. He left the city during the Commune, returning some years later.
Between 1870 and 1876, he composed a number of oratorios and semi-religious works before being appointed as professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire in 1878. Between then and 1899 he composed nine operas, all received with public acclaim, but there then followed four years of crisis. His opera Le Mage was a failure causing him to write little. In 1894, he made a comeback with his best-known opera, Thais, and in 1896 he resigned from the Conservatoire to concentrate on composing.
For the next 14 years he was prolific and popular. He died in Paris, of cancer, on 31 August, 1912.
Women were a major influence in Massenet's life and work. His operas were written with a specific prima donna in mind, and frequently dedicated to those ladies. Several affairs were rumoured, and there are sub-texts of erotic fantasy in many of the operas. It is well documented that the last years of his life were dominated by the soprano Lucy Arnell, who was in her twenties.
Some Major Works
The dates given are those of the first performance, not the composition or publication.
- La Grand' Tante (1867)
- Manon (1884)
- Le Cid (1885)
- Werther (1892)
- Thais (1894)
- Sapho (1897)
- Cendrillon (1899)
- Le Jongleur de Notre Dame (1902)
- Marie Magdalene (1903) This is an operatic version of his 1873 oratorio.
- Don Quichotte (1910)