Jules Massenet

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Born: 12 May 1842, Montaud, Hérault, France

Died: 13 August 1912, Paris, France

Jules Massenet’s operas made him one of the most popular composers of the late nineteenth century, his works performed throughout Europe, the Americas and North Africa.  After World War I, he was seen as old-fashioned, and nearly all of his operas, apart from Werther and Manon, vanished from the mainstream repertoire.

The opera-going public still know Massenet best for Manon, Werther, and the Méditation from Thaïs, but to believe, as The Grove Dictionary of Opera wrote in 1954, that “to have heard Manon is to have heard all of him” is to do the composer a gross disservice.

Massenet wrote twenty-seven operas, many of which are at least as good as Manon and Werther.  Nearly all are theatrically effective, boast beautiful music, and display insightful characterisation and an instinct for dramatic and psychological truth.

In recent decades, Massenet’s work has regained popularity.  Although he is not the household name he once was, and many of his operas remain little known, he has been winning new audiences.

Massenet is still too often dismissed as a decadent sentimentalist, a sensuous composer of salon music painted in pastel colours.  This is facile.  While his music has the power to move, charm and please, it is also dramatic, robust and high-spirited.

He is the most versatile of all opera composers, and his operas among the most varied of any composer. They include grand opéras full of historical pageantry and exotic local colour; austere neo-Classical opera in the tradition of Gluck; Rabelaisian haulte farce; intimate, psychologically acute bourgeois tragedies; mediaeval dramas of Wagnerian scale; intensely dramatic verismo operas; and delicately melancholy fairy tales.  The range of his oeuvre doesn’t weaken its quality; each new and different work was both an artistic challenge and a source of inspiration.

His operas are set in powdered eighteenth century boudoirs, late 19th century artists’ studios and Bohemian cafés, gemütlich German villages, ancient Persia and Pakistan, monasteries in the burning deserts outside Alexandria, mediaeval cathedrals, and amidst the gunshot and cannonade of a Spanish battlefield.

As well as opera, he wrote oratorios, ballets, religious music, music for the stage, symphonic suites, melodies, and music for piano or organ.

Each of his operas has its own atmosphere, its own distinct sound world.  He could evoke a long dead or distant place, or cleverly paint an external event with as much insight and ingenuity as he depicted a character’s emotions.  Listen, if you will, to the opening of Hérodiade, to the windmills scene in Don Quichotte, to the entr’actes in Thérèse and Roma, or to the Méditation from Thaïs.

Massenet unites the free flowing Wagnerian music drama with the French opéra comique, grand opéra and opéra lyrique styles to create his own idiom—one that would influence a whole generation of French composers, Richard Strauss in Germany, and Puccini and the verismists in Italy.  Massenet could move seamlessly between recit, song and orchestra, without the symphonic element overwhelming the singers.

Massenet was, quite simply, the greatest French opera composer of the nineteenth century.

(Based on “Jules Massenet – His Life and Works“, my article for MusicWeb International.)


OPERAS

  1. La grand’tante (1867)
  2. Don César de Bazan (1872, revised 1888)
  3. L’adorable Bel’-Boul (1874)
  4. Bérangère et Anatole (1876)
  5. Le roi de Lahore (1877)
  6. Hérodiade (1881)
  7. Manon (1884)
  8. Le Cid (1885)
  9. Esclarmonde (1889)
  10. Le mage (1891)
  11. Werther (1892)
  12. Thaïs (1894)
  13. Le portrait de Manon (1894)
  14. La Navarraise (1894)
  15. Sapho (1897)
  16. Cendrillon (1899)
  17. Grisélidis (1901)
  18. Le jongleur de Notre-Dame (1902)
  19. Chérubin (1905)
  20. Ariane (1906)
  21. Thérèse (1907)
  22. Bacchus (1909)
  23. Don Quichotte (1910)
  24. Roma (1912)
  25. Panurge (1913)
  26. Cléopâtre (1914)
  27. Amadis (1922, composed c. 1895)