Birth: May 12, 1842 in Montaud, Loire, France
Death: Aug 13, 1912 in Paris, France
Genre: Vocal Music, Concerto, Opera
Today Jules Massenet is best known for the operas Manon and Werther and the solo violin Meditation, from Thais. During his lifetime, however, Massenet was one of the most prolific and celebrated operatic composers on earth. The public anxiously awaited his output, and Massenet became both wealthy and famous practicing his craft. His legacy endures because of his ability to create music which portrays the intimacy of human relationships and the emotions and conflicts that arise from them. His gift for melody is reflected in a variety of arias that are among the most beautiful in the French operatic repertoire. He was also a brilliant orchestrator, a skill which allowed him to capture the moods and colors of a wide variety of places and eras. In addition to opera, Massenet composed songs, oratorios, ballets and orchestral works, as well as chamber music and works for solo piano.
Massenet was born in Montaud, France, to the family of a struggling metal worker. At the tender age of 10, he was admitted to the Paris Conservatory, where he studied with famed operatic composer Ambroise Thomas. In 1863, Massenet won the Prix de Rome, a prize which allowed him to travel and study in Italy. There the young man experienced the sounds and textures of the region and began to compose in earnest. While in Italy, Massenet met Liszt, who introduced him to his future wife, Mademoiselle Sainte-Marie.
Massenet's first opera, a one-act entitled La Grand' Tante (The Great Aunt), was produced (with only moderate success) at the Opera-Comique in 1867. In 1877 Massenet's exotic opera Le Roi de Lahore (The King of Lahore) had a highly successful premiere at the Paris Opera, marking the beginning of his ascendancy as France's most prolific and celebrated operatic composer.
In 1878, his former teacher, Thomas, invited him to become a professor at the Paris Conservatory. Massenet achieved considerable success as a teacher, influencing an entire generation of French composers, including Gustav Charpentier and the song composer Reynaldo Hahn.
A highly prolific composer, Massenet worked continuously throughout his life, completing a great deal of music in addition to his 25 published operas. His approximately 250 songs often reflect the same melodic ingenuity and expressiveness that define his operatic works. Massenet composed several song cycles, including Poeme d'Avril (April Poem), which is often identified as the first French song cycle. Among the most famous of his solo songs are "Ouvre tes yeux bleus" (Open your blue eyes) and "Si tu veux, Mignonne" (If you wish it, sweetheart). The composer's First Orchestral Suite (originally entitled Symphony in F) premiered in 1867. This was the first of seven suites by Massenet, with programmatic subjects ranging from Alsace (Scenes alsaciennes, 1882) to Hungary (Scenes hongroises, 1871), and from Shakespeare (Scenes dramatiques, 1875) to Fairyland (Scenes de feerie, 1881). The most famous of his orchestral suites, Scenes pittoresques (Picturesque Scenes), was first performed in Paris during March of 1874. Massenet also composed several ballets, including La Cigale, Espada, and Les Rosati. In addition to Marie-Magdeleine, his oratorios include Eve (1875) and La Terre promise (The promised land, 1900). He wrote a considerable amount of incidental music for plays, including Sardou's Le Crocodile (1886) and Racine's Phedre (1900). His only piano concerto was first performed in 1903 and receives occasional modern performances.
- Robert Barefield (All Music Guide)
Autobiographical Notes by the Composer Massenet.
You are so kind as to write to know what was the beginning of my musical career, and you ask me, "How did I become a musician?" This seems a very natural question, but nevertheless I find it a very awkward one to answer. Should I tell you that, like many of my brothers in art, I had followed my vocation. I might seem slightly conceited; and should I confess it cause me many a struggle to devote myself entirely to music, then you might have the right to say, "Why, then, did you become a musician?"
My father was a superior officer under the First Empire. When the Bourbons were restored he sent in his resignation. As he had been a distinguished pupil of the Polytechnic School, he devoted himself to manufactures, and started important iron-works near St. Etienne (Loire). He this became an iron-master, and was the inventor of those huge hammers which, crushing steel with extraordinary power by a single blow, change bars of metal into sickles and scythes. So it was that, to the sound of heavy hammers of brass, as the ancient poets, I was born,
My first steps in my future career were no more melodious. Six years later, my family then living in Paris, one day I found myself in front of an old piano, and either to amuse me, or to try my talent, my mother gave me my first music-lesson. It was the 24th of February. 1848, a strangely chosen moment, for our lesson was interrupted by the noise of street-firing that lasted for several hours. The revolution had burst forth, and the people were killing one another in the streets.
Three years later I had become-or my parents affectionately thought I had become-a clever enough little pianist. I was presented for admission to the piano classes at the Imperial Conservatory of Music, and was admitted. To my mother I now was "an artist," and even though my education took up six hours of my day, she found time to make me work at my piano to such good effect that within a year I became "laurйat" of the Conservatory. At this period my father's ill health forced us to leave Paris, and so put a stop to my music for several years. I took advantage of this period to finish my literary studies. But the pain of separation from the Conservatory gave me courage enough to beg my parents whom my wish distressed) to give me permission to return, and I did not again leave Paris until the day when, having obtained the "first grand prize" of musical composition (1863), I left for Rome with a scholarship from the Acadйmie de France.
Did the progress made in these years of work really prove my vocation? Certainly I had won the "prix de Rome," and had also taken prizes for piano, counterpoint, fugue, and so on. No doubt I was what is called a good pupil, but I was not an artist in the true sense.
To be an artist is to be a poet; to be touched by all the revelations of art and nature; to love, to suffer,-in one word, to live! To produce a work of art does not make an artist. First of all, an artist must be touched by all the manifestations of beauty, must be interpenetrated by them. How many great painters, how many illustrious musicians, never were artists in the deepest meaning of the word!
Oh, those two lovely years in Rome at the dear Villa Medici, the official abiding-place of holder of Institute Scholarships-unmatched years, the recollection of which still vibrates in my memory, and even now helps me to stem the flood of discouraging influences!
It was at Rome that I began to live; there it was that, during my happy walks with my comrades, painters or sculptors, and in our talks under the oaks of the Villa Borghese, or under the pines of the Villa Pamphili, I feel my first stirrings of admiration for nature and for art. What charming hours we spent in wandering through the museums of Naples and Florence! What tender, thoughtful emotions we felt in dusky churches of Siena and Assisi! How thoroughly forgotten was Paris with her theaters and her rushing crowds! Now I had ceased to be merely "a musician"; now I was much more than a musician. This ardor, this healthful fever still sustains me; for we musicians, like poets, must be the interpreters of true emotion. To feel, to make others feel-therein lies the whole secret!
My time was nearly up at the Villa Medici, and but for a few days separated me from the hour in which I had to say good-by to my happy life-a life full of work, full of sweet tranquility of mind, a life such as I never had lived again.
It was on December 17, 1865, that I had to prepare for my departure; nevertheless, I could not persuade myself to bid adieu to Rome. It was Rome that bade me adieu, and this is how she did it. It was six o'clock in the afternoon. I was alone in my room, standing before the window, looking through the glass at the great city outlined in gray against the light still remaining from a lovely clear sunset. This view is forever imprinted on my memory, and at the time I could not detach myself from it. Alas! little by little a shadow crept over one corner of the sky, spreading and spreading until finally Rome had disappeared altogether. I have never forgotten those moments, and it is in remembering them that I evoke my youth.
I notice that I am saying but little of music, and that I seem to care more for what strikes the eye than for what charms the ear. Let us open together some of my orchestral scores. Thereon I am in the habit of writing the day and the hour, and sometimes an account of events of my life. Some of these have afforded me suggestions for my work. The first part of "Marie Magdalene" begins "At the gates of Magdala, evening." It was in truth of Magdana that I was then thinking; my imagination journeyed to far Judea, but what really moved me was the remembrance of the Roman Campagna, and this remembrance it was that I obeyed. I followed the landscape I had really; therein was its accent, its exact impression. Afterward, in writing the "Erinnyes," the love that I felt for an exquisite Tanagra terra-cotta dictated to me the dances for the first act of Leconte de Lisle's admirable drama. Later, while I was arranging the score of the "Roi de Lahore," near me was a little Indian box whose dark blue enamel spotted with bright gold continually drew my eyes to it. All my delight, all my ardor came from gazing at this casket, wherein I saw the whole of India!
Mournful recollections also take up a great part of the life of the musician whose modest beginnings were saluted by firing in the streets. In 1870-a dismal date for my poor dear country-the Prussian cannons, answering those of Mont Valйrien, often lugubriously punctuated the fragments that I tried to write during the short moments of rest that guard duty, marching around Paris, and military exercises on the ramparts, left us. There the musician, in the physical weariness of this novel life, vainly trying to find a few moments of forgetfulness, did not altogether abdicate his rights. In the leaves of a finished score, but one which will be brought before the public, "Mйduse," I find annotated the patriotic cries of the people, and the echoes of the "Marseillaise" sung by the regiments as they passed my little house at Fontainebleau on their way to battle. And so in other fragments I can read the bitter thoughts that moved me when, having returned to Paris before it was invested, I was inspired by the woeful times that were upon us during the long winter of that terrible year.
Oh, the unforgettable pain and sorrow of those dismal days when our hearts plunged so quickly from comforting enthusiasm to the darkest despair!-when weeks of uncertainty and of waiting were scarcely brightened by rare letters, received one knew not how or whence, and bringing us news of ancient date concerning the far-off families and the dear friends we no longer hoped to see again! Then came the last effort, the last struggle at Buzenval; the death of my poor friend, the painter Henri Regnault; then the most terrible trial of all, whose shameful reality made us forget cold, hunger, all that we had endured-the armistice, which in our wearied but far from resigned hearts rang the knell of our last and righteous anger! Yes, truly, during those dark days of the siege of Paris, it was indeed the image of my dying country that lay bleeding in me, feeble instrument that I was, when, shivering with cold, my eyes blinded with tears, I composed the bars of the "Poлme du Souvenir" for the inspired stanzas written by my friend the great poet Armand Silvestre, "Arise, beloved, now entombed!" Yes, both as son and musician, I felt the image of my poor country imprint itself on my bruised heart in the sweet and touching shape of a wounded muse, and when with the poet I sang, "Tear off thy winding sheet of flowers," I well knew that, though bruised, she would come forth from her shroud, with blanched cheeks, indeed, but lovelier and more adorable than ever!
I have already said how dear to me is, and how faithfully true remains, the recollection of my Roman years; and I would like to be able to convince others how useful it is for young musicians to leave Paris, and to live, were it but a year, in the Villa Medici, among a set of intelligent comrades. Yes, I am thoroughly in favor of this exile,-as it is called by the discontented. I believe in residing there, for such a residence may give birth to poets and artists, and may awaken sentiments that otherwise might remain unknown to those in whom they lie dormant.
But, you answer, genius cannot be given to any one, and if these young men be merely good students, already master of their trade, it is not possible to give them the sacred fire they need.
Yes! I believe that being forced to life far away from their Parisian habits is a positive advantage. The long hours of solitude in the Roman Campagna, and those spent in the admirable museums of Florence and Venice, amply compensate for the absence of musical meetings, of orchestral concerts, of theatrical representations,-in short, of music. How few of these young men, before leaving France, ever knew the useful and penetrating charm of living alone is close communion with nature or art. And the day in which art and nature speak to you makes you an artist, an adept; and on that day, with what you have already learned, and with what you should already know, you can create in strong and healthy fashion. How many garnered impression and emotions will live again in works as yet unwritten!
In order to give more weight to my personal opinions, let me have the pleasure of quoting a fragment of the speech made at one of the last prize-day distributions of the Acadйmie des Beaux-Arts by my whilom comrade at Rome, now my colleague at the Institute of France, the celebrated engraver Chaplain:
During their stay at the Villa Medici, these young artists are far from spending all the treasure of thoughts and impressions which they there amass. What delight, and often what rare good luck, later to find a sketch made form some lovely scene, or an air noted down while traveling through the mountains! On the road from Tivoli to Subiaco, one summer day, a little band of students were on a walking excursion through the beautiful mountains, which, like an amphitheater, surround and rise up around Rome. We had halted in order to contemplate at our leisure the wonderful panorama of the Roman Campagna unrolling itself before us. Suddenly, at the foot of the path we had just climbed, a shepherd began to play a sweet, slow air on his pipe, the notes of which fated away, one by one, in the silence of the evening. While listening, I glanced at a musician who made one of the party, curious to read his impressions in his face; he was putting down the shepherd's air in his note-book. Several years later a new work by a young composer was performed at Paris. The air of the shepherd of Subiaco had become the beautiful introduction to "Mary Magdalen."
I have quoted the whole, even the friendly praise given me by my dear comrade of Rome; but I have spoken so much of myself here that I thought I need not refuse myself these compliments coming from another in justification of my enthusiasm for those blessed years to which, it seems to me, I owe all the good qualities wherewith people are kind enough to credit me.
Do not, however, think me too exclusive in my ideas. If I speak to you of Rome, it is because the Villa Medici is unique as a retreat,-is a dream realized. I have certainly been enthusiastic over other countries, and I think that scholars should travel. When I was a scholar, I left Rome during many months. Two or three friends would join forces and start off together. We would go to Venice or down the Adriatic; running over perhaps to Greece; and, on our return, stopping at Tunis, Messina, and Naples. Finally, with swelling hearts, we would see the walls of Rome; for there, in the Academy of France, was our home And then, how delightful to go to work in the healthful quiet, in which we could create without anything to reoccupy us-with no worries, no sorrows. After a wandering life, after the hotel with its commonplace rooms and tables, what joy to return to "our villa" and to meditate under its evergreen oaks!
The ordinary traveler never can know this repose, because it is to us alone, we scholars of the Institute, that France gives such a shelter. The remembrances of my youth have almost always been my consolation for the years of struggle that have made up my life. But I do not thank France alone for being so good to us. I wish to bring also to your country my tribute of gratitude. It is to a woman of your great country, to an American, to Miss Sibyl Sanderson, the incomparable interpreter of "Esclarmonde," that I owe the impulse to write that lyric drama.
- J. Massenet
Сын владельца железных копей, Массне получает первые музыкальные уроки у матери; в Парижской консерватории учится у Савара, Лорена, Базена, Ребера и Тома. В 1863 году удостоен Римской премии. Посвятив себя различным жанрам, прилежно трудится и на театральном поприще. В 1878 году после успеха "Короля Лахорского" назначается профессором композиции в консерватории, должность, которую он занимает до 1896 года, когда, достигнув мировой известности, он оставляет все посты, в том числе директора Института Франции.
"Массне в полной мере реализовал себя, и тот, кто, желая уколоть его, втихомолку отзывался о нем как об ученике модного песенника Поля Дельме, пустил шутку дурного вкуса. Массне, напротив, много подражали, вот это правда... его гармонии подобны объятиям, а мелодии - изогнутым шеям... Похоже, что Массне стал жертвой своих прекрасных слушательниц, чьи веера долго и восторженно трепетали на его спектаклях... Признаюсь, мне непонятно, почему лучше нравиться старым дамам, любительницам Вагнера и космополиткам, чем юным надушенным особам, не очень хорошо играющим на пианино". Эти утверждения Дебюсси, если оставить в стороне иронию, хорошо характеризуют творчество Массне и его значение для французской культуры.
Когда была создана "Манон", другие композиторы на протяжении века уже определили характер французской оперы. Вспомним "Фауста" Гуно (1859), незавершенных "Троянцев" Берлиоза (1863), "Африканку" Мейербера (1865), "Миньон" Тома (1866), "Кармен" Бизе (1875), "Самсона и Далилу" Сен-Санса (1877), "Сказки Гофмана" Оффенбаха (1881), "Лакме" Делиба (1883). Помимо оперной продукции достойны упоминания и наиболее значительные произведения Сезара Франка, написанные между 1880 и 1886 годами, сыгравшие столь важную роль в создании чувственно-мистической атмосферы в музыке конца века. В это же время Лало внимательно изучал фольклор, а Дебюсси, награжденный в 1884 году Римской премией, был близок к окончательному формированию своего стиля.
Что касается других видов искусства, то импрессионизм в живописи уже изжил себя, и художники обратились к одновременно натуралистическому и неоклассицистскому, новому и драматическому изображению форм, как, например, Сезанн. Более решительно перешли к натуралистическому изображению человеческого тела Дега и Ренуар, тогда как Сёра в 1883 году экспонировал свою картину "Купание", в которой неподвижность фигур знаменовала поворот к новой пластической структуре, быть может, символистской, но по-прежнему конкретной и четкой. Символизм начал только-только проглядывать в первых работах Гогена. Натуралистическое направление (с чертами символизма на социальном фоне), напротив, очень явственно в это время в литературе, особенно в романах Золя (в 1880 году появилась "Нана", роман из жизни куртизанки). Вокруг писателя образуется группа, обращающаяся к изображению более неприглядной или по меньшей мере необычной для литературы действительности: между 1880 и 1881 годами Мопассан избирает публичный дом местом действия своих рассказов из сборника "Дом Теллье".
Все эти идеи, замыслы и тенденции нетрудно обнаружить и в "Манон", благодаря которой композитор внес свой вклад в оперное искусство. За этим бурным началом последовало долгое служение опере, в течение которого не всегда находился подходящий материал для раскрытия достоинств композитора и не всегда сохранялось единство творческой концепции. Как следствие, различные типы противоречий наблюдаются и на уровне стиля. Вместе с тем переходя от веризма к декаденству, от сказки к историческому или экзотическому рассказу с разнообразным использованием вокальных партий и оркестра, Массне никогда не разочаровывал свою публику, хотя бы благодаря только превосходно сработанному звуковому материалу. В любой его опере, даже не удавшейся в целом, есть памятная страница, живущая самостоятельной жизнью вне общего контекста. Все эти обстоятельства обеспечили большой успех Массне на дискографическом рынке. Лучшими его образцами остаются в конечном итоге те, в которых композитор верен самому себе: лиричному и страстному, нежному и чувственному, передающему свой трепет партиям наиболее созвучных ему главных героев, влюбленных, чья характеристика не чужда изысканности симфонических решений, достигнутых с легкостью и лишенных школярской ограниченности.
-Г. Маркези (в переводе Е. Гречаной)