Jules Emile Frederic Massenet

Jules MassenetJules Massenet was born May 12, 1842, in Montaud, Hérault, France. He died August 13, 1912, in Paris, France.

There is hardly another figure in the history of music which can better than Jules Massenet be taken as an inspiring model by young and old musicians. His genius of course cannot be imitated; but his pertinacity in work should be a guiding star for all ambitious artists. Since early youth he had formed the habit of getting up at four o’clock in the morning and working incessantly until midday. He used to labor sixteen hours a day, sleep six hours and the meals and the dressing took the rest of his time.

The director of French Opera once said to Massenet: “My dear master, tell me the secret of your abnormal creative ability. You listen to singers, you attend every rehearsal and besides your are professor at the Conservatoire. When do you find time to work?” “When you are asleep.” Replied Massenet. And even when not actually composing, he was always in search of inspiring subjects, he was traveling in foreign countries to direct and witness the performance of his operas.

Early Struggles

For this fabulous activity is surely the chief secret of Massenet’s unprecedented artistic success. It is only through tireless energy that work of great power and scope can be produced.

His motto was: “I have never been able to let me mind lie idle.”

His youth was connected with material difficulties. In 1851, when he was 9 years old, after having undergone an examination he was admitted as a pupil of the Conservatoire. His parents having taken him with them to Chambery, he escaped from the paternal homestead and started for Paris without a sou. He tried to give lessons, he played the piano in one of the cafes of Belleville, and later on he was employed in the orchestra of the Theater Lyrique as kettle-drummer.

He was living in an attic of a large building from which he could enjoy whiffs from the orchestra which escaped from the popular concerts that Pasdeloup conducted in the Cirque Napoleon every Sunday; and from his perch he applauded with feverish joy the works of Berlioz and of Wagner, his “gods”, as Massenet called them.

For the competition of the Institute the candidates had to reside at the Institute and to pay the rent of a piano, which was twenty francs. Massenet could not afford the expense and he resolved to do without. Fortunately he never needed its help in composing. His neighbors bothered him by pounding on their pianos and singing at the top of their lungs. However, Massenet won over his six competitors. The judges, Berlioz, Thomas and Auber awarded him the much coveted Prix de Rome.

Studies in Rome

Massenet went to the Villa Medici in Rome together with the young painters, sculptors and architects who were also winners of the prize. The carnival festivities at Rome were just ending with their Bacchanalian revelries and Massenet with his companions spent the day in throwing confetti and flowers at all the lovely Roman girls who replied with bewitching smiles from their balconies on the Corso. Massenet writes in his memoirs that he never could forget these types of rare, sparkling and fascinating beauty.

In that time Rome may not have offered to the young students who were sent there from the French government much to improve their musical education; but the azure sky, the alluring black eyes, the atmosphere saturated with joy and enthusiasm, gave them an inspiration such as no teaching and no severe training could ever impart. One notices the influence of this bewitching atmosphere as well in the early works of Massenet as in the immortal creations of Thomas, Gounod, Berlioz, Bizet and others who also were benefitted by the award of Grand Prix.

In Rome Massenet met a beautiful girl who had come to the Eternal City on a sight-seeing trip. She had been recommended to Liszt so that he might select for her a musician capable of directing her studies. Liszt proposed Massenet whose reluctance in accepting was overcome by the young girl’s charm – so much so, that two years later she became the dear companion of his life.

His first experience with French music publishers was not very encouraging. He took his “Poeme d’Avril” to Chaudens, Flaxland, and Brandus, but all showed him out. Only the young Georges Hartmann had faith in him. Massenet, however, did not have from his first publication either honor or money.

First Successes

His sacred drama, “Marie Magdaleine,” was given at the Odeon under Edouard Colonne’s direction but Massenet had to leave the next day for Italy. The first echo of this first performance reached him in Naples in the form of a letter from Ambroise Thomas which I give in full as it contains golden words which should be taken at heart by every musician:

Paris, April 12, 1873

“I cannot postpone telling you, my dear friend, how pleased I was last evening and how happy I was at your fine success. It is at once a serious, noble work, full of feeling. It is of our times; but you have proved that one can walk the path of progress and still remain clear, sober and restrained.

You have known how to move because you have been moved yourself.

I was carried away like everyone else, indeed, more than anyone else.

You have expressed happily the lovely poetry of that sublime drama.

In a mystical subject where one is tempted to fall into abuse of somber tones and severity of style, you have shown yourself a colorist while retaining charm and clearness.

Ambroise Thomas”

After having spent several years in the completion of the “Rio de Labore,” he writes: “Finishing a work is to bid good-bye to the indescribable pleasure which the labor gives one.”

This work was given first at the Paris Opera and afterwards at the Teatro Regio in Turin. Massenet writes of the famous tenor, Fanselli, who had a superb voice but a mannerism of spreading his arms wide open in from of him with his fingers opened out. His open hands won for this remarkable tenor the nickname: “Cinque e cinque fanno deici” (Five and five makes ten).

While he was in Milan the poet Zanardini read him a scenario in four acts, on the story of “Herodias,” which inspired Massenet to one of his future operas.

On his return to Paris he was offered the place of professor of counterpoint, fugue and composition at the Conservatoire to replace Francois Bazin.

As a Teacher

His gave his courses at the conservatory twice a week. He felt proud and happy to sit in the same class room where he had been a student, now as master. And as the pupils seemed nearly of his own age he said to them: “You will have but one companion more who will try to be as good a pupil as you are yourselves.”

However, the pupils showed him deferential affection. He continued for eighteen years to be both a friend and a patron to a considerable number of young composers. He rejoiced in their successes, especially as they won each year in the contest in fugue; and he confessed that this teaching was very useful to himself as it obliged him to become equal to the task of finding quickly what should be done with the rigorous precepts of Cherubini. About every year the Grand Prix Rome was awarded to the pupils of his class.

In 1900 he received a parchment with the signature of more than five hundred of his old pupils. The pages were bound into an octavo volume. The signatures were preceded by the following lines:

“Dear Master!

Happy at your nomination as Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor, your pupils unite in offering you the evidence of their deep and affectionate gratitude.”

Among the names of the Grand Prix of the Institute who showed their gratitude in this way were: Hillemacher, Henre Raubaud, Gustave Charpentier, Renalgo Hahn, Enesco, Bemberg and Laparre.

One must own that these facts give a grandiose idea of the earnestness of musical studies in Paris. Matters are taken there very seriously and thoroughly. Among teachers and pupils we find names of great prominence, names like Berlioz, Gounod, Thomas, Bizet, Saint-Saens, Massenet, names with a might good sound, the pride not only of France but of the whole musical world.

In 1863 he won the Grand Prix de Rome for his cantata “David Rizzio”.

After the Franco-German War Massenet rose to the first rank of French composers by the production of “Don Cesar de Bazan” (1872).

Among his other operas are: “Les Erinnyes” (1873); “Le Roi de Lahore” (1877); “Herodiade” (1881); “Monon Lescaut” (1884); “Le Cid” (1885); “Esclarmonde” (1889); “Le Mage” (1891); “Werther” (1892); “Thais” (1894); “La Navarraise” (1894); “Sapho” (1897); “Cendrillon” (1899); “Le Jongleur de Notre Dame” (1902).

He has also written orchestral suites, overtures, cantatas, and songs.