A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Massenet, Jules
MASSENET, Jules Emile Frederic, born at Montaud, near St. Etienne, May 12, 1842, was educated at the Paris Conservatoire, where he won the first piano prize in 1859; the second prize for fugue in 1862; the first prize for fugue, and the 'Prix de Rome' in 1863. On his return from Italy, through the influence of Ambroise Thomas, his 'La Grand' tante' was produced at the Opéra Comique (April 3, 1867). Even in this first attempt Massenet showed himself a skilled and graceful musician. Some 'Suites d'orchestre' performed at the 'Concerts populaires' attracted attention for their new and ingenious effects. It was only, however, after the Franco-German war that he rose to the first rank among young French composers by the production of 'Don César de Bazan,' opéra-comique in 3 acts and 4 tableaux (Nov. 30, 1872); incidental music to the tragedy 'Les Erynnies' (Jan. 6, 1873); and an oratorio 'Marie Magdeleine' (April 11, 1873). He has since composed 'Eve' (March 18, 1875), an oratorio something in the style of Gounod's 'Gallia'; more 'Suites d'orchestre'; an 'Ouverture de Concert,' and the overture to 'Phèdre'; a number of melodies for 1 and 2 voices; pianoforte music for 2 and 4 hands; choruses for 4 equal voices; 'Le Roi de Lahore' (April 27, 1877), opera in 4 acts and 6 tableaux; and 'Narcisse,' a cantata with orchestral accompaniment. In July 1879 he completed another oratorio, 'La Vierge,' and is at work upon two new operas. From this enumeration it will be seen that his published compositions are numerous and varied. His best and most individual work is 'Marie Magdeleine.' The 'Roi de Lahore' can scarcely be considered an advance upon 'Don César de Bazan.' The 'Suites d'orchestre' may be blemished here and there by mannerism and affectation, but if M. Massenet will refrain from all mere cleverness, and draw his inspiration solely from within, he will prove an honour to the French school, and to his art.
[ G. C. ]
Add that the composer, though now in the prime of life, has produced nothing, during the last ten years, but works which are practically repetitions of his former productions—'Marie Magdeleine,' 'Les Erinnyes,' 'Le Roi de Lahore'—all of which are far superior to anything he has since composed. On May 22, 1880, he conducted his oratorio, 'La Vierge,' at the first historical concert at the Opéra, an unsuccessful scheme of Vaucorbeil's. He produced at Brussels his religious opera 'Hérodiade,' Dec. 19, 1881, which succeeded for one season only in that city, and failed in Paris, where it was represented at the Opéra Italien (Jan. 30, 1884), after being partly rewritten by the composer. On Jan. 19, 1884, the opera 'Manon' was produced at the Opéra Comique, and on Nov. 30, 1885, 'Le Cid' at the Opéra, neither of which have left a very permanent mark behind them. In the former the composer tried the experiment of connecting the numbers of an opéra comique by a slightly orchestrated accompaniment to the dialogue, which was not sung, as in the case of recitativo secco, but spoken as usual. The idea was very ingenious, and deserves to be matured. In 'Le Cid' the heroic element has been ignored entirely, and the result is a work of somewhat effeminate character, wholly destitute of any connection with Corneille's tragedy. To the number of his works are to be added three new Orchestral Suites, nos. 5–7, Scènes Napolitaines, Scènes Alsaciennes, and Scenes de Féerie (Concerts du Châtelet, 1880, 1882, 1883); incidental music to Sardou's 'Theodora' and 'Le Crocodile' (Porte St. Martin, 1884 and 1886); a short work for voice and orchestra, 'Biblis'; various 'Poèmes' for voice and piano, and an opera, 'Pertinax,' intended for the Opéra Comique. In Oct. 1878, Massenet replaced Bazin as professor of advanced composition at the Conservatoire. In 1876 he was decorated with the Légion d'Honneur, and in 1878 was elected a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in place of Bazin, and to the exclusion of Saint-Saëns, who was generally expected to be the new member, as he was introduced in the first rank by the musical section. This was one of the rare occasions on which the entire Academié has not observed the order of presentation established by the section to which the new member is to belong. Massenet was only 36 at the time, and was the youngest member ever elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, for Halévy, who was the most remarkable previous example of what may be called 'Academic precocity,' was 37 when he entered the Institut in 1836. Massenet, who has recently (Jan. '88) been made an officer of the Légion d'Honneur, has been throughout a spoiled child of fortune; but the only music that can endure is that in which are displayed strong convictions and a firm resolution not to yield to public caprice; while Massenet's works, especially his later compositions, which are written without any fixed ideal, and in view of immediate success, scarcely survive the day of their birth, nor do they deserve to survive it.
[ A. J. ]