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Jules Massenet and the Meditation from Thais

Jules Émile Frédéric Massenet (May 12, 1842 –August 13, 1912) was a French composer best known for his operas which were very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and he is ranked as one of the greatest melodists of his era, being admired for his lyricism, sensuality, occasional sentimentality, and theatrical aptness. Massenet was born on May 12, 1842, in Montaud, then an outlying hamlet and now a part of the city of Saint-Étienne, in the Loire, to the family of a struggling metal worker. When he was six, his family moved to Paris due to his father’s ill-health. There his mother, Adélaïde Massenet, née Royer, started taking piano pupils. She also taught Jules so well that at the age of 11 he became a pupil of Adolphe-François Laurent (piano), Henri Reber (harmony) and Ambroise Thomas (counterpoint) at the Conservatoire de Paris. He was still a student when his family moved from Paris to Chambéry, but Jules returned to Paris after a few months, living with a member of his father’s family. To support himself during his studies, he worked as timpanist for six years at the Théâtre Lyrique, playing also other percussion instruments in other theatres, and working as a pianist in the Café de Belleville.

Although at first some of Massenet’s teachers had not predicted for him any career in music, this changed in 1862 when he won the Grand Prix de Rome with his cantata David Rizzio and spent three years in Rome. There he met Franz Liszt, at whose request he gave piano lessons to Louise-Constance “Ninon” de Gressy, the daughter of a wealthy lady named Mme. Sainte-Marie. Ninon became Massenet’s wife in 1866. His first opera, La grand’ tante, was a one-act production at the Opéra-Comique in 1867. 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 (Scènes alsaciennes, 1882) to Hungary (Scènes hongroises, 1871), and from Shakespeare (Scénes dramatiques, 1875) to Fairyland (Scènes de féerie, 1881). Massenet took a break from his composing to serve as a soldier in the Franco-Prussian War, but returned to his art following the end of the conflict in 1871. His dramatic oratorio Marie-Magdeleine , first performed in 1873, won him praise from the likes of Tchaikovsky, d’Indy, and Gounod. His real mentor though was his teacher, the composer Ambroise Thomas, a man with important contacts in theatrical milieux. Another important early patron was his publisher, Georges Hartmann, whose connections with journalistic circles aided him in becoming better known during the difficult initial years of his composing activity.

The most famous of Massenet’s orchestral suites, Scénes pittoresques (Picturesque Scenes), was first performed in Paris during March of 1874. In 1876 Massenet received the Légion d’honneur, 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. At the invitation of his former teacher Thomas, from 1878, when he was elected a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, to the exclusion of Camille Saint-Saëns, and at only 36 was the youngest member ever elected to the Académie, he worked as professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory where his pupils included André Bloch, Gustave Charpentier, Ernest Chausson, Reynaldo Hahn, Georges Enesco, and Charles Koechlin. His greatest successes were Manon in 1884, Werther in 1892, and Thaïs in 1894. He was appointed a Grand Officer of the Legion in 1899. His only piano concerto was first performed in 1903 and receives occasional modern performances. Notable later operas were Le jongleur de Notre-Dame, produced in 1902, and Don Quichotte, produced in Monte Carlo 1910, with the legendary Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin in the title-role. His autobiography was entitled Mes Souvenirs (1912; My Recollections). Massenet died on August 13, 1912, in Paris at the age of 70, after suffering from cancer for a long time.

A very prolific, hard-working composer, Massenet had over 25 extant operas to his credit. In addition to his operas, Massenet composed concert suites, ballet music, oratorios and cantatas and about two hundred songs, as well as chamber music and works for solo piano. He also wrote a considerable amount of incidental music for plays, including Sardou’s Le Crocodile (1886) and Racine’s Phèdre (1900). Some of his non-vocal output has achieved widespread popularity, and is commonly performed, such as the Méditation from Thaïs, which is a violin solo with orchestra, as well as the Aragonaise from his opera Le Cid, and the Élégie for cello and orchestra from his incidental music to Les Érinnyes. The latter two pieces are commonly played by piano students, and the Élégie became world-famous in many arrangements. The only known recording by Massenet is a scene from Sapho where he accompanies the soprano Georgette Leblanc on the piano. Soon after his death, Massenet’s style went out of fashion, and many of his operas fell into almost total oblivion. Apart from Manon and Werther, his works were rarely performed. However, since the mid-1970s, many operas of his such as Thaïs and Esclarmonde have undergone periodic revivals.

The following works by Jules Massenet are included in my collection:

Cendrillon (1899): Suite.
Esclarmonde (1890): Suite.
Manon: A Dispar Vision.
Suite No. 1, op. 13 (1865).
Thais: Meditation.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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