Portrait de Jules Massenet (1912)
Portrait de Jules Massenet (1912) © Getty

10 (little) you (perhaps) do not know about Jules Massenet

Who says Jules Massenet says Thaïs, sure. But Jules Massenet is also (and first of all) a great figure of the opera like Werther or Manon are. Let’s have a look at the life of this composer who conquered the musical scene at the end of the 19th century.

Pianist, timbal player, composer… Jules Massenet (1842-1912) always lived in a musical environment. Even if he started his career as in instrumentalist, he finally turned to writing. He was especially interested by the lyrical art and focused on that genre from 1859 with an operetta, now lost, Les Deux Boursiers. His production however counts no less than 25 operas!

Supported by his mentor Ambroise Thomas and by his editor, the petulant Georges Hartmann (he opened his publishing house with Massenet’s Poems), the composer became one of the French music’s major figures at the beginning of the 20th century, alongside Camille Saint-Saëns, Edouard Lalo and Georges Bizet.

Between hammers and rifles: what a thunderous beginning

No, Massenet didn’t have 21 brothers and sisters as it was often written: he is the last one of “only” 12 siblings. The young Jules was born in 1842 in La Terrasse near Saint Etienne. In theory, nothing would push him towards a career as a musician: his father is a blacksmith master and most of his brothers decided to turn to sciences or military. As he confessed himself to the Scribner’s Magazine in 1893: “I was born surrounded by the heavy sounds of bronze hammers, as the antique poet said. Here is a very little musical start”.

It was without accounting for her mother Adélaïde. Painter and musician, she taught piano as soon as the Massenets moved to Paris in 1847 to provide for her family. Her favorite student was no other than her youngest child, Jules. Their sessions began during the French Revolution of 1848, the day king Louis-Philippe abdicated. Jules Massenet told to the same Scribner’s Magazine that the first lesson had barely started when they heard violent gunshots.

“If my entrance into this world was loudly escorted by the hammers of a factory, my first try in the career I would choose was not more musical!”

Except for Jules, only his sister Julie and his brother Léon have a taste for the arts. The first one is interested in painting and the second one, close to the writer Jules Vallès, in literature.

Prodigy and hard worker 

At the age of ten, the young boy joined the Paris Conservatoire. He couldn’t live without music anymore. Therefore, he was immensely disappointed when his family left Paris a year later for Chambéry, due to the father’s health problems. So much so that the young Jules would have tried to run away – without any success though – if we believe his biographer and distant relative Anne Massenet. Facing the growing melancholia of their son, Massenet’s parents finally yielded. The child went back to Paris a year later and stayed with his sister Julie.

Jules is a very demanding and diligent student, two qualities his mother taught him. Every morning at 9, he practiced on a piano in a workshop of Montmartre, hideout for his brother and Jules Vallès. “Precise like a clock”, “constant”, “grabbing his instrument at a fixed time”… Vallès was impressed with such a rigour in a child of 15 years old.

The practice paid off: the successes started to add up. In 1859, Jules won the first prize of Piano. Then he turned to composition and got the second prize in 1862 in counterpoint and fugue. Finally in 1863 he received the most envied Prix de Rome. He owed a big part of that success to his composition teacher Ambroise Thomas (author of the operas Hamlet and Mignon). The two men would stay very close until the death of the master.

A journey to Italy

At the time, winning the Prix de Rome was very often the first step towards a brilliant career. Massenet stayed at the prestigious Villa Medici for two years. This stay was an enchantment, and he would say to the Scribner’s Magazine: “I was not a musician anymore, I was so much more!” He felt the Villa Medici was “the dream that became reality”. Yet, his stay started in a strange way: left alone by the others residents, it seems he spent his first night in Rome by himself, lost among the Coliseum’s ruins.

Le Colisée à Rome en Italie vers 1880
Le Colisée à Rome en Italie vers 1880 © Getty

During this trip, Massenet traveled throughout Italy. He visited, among other places, Milan, Venice, Naples or Florence. But he was caught back by his work: every student at the Villa Medici has the obligation to send pieces composed in Rome, including one of a religious genre. Massenet had a hard time recovering his inspiration. He started without any conviction to write a Mass, which would finally be replaced by a requiem (lost today). He also wrote a symphony (the first one that would be played on stage in Paris), another symphonic series, Pompéïa, and a concert opening.

It is also in Rome that he met his future wife Louise-Constance de Gressy usually called “Ninon”, a brilliant pianist that Franz Liszt has recommended as a student.

Melancholic but quick

Massenet always had a tendency for sadness and it shows in some of the letters he wrote: “always sad about everything… Grey weather, been crying since last night”. According to his biographers, the composer didn’t handle solitude well. His wife and daughter often went on trips and he had to wait to receive answers to his letters.

In the biography he dedicated to his grandfather’s life, Pierre Bessand-Massenet wrote there was in Jules “two mismatched natures”. Among theses “two beings”, one was “full with Schubert, Schumann, Chopin”. This lyricism is especially clear in some of his first pieces like Poems (Poème d’avril; Poème du souvenir). He was indeed one of the first one in France to include melody, a musical genre following on the Lied.

Far from harming him, his lyricism inspired him one of his masterpieces, the opera Werther created in Vienna in 1892. Massenet covered a novel of Goethe The Sorrows of Young Werther that tells the unfortunate love story between a young romantic poet and his cousin Charlotte. Offered to the Opéra-Comique in 1887, the piece was rejected at first, considered “too sad”. And the scene of the hero’s suicide was confronted with the morality of the time.

Dreamy and tormented, Massenet was also quick and excited. The Tenor Guillaume Ibos told how he was directed by the composer who pushed the interpretation of the young Werther to its limits: “He was restless, he sang [...] he looked like a mad man crossing the stage from one side to the other”. 

Juliette, his only child

When his little Juliette was not by his side, Jules moped around. Born on the 31st of March 1868, she would be his only child.

When his relations with his wife started to deteriorate, his bond with his daughter grew stronger. Sometimes, when Ninon went away to travel, Juliette would stay in Paris with his father. The journals she kept between 1880 et 1885 show the affectionate connection they had: “I loved my father so much that I enjoyed more than anything the times we were only he and I, and I think he did too”.

But unlike her father, Juliette didn’t turn to music. She chose drawing instead. Her first booklet was called Théâtres et coulisses. Concert venues, repetitions, and clothes… she drew everything! However, despite all the love Massenet had for “his little monkey” (as he used to call her), he wrote to his wife that “Juliette won’t do anything in the future for she is not strong-minded enough”.

Prévost, Goethe, Hugo… Massenet and literature

Manon, Don Quichotte, Werther, Thaïs, Le Cid, Hérodiade… Many of Massenet’s operas are inspired by literary works. Carried away by his readings, the composer treated his subject in the most precise way. He annotated his books, “scribbled” with colors the sections he was interested in (according to Anne Massenet).

Among those books was Manon Lescaut by the abbot Prévost. He would have been so fascinated by the novel he went to The Hague in 1882 to the house where Prévost had written the book (at least he wanted to, according to his correspondence). He stayed hidden over there to compose his own Manon, including the famous scene between the heroine and the Chevalier Des Grieux at Saint-Sulpice.

One of his other inspirations was Notre-Dame de Paris. Unlike his adaptation of Prévost’s book, the one of Victor Hugo’s would never be created at the opera. Yet Massenet had started his drafts during his stay in Rome for a piece his thought of naming Esmeralda. He had been thinking about this project for twenty years but finally gave it up.

Sibyl Sanderson, his favorite opera singer

Sibyl Sanderson’s voice was (…) of an exceptional extent – covering three octaves and giving easily the counter G – and of a color and flexibility without equal” Pierre Bessand-Massenet dans Massenet.

Portrait de la soprano américaine Sibyl Sanderson
Portrait de la soprano américaine Sibyl Sanderson © Getty

Sibyl Sanderson was 22 when she met the master in 1886. That beautiful American with red hair would become his favorite performer. She created the parts of Esclarmonde (1889) and of Thaïs (1894). More importantly, the part of Manon owes her all of its charisma. Charmed by Massenet’s heroine, she often signed her letters “Your Manon”

Despite the rumors, no document can confirm that the composer and his singer had a love affair. The admiration they bear to one another was more likely of a platonic kind. Sibyl Sanderson died on 1903, at the age of only 38 years old.

He gave lessons early in the morning

Massenet taught composition from 1878 until 1896. Great names came out of his classroom, such as the composers Reynaldo Hahn, Ernest Chausson or Gabriel Pierné, all winners of the Prix de Rome. Simple, endearing, always in a good mood… All kept a positive image of their teacher. One of his students, the composer and music critic Fernand Le Borne, told that the Master summoned his favorite students to his home on Sunday mornings, at 7am sharp, to have a look at their work and give them advice.

Another student, the composer and orchestra conductor Alfred Bruneau, confessed that Massenet slept very little. “As soon as he woke up, before dawn, he left his bed to pick up his ongoing work and I would find him at his desk”. This desk was a bit peculiar for as drawers, Werther’s author had built a piano keyboard!

Massenet did not only teach music. His protégés must also have an interest in the other forms of art, enrich their knowledge. “Travel, read, see works of art, all of this is music as well!

Saddened by the death of his mentor Ambroise Thomas in 1896, he gave his resignation and refused to replace him as the Conservatoire director. Therefor it was Gabriel Fauré who took over his composition class.

Massenet and Saint-Saëns: friends or rivals?

Portrait de Camille Saint-Saëns
Portrait de Camille Saint-Saëns © Getty

They are seven years apart; Saint-Saëns is the eldest. Yet Massenet was the first one to be elected at the Institut de France at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1878. He got 18 votes when Saint-Saëns obtained 13, yet given as the favorite. The latter would join the Académie only three years later.

According to some people, this wound in Saint-Saëns’s pride would have cast a shadow over their relationship. This affirmation has to be taken with care though: the two men didn’t hesitate to congratulate each other when it was deserved. For example, in April 1894, Saint-Saëns much excited by Thaïs signed his letter with those words: “Thank you for those pleasures of art you gave me”, or about The Cid: “I can only think of one word: it is dazzling”.

On his side, Massenet sometimes asked his students to study Saint-Saëns’s pieces, like his opera Samson and Delilah.

Dark last years

Massenet had a personality both quick and melancholic, yes. But at the end of his life, the second aspect overrode the first one. In 1899, he moved to Egreville in Seine-et-Marne and spent there most of his summers. Massenet had lost his cheerfulness, as Reynaldo Hahn noticed. He appeared old and tired. He would have confessed to his old student: “I often find myself enjoying the resentments I created”.

Maison de Jules Massenet à Egreville, en Seine-et-Marne
Maison de Jules Massenet à Egreville, en Seine-et-Marne © Getty

The last years are characterized by an assembly-lined composition. Massenet persisted on working and multiplied the operas, writing one per year. Chérubin (1905), Ariane (1906), Thérèse (1907), Bacchus (1909), Don Quichotte (1910)… According to Pierre Bessand-Massenet, the composer was criticised for “starting to copy Massenet”, he was trying too hard. Even more, almost all of those pieces have disappeared from repertoires.

Jules Massenet died on the 13th of August 1912 subsequent to a digestive tracks cancer. A cypress was planted facing his grave, in the memory of his dear Italy.

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