Jules Massenet
(1842-1912)

Jules Émile Frédéric Massenet was a French composer best known for his operas. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest melodists of his time. Soon after he died, there was a shift in music and his writings were virtually ignored or forgotten, however, his works have been rediscovered and appreciated thanks to large revivals beginning in the 1970s.

Massenet was born in Montaud, but moved with his family to Paris when he was six due to his father’s poor health. In Paris, his mother began teaching piano lessons to children, including Jules. He was so well-taught and talented that he entered the Paris Conservatory when he was just eleven years old. He became a timpanist at a local theater and a café pianist to support himself through school.

Though he was what would be considered an “average” student without a confident prediction of success from his teachers, Massenet surprised them all when he won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1862. Upon winning, he spent the next three years in Italy, and met Franz Liszt, who requested that he begin to teach piano lessons.

Massenet’s first opera, performed in one-act, premiered in 1867, and he began to earn a reputation around the area. Eventually, over the years, he began to earn respect and praise from artists such as Tchaikovsky, d’Indy, and Gounod. Because he was surrounded by fame and publicity, Massenet was largely successful in procuring commissions and becoming well-known in social circles. Aside from his operas, he composed several oratorios, cantatas, and concert suites, as well as ballet music.

Taking a short break from composing to serve as a soldier in the Franco-Prussian War, Massenet resumed his craft once the war ended in 1871. He began working at the conservatory as a professor, where students included Andre Bloch, Georges Enesco, and Gustave Charpentier. The majority of his famous works were written during this time (Manon in 1884, Werther in 1892, and Thais in 1894). Interestingly enough, Massenet avoided all public performances and rehearsals of his works as much as possible. He preferred to be informed of the reception of his works by others instead of attending them personally. There is only one known recording by Massenet, accompanying a soprano on the piano during a scene from Sapho. It can be found in the Historical Sound Recordings collection of Yale University.

After suffering from a long battle with cancer, Massenet died in Paris at the age of 70.

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