For my final post on the history behind the stunning opera, Werther, and our new and innovative production, Les Lettres de Werther, I would like to take you on a journey through the life of the composer, Jules Massenet! I have to say, it was difficult to track down reliable information about Monsieur Massenet and the more I read, it became clearer as to why. Massenet was just a good guy. He wasn’t surrounded by controversy. He didn’t suffer through poverty. And he just sort of kept to himself. He was just a good dude who wrote sublime music.
So, just to give you the sort of key points, I’ll start from the very beginning (a very good place to start).
- Born on May 12th, 1842, into a commercial family in the provinces of France
- Followed a very typical progression for French composers at the time and entered the Paris Conservatoire at at 10, where he studied piano and solfege
- Later moved to Italy where he won the Prix de Rome (1863) for his cantata David Rizzio
- While in Italy, he met his soon-to-be-wife, Louise-Constance “Ninon” de Gressy. They were married in 1866, and their only child, Juliette, was born in 1868
- His first opera, Le Grand’ Tante, premiered in 1867
- Not particularly well-received; one reviewer said Massenet was better suited to be a symphonist. But this speaks to his compositional style of “sweeping and sensuous melodies” and almost Wagnerian instrumentation, at times.
- When the Franco-Prussian (or Franco-German) war broke out in 1870, Massenet served in the National Guard
- Following the war, Massenet’s career moved forward, but not strictly opera
- Le Roi de Lahore- opera- written in 1877. Explores a very popular theme of opera at the time; religion and romantic love.
- Incidental music is gaining more popularity
- He also gained his seat at the Paris Conservatoire at this time, where he taught other well-known composers like Reynaldo Hahn and Marc-Antoine Charpentier. He stayed at the Conservatoire for over 18 years.
- Hériodiade premiered in 1879- a less controversial operatic version of the story of Salome and John the Baptist
- March of 1882- Massenet began work on one of his most successful and well-known operas, Manon. It was originally written as an opéra- comique (which, is a false cognate, this does NOT mean comic opera; it is an opera with spoken dialogue and arias)
- The success of Manon gave Massenet the financial freedom to compose without restraint.
- Manon, “confirmed Massenet’s now unchallenged position as the leading opera composer of his generation”
- Le Cid (written in 1884, premiered in 1885)- a grand opera based on the “tragicomendy” by Pierre Corneille
- In 1885, Massenet began work on Werther, the opera on which we are truly focused.
- Interestingly, Massenet actually traveled to Wetzlar, where Goethe had conceived The Sorrows of Young Werther
- While he didn’t compose exclusively in Wetzlar, it did provide a tremendous amount of inspiration and the push that Massenet needed to complete the opera
- Werther received its premier in Vienna in 1892
- It was first turned down by the Opéra-Comique because they preferred not to stage tragedies
- Esclarmonde was Massenet’s next endeavor. The title role in this was composed with 22-year old American soprano, Sybil Sanderson, in mind.
- Massenet composed a few operas for Miss Sanderson
- This was perhaps his most “Wagnerian” work
- Amadis was his next opera but this was not premiered until almost 10 years after he died.
- Le Mage premiered in 1891 and was similar to Aida in plot
- contained large crowd scenes and ballet
- one of his least successful operas
- After traveling to Vienna for the premier of Werther, Massenet found his inspiration for his next opera in Anatole France’s sensational Thaïs
- Thaïs is again focused on religion and romantic love, following the story of a priest who falls for a prostitute. Had its premier in 1894 with Sybil Sanderson singing the title role
- His compositional output was incredible during this time. Le Portrait de Manon premiered in May, two months after Thaïs, followed by La Navarraise in June. And, both Grisélidis and Cendrillon were completed by the end of 1895.
- In 1896, the head of the Paris Conservatoire passed away, prompting Massenet to leave his post.
- The Grove Encyclopedia had this to say of Massenet’s style and resistance to change:
- “Although he had absorbed the Wagnerian ethos as far as he felt it to be useful, he was untouched by new trends emergine in the 1890s from Russia, Vienna, and on his very doorstep in PAris. Few would have expected him to change direction as he approached the age of 60, nor did he.”
- Sadly, Massenet struggled and lost his battle to abdominal cancer on August 13th, 1912. He was 70 years old.
From my readings, Massenet was often criticized for being overly-sentimental or unimaginative. But if you examine the time in which his career was at it’s apex and when he began to slow down from a compositional standpoint, he was fairly innovative for his day. And, like any respectable musician, he had a style and stuck to it. I mean, I can’t be mad about that. I hate it when I listen to the debut album of a band and love it and then the come out with something completely different for their follow-up. Can anyone say “sell out”?!
Massenet wrote over 30 operas in his 70 years, not to mention, a wealth of instrumental music and song. He, “lacked all trace of abrasiveness or aggression that we have come to expect from great composers” and wasn’t, “dishonest, nor scheming nor grasping”. Because of his great success, he was widely envied which might explain why many accused him of being “unadventurous”; they were most likely just jealous of his success. Debussy once said in La Revue blanche,
“…It is well-known how his music is vibrant with fleeting sensations, little bursts of feeling and embraces that we wish would last forever. The harmonies are like the arms, the melodies like the napes of necks. We gaze into the ladies’ eyes, dying to know their thoughts…” (The Faber Book of Opera, 348)
He was known to rise early, saying, “save your mornings for composing or orchestration without waiting for inspiration.” He would complete incredible amounts of work very quickly; the orchestration for La Navarraise, for example, was completed in 9 days… and was 257 pages in length. And for such a high volume of work, his scores are apparently remarkably neat and almost diary-like, with notes about the daily events or weather often scribbled in the margins.
Massenet was a simple man with a good heart. He hated public speaking and never regarded himself a writer unless it came to his colleagues and family. In fact, it has been noted that he would only give speeches when called to deliver funeral eulogies for his loved ones. While mildly morbid and depressing, it just shows what a stand up guy he was.
I will leave you with this quote from the Grove Encyclopedia:
“Few would challenge the claim of Werther to be Massenet’s masterpiece, a work in which intense personal feeling is expressed in a modern chromatic language, touching on the sentimental at times, and crafted with immense skill…The orchestration is masterly… and the harmonic style is intensely powerful…”
Les Lettres de Werther is a beautiful distillation of an opera that is arguably Massenet’s greatest work. This incredibly rich and poignant amalgamation of The Sorrows of Young Werther and Massnet’s music make for an intoxicating and thrilling opera. This is opera at it’s best. Do not miss it.