Massenet's birthplace in Montaud, photographed c. 1908
Massenet was born on 12 May 1842 at Montaud, then an outlying hamlet and now a part of the city of Saint-Étienne, in the Loire. He was the youngest of the four children of Alexis Massenet (1788–1863) and his second wife Eléonore-Adelaïde née Royer de Marancour (1809–1875); the elder children were Julie, Léon and Edmond.[n 2] Massenet senior was a prosperous ironmonger; his wife was a talented amateur musician who gave Jules his first piano lessons. By early 1848 the family had moved to Paris, where they settled in a flat in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Massenet was educated at the Lycée Saint-Louis and, from either 1851 or 1853, the Paris Conservatoire. According to his colourful but unreliable memoirs, Massenet auditioned in October 1851, when he was nine, before a judging panel comprising Daniel Auber, Fromental Halévy, Ambroise Thomas and Michele Carafa, and was admitted at once. His biographer Demar Irvine dates the audition and admission as January 1853. Both sources agree that Massenet continued his general education at the lycée in tandem with his musical studies.
Massenet in the early 1860s
At the Conservatoire Massenet studied solfège with Augustin Savard and the piano with François Laurent. He pursued his studies, with modest distinction, until the beginning of 1855, when family concerns disrupted his education. Alexis Massenet's health was poor, and on medical advice he moved from Paris to Chambéry in the south of France; the family, including Massenet, moved with him. Again, Massenet's own memoirs and the researches of his biographers are at variance: the composer recalled his exile in Chambéry as lasting for two years; Henry Finck and Irvine record that the young man returned to Paris and the Conservatoire in October 1855. On his return he lodged with relations in Montmartre and resumed his studies; by 1859 he had progressed so far as to win the Conservatoire's top prize for pianists. The family's finances were no longer comfortable, and to support himself Massenet took private piano students and played as a percussionist in theatre orchestras. His work in the orchestra pit gave him a good working knowledge of the operas of Gounod and other composers, classic and contemporary. Traditionally, many students at the Conservatoire went on to substantial careers as church organists; with that in mind Massenet enrolled for organ classes, but they were not a success and he quickly abandoned the instrument. He gained some work as a piano accompanist, in the course of which he met Wagner who, along with Berlioz, was one of his two musical heroes.[n 3]
In 1861 Massenet's music was published for the first time, the Grande Fantasie de Concert sur le Pardon de Ploërmel de Meyerbeer , a virtuoso piano work in nine sections. Having graduated to the composition class under Ambroise Thomas, Massenet was entered for the Conservatoire's top musical honour, the Prix de Rome, previous winners of which included Berlioz, Thomas, Gounod and Bizet. The first two of these were on the judging panel for the 1863 competition.[n 4] All the competitors had to set the same text by Gustave Chouquet, a cantata about David Rizzio; after all the settings had been performed Massenet came face to face with the judges. He recalled:
Ambroise Thomas, my beloved master, came towards me and said, "Embrace Berlioz, you owe him a great deal for your prize." "The prize," I cried, bewildered, my face shining with joy. "I have the prize!!!" I was deeply moved and I embraced Berlioz, then my master, and finally Monsieur Auber. Monsieur Auber comforted me. Did I need comforting? Then he said to Berlioz pointing to me, "He'll go far, the young rascal, when he's had less experience!"[n 5]
The prize brought a well-subsidised three-year period of study, two-thirds of which was spent at the French Academy in Rome, based at the Villa Medici. At that time the academy was dominated by painters rather than musicians; Massenet enjoyed his time there, and made lifelong friendships with, among others, the sculptor Alexandre Falguière and the painter Carolus-Duran, but the musical benefit he derived was largely self-taught. He absorbed the music at St Peter's, and closely studied the works of the great German masters, from Handel and Bach to contemporary composers. During his time in Rome, Massenet met Franz Liszt, at whose request he gave piano lessons to Louise-Constance "Ninon" de Gressy, the daughter of one of Liszt's rich patrons. Massenet and Ninon fell in love, but marriage was out of the question while he was a student with modest means.
Massenet returned to Paris in 1866. He made a living by teaching the piano and publishing songs, piano pieces and orchestral suites, all in the popular style of the day. Prix de Rome winners were sometimes invited by the Opéra-Comique in Paris to compose a work for performance there. At Thomas's instigation, Massenet was commissioned to write a one-act opéra comique, La grand'tante, presented in April 1867. At around the same time he composed a Requiem, which has not survived. In 1868 he met Georges Hartmann, who became his publisher and was his mentor for twenty-five years; Hartmann's journalistic contacts did much to promote his protégé's reputation.[n 6]
In October 1866 Massenet and Ninon were married; their only child, Juliette, was born in 1868. Massenet's musical career was briefly interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, during which he served as a volunteer in the National Guard alongside his friend Bizet. He found the war so "utterly terrible" that he refused to write about it in his memoirs. He and his family were trapped in the Siege of Paris but managed to get out before the Paris Commune began; the family stayed for some months in Bayonne, in southwestern France.
After order was restored, Massenet returned to Paris where he completed his first large-scale stage work, an opéra comique in four acts, Don César de Bazan (Paris, 1872). It was a failure, but in 1873 he succeeded with his incidental music to Leconte de Lisle's tragedy Les Érinnyes and with the dramatic oratorio, Marie-Magdeleine, both of which were performed at the Théâtre de l'Odéon. His reputation as a composer was growing, but at this stage he earned most of his income from teaching, giving lessons for six hours a day.
Massenet was a prolific composer; he put this down to his way of working, rising early and composing from four o'clock in the morning until midday, a practice he maintained all his life. In general he worked fluently, seldom revising, although Le roi de Lahore, his nearest approach to a traditional grand opera, took him several years to complete to his own satisfaction. It was finished in 1877 and was one of the first new works to be staged at the Palais Garnier, opened two years previously. The opera, with a story taken from the Mahabharata, was a success and was quickly taken up by the opera houses of eight Italian cities. It was also performed at the Hungarian State Opera House, the Bavarian State Opera, the Semperoper in Dresden, the Teatro Real in Madrid, and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London. After the first Covent Garden performance, The Times summed the piece up in a way that was frequently to be applied to the composer's operas: "M. Massenet's opera, although not a work of genius proper, is one of more than common merit, and contains all the elements of at least temporary success."
This period was an early high point in Massenet's career. He had been made a chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1876, and in 1878 he was appointed professor of counterpoint, fugue and composition at the Conservatoire under Thomas, who was now the director.[n 7] In the same year he was elected to the Institut de France, a prestigious honour, rare for a man in his thirties. Camille Saint-Saëns, whom Massenet beat in the election for the vacancy, was resentful at being passed over for a younger composer. When the result of the election was announced, Massenet sent Saint-Saëns a courteous telegram: "My dear colleague: the Institut has just committed a great injustice". Saint-Saëns cabled back, "I quite agree." He was elected three years later, but his relations with Massenet remained cool.
Massenet was a popular and respected teacher at the Conservatoire. His pupils included Bruneau, Charpentier, Chausson, Hahn, Leroux, Pierné, Rabaud and Vidal. He was known for the care he took in drawing out his pupils' ideas, never trying to impose his own.[n 8] One of his last students, Charles Koechlin, recalled Massenet as a voluble professor, dispensing "a teaching active, living, vibrant, and moreover comprehensive". According to some writers, Massenet's influence extended beyond his own students. In the view of the critic Rodney Milnes, "In word-setting alone, all French musicians profited from the freedom he won from earlier restrictions." Romain Rolland and Francis Poulenc have both considered Massenet an influence on Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande; Debussy was a student at the Conservatoire during Massenet's professorship but did not study under him.[n 9]
Operatic successes and failures, 1879–96
Massenet's growing reputation did not prevent a contretemps with the Paris Opéra in 1879. Auguste Vaucorbeil, director of the Opéra, refused to stage the composer's new piece, Hérodiade, judging the libretto either improper or inadequate.[n 10] Édouard-Fortuné Calabresi, joint director of the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels, immediately offered to present the work, and its première, lavishly staged, was given in December 1881. It ran for fifty-five performances in Brussels, and had its Italian premiere two months later at La Scala. The work finally reached Paris in February 1884, by which time Massenet had established himself as the leading French opera composer of his generation.
"M. Massenet's bland pâtisserie and Mlle. Sanderson's sugar-candy notes" baked in "the National Musical Oven". Caricature from La Silhouette
, March 1894.
Manon, first given at the Opéra-Comique in January 1884, was a prodigious success and was followed by productions at major opera houses in Europe and the United States. Together with Gounod's Faust and Bizet's Carmen it became, and has remained, one of the cornerstones of the French operatic repertoire. After the intimate drama of Manon, Massenet once more turned to opera on the grand scale with Le Cid in 1885, which marked his return to the Opéra. The Paris correspondent of The New York Times wrote that with this new work Massenet "has resolutely declared himself a melodist of undoubted consistency and of remarkable inspiration." After these two triumphs, Massenet entered a period of mixed fortunes. He worked on Werther intermittently for several years, but it was rejected by the Opéra-Comique as too gloomy.[n 11] In 1887 he met the American soprano Sibyl Sanderson. He developed passionate feelings for her, which remained platonic, although it was widely believed in Paris that she was his mistress, as caricatures in the journals hinted with varying degrees of subtlety. For her, the composer revised Manon and wrote Esclarmonde (1889). The latter was a success, but it was followed by Le mage (1891), which failed. Massenet did not complete his next project, Amadis, and it was not until 1892 that he recovered his earlier successful form. Werther received its first performance in February 1892, when the Vienna Hofoper asked for a new piece, following the enthusiastic reception of the Austrian premiere of Manon.
Poster for the first French production of Werther
Though in the view of some writers Werther is the composer's masterpiece, it was not immediately taken up with the same keenness as Manon. The first performance in Paris was in January 1893 by the Opéra-Comique company at the Théâtre Lyrique, and there were performances in the United States, Italy and Britain, but it met with a muted response. The New York Times said of it, "If M. Massenet's opera does not have lasting success it will be because it has no genuine depth. Perhaps M. Massenet is not capable of achieving profound depths of tragic passion; but certainly he will never do so in a work like Werther". It was not until a revival by the Opéra-Comique in 1903 that the work became an established favourite.
Thaïs (1894), composed for Sanderson, was moderately received. Like Werther, it did not gain widespread popularity among French opera-goers until its first revival, which was four years after the premiere, by when the composer's association with Sanderson was over. In the same year he had a modest success in Paris with the one-act Le portrait de Manon at the Opéra-Comique, and a much greater one in London with La Navarraise at Covent Garden. The Times commented that in this piece Massenet had adopted the verismo style of such works as Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana to great effect. The audience clamoured for the composer to acknowledge the applause, but Massenet, always a shy man, declined to take even a single curtain call.
Later years, 1896–1912
The death of Ambroise Thomas in February 1896 made vacant the post of director of the Conservatoire. The French government announced on 6 May that Massenet had been offered the position and had refused it. The following day it was announced that another faculty member, Théodore Dubois, had been appointed director, and Massenet had resigned as professor of composition. Two explanations have been advanced for this sequence of events. Massenet wrote in 1910 that he had remained in post as professor out of loyalty to Thomas, and was eager to abandon all academic work in favour of composing, a statement repeated by his biographers Hugh Macdonald and Demar Irvine. Other writers on French music have written that Massenet was intensely ambitious to succeed Thomas, but resigned in pique after three months of manoeuvring, once the authorities finally rejected his insistence on being appointed director for life, as Thomas had been. He was succeeded as professor by Gabriel Fauré, who was doubtful of Massenet's credentials, considering his popular style to be "based on a generally cynical view of art".
With Grisélidis and Cendrillon complete, though still awaiting performance, Massenet began work on Sapho, based on a novel by Daudet about the love of an innocent young man from the country for a worldly-wise Parisienne. It was given at the Opéra-Comique in November 1897, with great success, though it has been neglected since the composer's death. His next work staged there was Cendrillon, his version of the Cinderella story, which was well received in May 1899.
Macdonald comments that at the start of the 20th century Massenet was in the enviable position of having his works included in every season of the Opéra and the Opéra-Comique, and in opera houses around the world. From 1900 to his death he led a life of steady work and, generally, success. According to his memoirs, he declined a second offer of the directorship of the Conservatoire in 1905.[n 12] Apart from composition, his main concern was his home life in the rue de Vaugirard, Paris, and at his country house in Égreville. He was uninterested in Parisian society, and so shunned the limelight that in later life he preferred not to attend his own first nights. He described himself as "a fireside man, a bourgeois artist". The main biographical detail of note of his latter years was his second amitié amoureuse with one of his leading ladies, Lucy Arbell, who created roles in his last operas.[n 13] Milnes describes Arbell as "gold-digging": her blatant exploitation of the composer's honourable affections caused his wife considerable distress and even strained Massenet's devotion (or infatuation as Milnes characterises it). After the composer's death Arbell pursued his widow and publishers through the law courts, seeking to secure herself a monopoly of the leading roles in several of his late operas.
A rare excursion from the opera house came in 1903 with Massenet's only piano concerto, on which he had begun work while still a student. The work was performed by Louis Diémer at the Conservatoire, but made little impression compared with his operas. In 1905 Massenet composed Chérubin, a light comedy about the later career of the sex-mad pageboy Cherubino from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Then came two serious operas, Ariane, on the Greek legend of Theseus and Ariadne, and Thérèse, a terse drama set in the French Revolution. His last major success was Don Quichotte (1910), which L'Etoile called "a very Parisian evening and, naturally, a very Parisian triumph".[n 14] Even with his creative powers seemingly in decline he wrote four other operas in his later years – Bacchus, Roma, Panurge and Cléopâtre. The last two, like Amadis, which he had been unable to finish in the 1890s, were premiered after the composer's death and then lapsed into oblivion.
In August 1912 Massenet went to Paris from his house at Égreville to see his doctor. The composer had been suffering from abdominal cancer for some months, but his symptoms did not seem imminently life-threatening. Within a few days his condition deteriorated sharply. His wife and family hastened to Paris, and were with him when he died, aged seventy. By his own wish his funeral, with no music, was held privately at Égreville, where he is buried in the churchyard.