Cycle
Massenet, a must!

Fri 25 November - 19.30
Concert Opera Paris

Hérodiade

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Sun 29 January - 19.00
Concert Opera Munich

Ariane

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Wed 22 February - 19.30
Concert Opera Budapest

Werther

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Fri 2 June - 20.00
Concert Opera Montpellier

Grisélidis

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Obvious though it may seem, it is easy to forget that, both as a composer and as a teacher, Jules Massenet (1842-1912) had a profound influence on French music.

Rather reserved by nature and not one to engage in polemics in the media arena, Jules Massenet does not immediately stand out as a pioneer in the field of music or as a theorist of operatic reform. The sign of a certain wisdom, a decision to focus his efforts on composition, the composer’s moderation may also be explained by the fact that he attained key positions in French musical life at quite an early age. There was no point in criticising his contemporaries when he held the most prestigious positions – professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire and member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts at the age of thirty-six – and when his works were internationally successful. To understand Massenet’s aesthetics, we only have to listen to his works and those of his students. Taking care to avoid repetition by varying his choice of subject – fantasy, fairy-tale, classical myth, the medieval, the exotic, and so on – he constantly provided the major European stages with ambitious works. He also trained a generation of artists who were long to remain grateful to him: Gabriel Pierné, Xavier Leroux, Gustave Charpentier, Augustin Savard, the brothers Paul and Lucien Hillemacher, Alfred Bruneau, Paul Vidal, Reynaldo Hahn, Henry Février and Florent Schmitt were among the many artists who took their master’s vision into the heart of the twentieth century.
That is the only naturalness, the naturalness of someone who has grace and singularity, the naturalness of Massenet’s music and Musset’s prose and his stories in verse.

Marcel Proust, 1912

The high road
Massenet came from a relatively privileged background and his conscientiousness in his studies stood him in good stead. He received his first piano lessons from his mother and entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1853. He was awarded the premier prix for piano at the age of seventeen, went on to study in the music theory class, and embarked on a career as a virtuoso concert pianist, while acting as supernumerary timpanist at the Théâtre-Lyrique. In 1863 he was awarded the premier prix for counterpoint and fugue, and the same year, studying composition with Ambroise Thomas, he won the Conservatoire’s top musical honour, the Prix de Rome. On his return from the three statutory years at the Villa Medici, he was commissioned to write his first opéra-comique (La Grand’ Tante), but he did not immediately devote himself exclusively to opera. During the 1870s, he was a founding member of the Société Nationale de Musique (which promoted French music and enabled rising composers to present their works in public), and there he distinguished himself both as a composer and as an accompanying pianist. He also showed an interest in the composition of orchestral works and hybrid forms; in 1873 he composed the oratorio ('drame sacré') Marie-Magdeleine and the incidental music to Leconte de Lisle’s verse drama Les Érinnyes (1873); another oratorio (this time entitled 'mystère'), Ève, followed in 1875. The success of Le Roi de Lahore at the Paris Opéra in 1877 made him the leading composer of opera in France, and the following year he attained the highest of academic honours when, on the death of François Bazin, he was appointed to take his seat at the Académie des Beaux-Arts (one of the academies of the Institut de France). He was only thirty-six years old. France, then in search of new heroes capable of countering Wagner’s influence on European music, naturally turned to Massenet.

A successful teacher
In the year of his election to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Massenet also joined the Paris Conservatoire as professor of composition, again replacing François Bazin. Ambroise Thomas, who had been his teacher, was by then the director of the Paris Conservatoire and he proved innovative in his running of the institution. Classes in music history (1871) and orchestration (1873) were introduced, and the concerts known as 'exercices publics', giving students exposure to the real world of public performance, once again became important events in the Parisian calendar. To this policy of opening up the establishment to the contemporary artistic world, Massenet contributed his expertise as a successful composer. His pupils witnessed the triumph of Hérodiade (1881), Manon (1884) and Werther (1892). And as a teacher he passed on his success; indeed, most of the winners of the Prix de Rome were students of his: Lucien Hillemacher, Georges Marty, Paul Vidal, Xavier Leroux, Augustin Savard, Gustave Charpentier, Charles Silver, André Bloch, Henri Rabaud, Max d’Ollone, Florent Schmitt, to which prestigious list may be added the names of Alfred Bruneau, Reynaldo Hahn and Raoul Laparra, for whom Massenet’s teaching was extended to include guidance on how to achieve success on the capital’s opera stages. On the death of Ambroise Thomas in 1896, Massenet was offered the directorship, but he decided to turn away from the Conservatoire. 'Free at last and forever rid of [his] chains' (Mes Souvenirs), henceforth he was able to devote himself entirely to composing for the theatre.
1863
'Prix de Rome' and awarded the premier prix for counterpoint and fugue
1877
Le Roi de Lahore
1878
member of the Académie des beaux-arts (36 years old)
1881
Hérodiade
1892
Werther
Reinventing himself with each new opera
Eclecticism seems to have been the watchword for Jules Massenet’s style, applying to each individual work – in which contrast and diversity are paramount – and to his catalogue as a whole. His subjects span history, from Antiquity to modern times, may be set in France or in exotic lands, and they approach in turn tragedy, naturalistic drama, farce and fantasy. He was not afraid to tackle mythology, as in Ariane or Bacchus, or the great literary texts: Le Cid after Corneille, Werther (Goethe), Don Quichotte (Cervantes), Panurge (Rabelais) or Cendrillon (Perrault). He established a personal style very early on, but did not confine himself to a particular manner; instead, he constantly adapted his music to fit the story it was intended to serve. Strong themes nevertheless emerge from his abundant and varied operatic production: a constantly renewed interest in female characters, for whom he composed his most beautiful pieces, and a marked preoccupation with death, reflected in the particular care he took over the deaths of his protagonists. Between sensuality and melancholy, Massenet followed the paths that lead to the sublime, but without venturing outside the conventions of his time: eager to please audiences, he did not attempt to revolutionise musical expression, even after the bold steps taken by Debussy in the early twentieth century. He steered a steady course, always aiming for natural expression.

Massenet and the salons
Positions in Parisian musical life came at a premium: in order to obtain a position of prestige or gain access to the opera stage, it was generally essential to have the support of influential personalities, members of high society, people in positions of power. Under the Third Republic, such patrons still played an important part in defining aesthetic trends and choosing which composers were to be favoured. However, Jules Massenet’s faultless academic record, his early successes and the support he received from Ambroise Thomas meant that he did not need to seek the favour of the Parisian salons in order to obtain recognition. He began to approach that milieu only after his retirement following the death of Ambroise Thomas. His contribution to the intimate repertoire of those music venues was twofold: mélodies and character pieces for piano. As early as the 1860s he had explored these genres with short Improvisations or Berceuses for keyboard and, inspired by the Germanic model, thematic song cycles, including amongst others Poèmes d’avril, Poème du souvenir and Poème pastoral. But the turn of the century saw an intensification of his contribution those fields with, on the one hand, a Toccata and a Valse folle, both of which enjoyed great popularity, and on the other hand, a new look at prosody with his Expressions lyriques: avec déclamation rythmée.

Programme

Sun 17
July
21.30
Concert Symphonic Music Cour d’honneur du Palais Princier

Commemoration of the centenary of the death of Prince Albert I of Monaco

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Thu 22
September
18.00
Sat 1
October
19.30
Concert Mélodie Scuola Grande San Giovanni Evangelista

From salon to the stage

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Sun 2
October
17.00
Concert Palazzetto Bru Zane

Black and white butterflies

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Tue 4
October
18.00
Lecture Palazzetto Bru Zane

Il mondo romantico di Jules Massenet

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Thu 13
October
19.30
Concert Mélodie Palazzetto Bru Zane

From sketch to jewel

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Tue 18
October
19.30
Concert Palazzetto Bru Zane

Three’s company

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Tue 25
October
19.30
Concert Palazzetto Bru Zane

The melodious violin

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Fri 28
October
19.30
Concert Palazzetto Bru Zane

A piano grand tour

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Wed 23
November
20.00
Concert Opera Auditorium de Lyon

Hérodiade

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Fri 25
November
19.30
Concert Opera Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

Hérodiade

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Tue 10
January
20.00
Concert Symphonic Music Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

Les Siècles 20 years on

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Sun 29
January
19.00
Concert Opera Prinzregententheater

Ariane

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Wed 22
February
19.30
Concert Opera Müpa

Werther

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Fri 2
June
20.00
Concert Opera Opéra Berlioz

Grisélidis

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Sat 3
June
19.30
Concert Opera Liszt Ferenc Academy of music

Opera in Massenet’s time

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Tue 4
July
19.30
Concert Opera Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

Grisélidis

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Bru Zane Mediabase
Digital resources for French Romantic music
Jules Massenet