Jules Massenet

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Jules Massenet (1842-1912)

French composer (b. 12 May 1842 [N.S.] at Montaud; d. 13 August 1912 [N.S.] in Paris), born Jules Émile Frédéric Massenet.


Jules's family moved to Paris when the boy was six years old, and his mother started giving piano lessons as an extra source of income. She was also her son's first teacher until he enrolled at the Conservatoire in 1853, where he studied in the class of Ambroise Thomas. In 1863, Massenet won the Prix de Rome with his cantata David Rizzio, enabling him to spend three years in Italy where he met Liszt. After returning to Paris, several years of hardship followed until he achieved success with his comic opera Don César de Bazan (1872). Massenet's career was given an important boost the following year when Pauline Viardot sang the title role at the premiere of his oratorio Marie-Magdeleine (it was her last public performance). In 1878, he became professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire and was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. The most prolific and successful French opera composer of the day, Massenet is now best remembered for Hérodiade (1881), Manon (1884), Werther (1892), and Thaïs (1894). Massenet's melodic elegance was sometimes dismissed by younger French musicians and critics as a striving to please everyone, but Claude Debussy, in particular, paid tribute to his skill and charm.

Tchaikovsky and Massenet

Tchaikovsky thought very highly of Massenet, even if he did not quite place him in the same league as Bizet or even Delibes. In December 1878, he bought a copy of the score of Le Roi de Lahore at one of Ricordi's music shops in Florence [1], and was immediately captivated by the fresh charm of this 'oriental' opera, as the letters quoted further down clearly show. Nadezhda von Meck, in contrast, disliked Massenet's music and when Debussy was engaged as a pianist and music teacher at her household during three summers (1880–82), she would often write ironically in her letters to Tchaikovsky about the young man's admiration for Massenet. But this did not discourage Tchaikovsky from familiarizing himself with further works by his French contemporary, and in July 1880, while staying at Simaki, he studied the score and libretto of Massenet's oratorio Marie-Magdeleine. Tchaikovsky's enthusiastic response to this 'sacred drama' is also reflected in the letter extracts given below and it is very interesting for what it reveals about his religious feelings. As he himself admitted, the duet between Christ and Mary Magdalene inspired the melody of his song Softly the Spirit Flew up to Heaven — No. 2 of the Seven Romances, Op. 47 — which he was composing that summer.

At the funeral service for Nikolay Rubinstein in the Russian Orthodox Church in Paris on 26 March 1881 [N.S.], Tchaikovsky noted that Massenet was amongst the outstanding representatives of the French musical world who had also come to pay their last respects to the great pianist and teacher (see Tchaikovsky's letter-article TH 315). Tchaikovsky was not yet personally acquainted with Massenet, but over the following years he continued to show great interest in the Frenchman's works. Thus, in May 1882, he played through the score of the opera Hérodiade in Kamenka and did so again in April 1884 [2]. Hearing one of the first performances of Manon shortly after its premiere in Paris on 19 January 1884 [N.S.] proved, however, to be a disappointment for Tchaikovsky, who seems to have been put off by the opera's cloying melodies and lack of vitality. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1886 at Maydanovo he made another attempt to appreciate the music of Manon on the basis of the vocal-piano reduction, but, as his diary entries show, he eventually found it "nauseating". Interestingly, he also recorded in his diary how he was alarmed that "in all this sickliness I can feel something that is akin to me". Later that year he would play through the score of Le Cid, but this work merely served to confirm his misgivings that Massenet had run out of inspiration.

In February–March 1888, Tchaikovsky conducted three concerts in Paris as part of his first conducting tour to Western Europe. Although he met several leading French musicians and composers on that occasion (including Gounod and Delibes), it is not quite clear whether he actually made the acquaintance of Massenet, too. A brief diary entry for 23 February/6 March 1888 reads: "At Massenet's" [3], but in fact the latter wasn't at home that day and Tchaikovsky had just left his visiting card [4]. Massenet referred to this in a letter which he sent to a friend on 11 March [N.S.], asking him to forward his own visiting card to the hotel where the Russian composer was staying: "Tchaikovsky came to see me [when I wasn't in] and left me a delightful note" [5]. It is possible that they did subsequently meet briefly before Tchaikovsky left Paris on 18 March 1888 [N.S.], though no record of this meeting seems to have survived . At any rate a diary entry made in Paris the following year, during Tchaikovsky's second European tour, suggests that this was in fact when they made each other's acquaintance: "Soirée at Colonne's house. Stuffy air. My songs. Acquaintance with Massenet" [6]. A few days later, on 31 March 1889 [N.S.], Massenet attended the concert conducted by Édouard Colonne at the Théâtre Châtelet which featured, amongst works by other composers, the Tema con variazioni from Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 3. The success of this piece was proudly recorded by Tchaikovsky in his diary, which also has the brief observation: "Massenet's enthusiasm" [7].

One of Tchaikovsky's missions during his second tour of Western Europe in the spring of 1889 was to enlist various leading European musicians and composers to come to Russia for the 1889–90 season and conduct concerts of the Russian Musical Society's branch in Moscow, which had been deprived of its principal conductor following Max Erdmannsdörfer's decision to return to Germany. Thus, in a letter to Pyotr Jurgenson from Dresden Tchaikovsky wrote: "As far as Klindworth and Dvořák are concerned, I shall find out very soon. I've received a letter from Massenet. He enthusiastically accepts our offer, but requests that the decision about the exact dates [he is to come to Russia] be postponed, since this depends on the fate of his new opera [Esclarmonde]" [8]. Tchaikovsky's first letter to Massenet inviting him to Moscow in the name of the Russian Musical Society has not come to light, nor has Massenet's evidently positive reply, but Tchaikovsky's second letter to his French colleague, written in Dresden in February 1889, is known from a brief extract published in an auction catalogue [9]. Tchaikovsky reported to Jurgenson again from Paris several weeks later: "I have seen Massenet several times; he is very flattered and glad to come to Russia. He still can't give an exact date, but would prefer to come in the spring [of 1890]" [10]. However, despite Tchaikovsky's repeated entreaties in a letter sent from Moscow later that year — a letter which, again, is known only from brief extracts published in that same auction catalogue — Massenet ultimately failed to keep his promise and did not conduct any concerts in Russia [11].

In October 1888, Louis Gallet, Massenet's librettist in Marie-Magdeleine and Le Cid, together with Léonce Détroyat, drew up a scenario for an opera in French based on Goethe's ballad Der Gott und die Bajadere. They offered this scenario to Tchaikovsky, who was very keen on the subject and for some months did indeed consider writing the projected opera: La Courtisane (or Sadia). Since the plan was that it would have its premiere at the Paris Opéra, Détroyat emphasized in a letter to Tchaikovsky that they had to avoid at all costs repeating such oriental-themed works as Auber's opera-ballet Le Dieu et la bayadère (1830) and Massenet's opera Le roi de Lahore (1877), which Parisian audiences were very familiar with [12]. One of Détroyat's suggestions as to how such originality might be achieved was for Tchaikovsky to use the songs of Russian gypsies, which had impressed him greatly during a visit to Russia. This Franco-Russian collaboration was never realised, though, since Tchaikovsky decided to take up the subject of The Queen of Spades instead.

On 26 November 1892 [N.S.], Tchaikovsky was elected a corresponding member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. His candidature had been proposed by the French composer and pianist Émile Paladilhe (1844–1926), who wrote to Tchaikovsky, informing him that the motion had been wholeheartedly supported by Ambroise Thomas, Gounod, Saint-Saëns, and Massenet [13]. This confirms the mutual respect which Massenet and Tchaikovsky felt for each other's music (albeit with considerable reservations on Tchaikovsky's part regarding the Frenchman's later works), but the two composers do not seem to have met again after 1889, since Tchaikovsky's subsequent visits to Paris in 1891, 1892, and 1893 were very brief.

General Reflections on Massenet

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

Massenet I rate lower than Bizet, Delibes, and even Saint-Saëns, but in his music, too, as with all contemporary French composers, one finds that element of freshness which the Germans lack.

I like Massenet's face very much, just as you do. There's something delicate, thorough-bred, nervous, and artistic about his expression, and all this combined together is very attractive. Lalo's face is full of bonhomie, but lacks charm.

  • Letter 1565 to Sergey Taneyev, 15/27 August–24 August/5 September 1880, in which Tchaikovsky attacks Taneyev's reflections on how European music was like a tree which had grown out of the melodies of each European country's folksongs and sacred chants, whereas Russian melodies were still like a seed which was only beginning to sprout:

With regard to your likening of music to a tree, allow me to tell you that (if I may continue to borrow analogies from the vegetable kingdom) I would compare European music not to a tree, but to a whole garden, in which one finds all these trees growing: a French one, a German one, an Italian one, a Hungarian one, a Spanish one, a Scandinavian one, a Russian one, a Polish one etc. Why do you, in this utterly arbitrary fashion, allow only Russian folk-musical elements to have the status of an individual plant organism, whilst everything else is lumped together into a single tree? I simply cannot understand that. In my view European music is a treasure-house to which each nationality contributes something of its own for the benefit of all. Every western European composer is first and foremost either a Frenchman, or a German, or an Italian etc., and only then is he a European. In Glinka nationality manifested itself just as much as it did in Beethoven, in Verdi, in Gounod. If in my works you hear Russian echoes, I assure you that in the works of Massenet and Bizet I can everywhere smell a specifically French odour.

  • Letter 2215 to Nadezhda von Meck, 31 January/12 February–9/21 February 1883, from Paris, in which Tchaikovsky first gives his general impressions of contemporary French music:

If we compare the new French school with what is currently being composed in Germany, then it is impossible not to recognize that German music is in a terrible state of decline, and that they are not doing anything else other than constantly rehashing the elements introduced by Mendelssohn and Schumann, on the one hand, and by Liszt and Wagner, on the other. In France, on the contrary, one can hear something which is new and at times very interesting, fresh, and striking. Bizet, of course, is head and shoulders above them all, but still Massenet, Delibes, Guiraud, Lalo, Godard, Saint-Saëns, etc are people with talent and, most importantly, people who are at any rate a long way from the dry routine manner of contemporary Germans.

Its beauty is external, conventional and contains nothing which grips one. Such beauty is not absolute beauty, but just prettiness (conventional beauty), and the latter (that is, prettiness) is more of a deficiency than a virtue. Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Mendelssohn, Massenet, Liszt, etc. are always pretty. Of course they, too, are masters in their own way, but their predominant trait is not the ideal towards which we should be striving, since neither Beethoven nor Bach, who is boring but still a genius, nor Glinka nor Mozart ever chased after conventional prettiness, but rather after ideal beauty, which often manifests itself in a form that sometimes, at a first, superficial glance, is not even beautiful.

Views on Specific Works by Massenet

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

I've bought the score of Massenet's Le roi de Lahore and am playing through this opera with the greatest pleasure. The deuce! how much taste and chic these Frenchmen have! I recommend you also to get a copy.

Letter 1076 to Nadezhda von Meck, 20 January/1 February 1879, in which Tchaikovsky discusses his impressions of the score of Karl Goldmark's opera Die Königin von Saba (1875), which his benefactress had sent him:

I'm not sure if I've already mentioned to you that when I was in Paris recently Massenet's opera Le roi de Lahore caught my interest and that I acquired a copy of the score. This means that in my hands now I have two operas by two composers belonging to the modern school. I must admit to you, dear friend, that I give absolute preference to Massenet. I know that you are not overly fond of him, and I myself wasn't particularly keen on him either up till now. But his opera has captivated me by the extraordinary charm of its facture, its simplicity and at the same time freshness of style and ideas, melodic richness, and especially its graceful harmony, whereby one doesn't see any sign of forced invention or striving after originality anywhere. Goldmark's opera appeals to me very little, in fact just enough for me to be able to play it through with some interest, since it is after all the work of a good German master. However, all contemporary German composers write music that is heavy, with pretensions to depth, and with an excessively colourful brush in the sense that by means of this endless daubing they try to camouflage their staggering poverty of ideas. For example, the love duet in Act II — how unsuitable for the voice it is! How little scope is given to the singer, how colourless the themes are! In Massenet's opera, in contrast, the love duet is admittedly much simpler, but on the other hand how many thousand times more fresh, graceful, and melodious. Goldmark (as an opera composer) clearly belongs to Wagner's progeny, i.e. not in the sense of carrying out Wagner's principles, but in a purely musical sense. Massenet is just as much of an eclectic as Gounod is, i.e. he does not possess striking originality, but on the other hand he does not imitate anyone else in particular. Dear friend, do please get hold of a copy of this opera [Le roi de Lahore], and, once you've played it through, let me know what you think

Letter 1081 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 24 January/5 February 1879:

Nadezhda Filaretovna sent me Goldmark's opera La reine de Saba [Die Königin von Saba]; in my opinion this is a work which shows very little talent and is full of pretensions. In contrast, I am completely enamoured of Massenet's opera Le roi de Lahore. I advise you to get a copy of the score and play it through. What would I give if The Maid of Orleans were to prove as good as this opera!

  • Manon, opera (1884) — Letter 2436 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 13/25 February 1884, from Paris, in which Tchaikovsky mentions that he had been to see one of the first performances of Massenet's opera:

Manon Lescaut. I had expected something more. It is very elegant, very polished, but there isn't a single moment capable of moving, captivating, or striking one. The quality of the performance and the staging were such as are only to be encountered in Paris. Golitsyn and Masalitinov kept pointing out the best numbers and pronouncing musical judgements, which was a real nuisance. What a delight Heilbron's voice is! As for the staging, I wouldn't call it luxurious, but it was astonishingly clever and tasteful. I felt quite jealous. However, Massenet himself didn't shine here at all. He is starting to become colourless and boring, although he has invested a lot of effort and his music is exceptionally finely wrought from beginning to end. Since he is sick of dialogues, he always has the orchestra playing whenever something is spoken, and this does not stop for one second, so that the effect is ultimately quite exhausting. Thanks to the masses of chest notes for Talazac and the effective finales, the success obtained was tremendous [14].

Letter 2435 to Nadezhda von Meck, 13/25 February 1884:

Here [in Paris] I've heard Massenet's new opera: Manon Lescaut. Judging from the press reviews, I had been expecting to hear a chef-d'oeuvre, and all the more so given that the subject seemed to me perfectly suited to the nature of Massenet's talent. However, I suffered a disillusionment. The music is written very conscientiously, elegantly, and thoughtfully. But in all this there is not a single gleam of true inspiration. Towards the end of the opera, in spite of the splendid quality of the performance, I was so bored that I only just about managed to sit there until the end. At the same time, though, I wasn't able to suppress a feeling of envy. What a staging, what magnificent playing from the orchestra, what first-rate singers! What a long way we have to go in this respect before we can draw level with the French!!!

  • Marie-Magdeleine, oratorio (1873) — Letter 1539 to Nadezhda von Meck, 16/28 June–19 June/1 July 1880, in which Tchaikovsky first sets down his thoughts on the significance of Bizet's Carmen:

Yesterday morning I described to you my love for Carmen, and in the evening I studied a work by Massenet which was new to me: Marie-Magdeleine. I opened the score with a certain apprehension. It seemed to me far too audacious an idea to have Christ singing arias and duets, but, as it turned out, this work is full of excellent qualities, gracefulness, and charm. The duet between Jesus and Mary Magdalene touched me to the quick and even caused me to shed tears. Praise to the artist who gives one such moments! From now on Massenet will be one of my favourites, almost on a level with Bizet. Indeed, the French are generally attracting my sympathy more and more.

Letter 1541 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 18–19/30–31 July 1880:

Yesterday I wrote to you a eulogy of Bizet, and today I shall sing the praises of another Frenchman: Massenet. In Nadezhda Filaretovna's house I found a copy of his oratorio Marie-Magdeleine. After reading through the text, which describes not just Christ's relations with Mary Magdalene and Judas, but also Golgotha and the Resurrection, I was filled with misgivings about this work.* [* because it seemed far too bold to me — note by Tchaikovsky]. However, when I set about playing it, I realised immediately that this is by no means a run-of-the-mill work; rather, the duet between Christ and Mary Magdalene is in my opinion a chef d'oeuvre. I was so moved by this deeply heart-felt music, in which Massenet succeeded in conveying the infinite goodness of Jesus, that I shed whole streams of tears. Wondrous tears! Praised be the Frenchman who managed to elicit them. What a shame that I can't play and sing to you at once this seemingly simple, but amazingly talented little piece. No, it is quite clear that the French are now the leaders in music! All day today I had this duet in mind while writing a romance to [Aleksey] Tolstoy's words: Softly the Spirit Flew up to Heaven [No. 2 of the Seven Romances, Op. 47], in which the melody owes something to Massenet.

Letter 1544 to Sergey Taneyev, 21 July/2 August 1880:

I have studied a work by Massenet which I didn't previously know: Marie-Magdeleine. At first it seemed to me a very bold idea to have Christ singing arias and duets with Mary Magdalene, and that is why I started playing it through with certain misgivings. But soon these were dispelled. This work contains excellent things, and the duet between Christ and Mary Magdalene is a little chef-d'oeuvre. Get hold of a copy of the score and play it through...

In Tchaikovsky's Diaries

  • Le Cid, opera (1885) — diary entry for 13/25 October 1886:

Played Le Cid before dinner and after dinner. Not particularly good. It's always the same"; diary entry for 14/26 October 1886: "Played Le Cid. How Massenet has written himself out!" [15].

  • Manon, opera (1884) — diary entry for 1/13 August 1886:

Back home I played Manon Lescaut. I liked it more that I had expected"; diary entry for 2/14 August 1886: "Played Manon. Today Massenet again seems to me nauseatingly luscious"; diary entry for 4/16 August 1886: "Back home I played Manon. Oh, how nauseating Massenet is!!! And the most irritating thing is that in all this sickliness I can feel something that is akin to me.

Diary entry for 5/17 August 1886: "Played Manon";
Diary entry for 6/18 August 1886: "Played the finale of the nauseating Manon" [16].

Correspondence with Tchaikovsky

3 letters from Tchaikovsky to Jules Massenet have survived, dating from 1888 and 1889, all of which have been translated into English on this website:


External Links

Notes and References

  1. See also Letter 972 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 21 November/3 December 1878.
  2. Diary entries for 1/13 May 1882 and 13/25 April 1884. The first is quoted in Дни и годы П. И. Чайковского. Летопись жизни и творчества (1940), p. 270, and the second entry can be found in Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 12.
  3. Diary entry for 23 February/6 March 1888 in Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 202.
  4. See Letter 3513a.
  5. Massenet's letter of 11 March 1888 to his friend Quinzard is quoted in D. Irvine, Massenet: A Chronicle of His Life and Times (Portland, 1994), p. 157.
  6. Diary entry for 12/24 March 1889 in Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 230.
  7. Diary entry for 19/31 March 1889 in Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 231.
  8. Letter 3786 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 5/17 February 1889.
  9. See also Letter 3787a to Jules Massenet, 5/17 February 1889. A copy of the relevant page in the auction catalogue which includes an extract from this letter was kindly provided to the Tchaikovsky Research project by Jean-Christophe Branger of the Université Jean Monnet in Saint-Etienne, who also mentions this letter in the introduction to his book Manon de Jules Massenet, ou, Le crépuscule de l'opéra-comique (Metz, 1999), p. 10, n. 8.
  10. Letter 3826 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 21 March/2 April 1889.
  11. See Letter 3933a to Jules Massenet, 12/24 September 1889. It is again thanks to Dr. Branger that the text of this letter (as partially published in that auction catalogue) was made available to the Tchaikovsky Research project. We know that Massenet never went to Russia because on 9 April 1896 [N.S.] he wrote to the conductor Aleksandr Vinogradsky, who later that year would feature some of the Frenchman's works in concerts of the Russian Musical Society, thanking him for his interest in his music and regretting that he had not been able to visit Russia himself. See D. Irvine, Massenet: A Chronicle of His Life and Times (Portland, 1994), p. 196–197.
  12. Letter from Léonce Détroyat to Tchaikovsky, 24 October 1888 [N.S.]. Quoted in Чайковский и зарубежные музыканты (1970), p. 120.
  13. Letter from Émile Paladilhe to Tchaikovsky, 5 December 1892 [N.S.]. Quoted in Чайковский и зарубежные музыканты (1970), p. 169.
  14. Nikolay Vasilyevich Masalitinov (d. 1884) and Prince Aleksey Vasilyevich Golitsyn (1832–1901) were society acquaintances of Tchaikovsky's. For the composer's attitude to them in general, see Alexander Poznansky, Tchaikovsky. The quest for the inner man (1993). The Belgian soprano Marie Heilbron (1851–1886) created the role of Manon with Jean-Alexandre Talazac (1851–1896) as the Chevalier Des Grieux.
  15. Diary entries for 13/25–14/26 October 1886 in Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 102.
  16. Diary entries for 1/13–6/18 August 1886 in Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 84–86.