Jules-Émile Frédéric Massenet
b. Montaud, near Saint-Étienne, France, May 12, 1842;
d. Paris, August 13, 1912
Jules-Émile Frédéric Massenet was born in the provinces of eastern central France. The family moved to Paris when Jules was still very young, and it was there that his mother gave him his first piano lessons. At the early age of ten, Jules was accepted for entrance into the renowned Paris Conservatoire. He continued training there for a decade, and it was a measure of his success that he was eventually chosen to study composition with the institution’s director, Ambroise Thomas, the composer of Mignon and Hamlet.
While still in school, he had the useful experience of accompanying vocal lessons given by Gustave-Hippolyte Roger, one of the finest French tenors of the day. Massenet also found work as a percussionist in orchestras of Paris theaters. Playing at the Théâtre Lyrique exposed him to the stage works of many major composers of the day. Massenet even played in the orchestra for the world premiere of Gounod’s Faust.
Additional Artist information
Massenet was awarded the Prix de Rome in August 1863. The prize brought him to the Villa Medici in Rome for two years, where he met virtually every important musician who passed through or lived in Rome, including Franz Liszt. It was in Rome, in late 1864, that he met the woman whom he would eventually marry: Louise Constance de Gressy, lovingly nicknamed “Ninon.”
As a married man living in Paris, Massenet began the long process of making a name for himself in the music world. Few composers have been as aware of the importance of “networking.” Massenet was a man who had the desire to please; he possessed innate charm, the ability to make friends easily, and a healthy degree of ambition. Massenet’s professional obligations kept him apart from his family quite frequently, but Ninon nevertheless supported him immeasurably, and her encouragement, as well as her tolerance of his sensitive nature, had much to do with the continued success of his career.
When at last Massenet received opera commissions, they came thick and fast. After two comedies—never Massenet’s true métier—he showed his unique capabilities for the first time with Le Roi de Lahore, a spectacular five-act drama at the Opéra in 1877. Between 1867 and his death in 1912, Massenet produced 26 works for the stage. The operas that have survived most resiliently include Manon; Werther; Thaïs; Cendrillon, and Don Quichotte.
Massenet maintained his amazing productivity to the end. After he died on August 13, 1912, he was hailed by press and public with the admiration and respect appropriate for any personality who has played a central role in a nation’s cultural life.