Though Jules Massanet is principally known today for only a
handful of his works, during his lifetime he was France's leading composer of
opera. Born in Montaud, France on May 12th, 1842, the son of a
struggling metal work, Jules moved with his family to Paris when he was six
years of age. His father suffered from ill-health and to provide the family
with income his mother began teaching piano lessons. She also taught Jules and
at the age of eleven he was admitted into the prestigious Paris Conservatory.
As a student, he showed no particular promise as a rising star in France's
music scene until he won the Prix de Rome in 1862 with his cantata David Rizzio. As a condition of winning the
competition, Jules then spent three years in Rome, during which time he was
introduced to Franz Liszt and his future wife, Louise-Constance de Gressy.
Massanet's first opera, La
grand' tante, premiered in 1867 to only moderate success. However, through
his former teacher, Ambroise Thomas, his publisher and the social connections
of his wife, Massanet slowly garnered recognition and in 1873, the production
of his oratorio Marie-Magdeleine won
him the praise of Tchaikovsky, d'Indy and Gounod. His greatest operatic
successes came in the following decades with Manon in 1884, Werther in
1892 and Thaïs in 1894. His music was
dominated by beautiful melodies, particularly in his
operatic arias, and sensitive and colorful orchestration.
In addition to his prolific operatic output, Massanet also
composed suites, ballet music, oratorios, cantatas and over two hundred songs.
Following his death on August 13th, 1912, Massanet's music went out
of fashion and his operas fell nearly into total obscurity, with the only exceptions
being Manon and Werther. In recent times, however, his music has gone through
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