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13 december 2023

Jules Massenet was the consummate insider in the French musical world. He didn't start with any connections at all, though. Born in 1842, Massenet was the son of an industrialist. When the family hit reverses, his mother supported them by giving piano lessons. She taught young Jules (who, says Jacques Bonnaure, hated his given name, so let's just call him Massenet). She recognized that her son was a prodigy, and he got into the Conservatoire on sheet talent. Patronage would help him much of the rest of the way – a patronage that Massenet would pay forward by fostering the careers of many of his own students, after he became professor of composition at the school.

Massenet, Bonnaure points out, was born when Giuseppe Verdi premiered his early opera Nabucco, and lived till Arnold Schoenberg premiered his hypermodern Pierrot lunaire (1912). Classical music changed beyond recognition during his 70-year lifetime. Seventy years is a long time, but few seven-decade periods saw such drastic cultural teardowns and rebuildings. Massenet contributed to a trend, following Verdi and Richard Wagner, that turned opera from a belting-out of "numbers" into an integrated "music drama." The results were smash successes. Massenet's very acclaim, which Bonnaure appreciates as a barometer of public taste during the Third Republic, and conversely of Massenet's ability to read that public, is and was held against him. Anybody that popular must be a lightweight, the theory goes. Yet in part Massenet simply avoided the dying-young that has made Bizet seem forever on the cutting edge. After the 1880s, the world passed Massenet by, and last impressions became lasting ones.

Though two of Massenet's operas are as popular in the 2020s (relative to the opera scene overall) as they've ever been. Werther remains an obligatory role for a great tenor, as Manon does for a great soprano. Beyond those two stand-bys, from my limited impressions anyway, Cendrillon is sometimes seen, as is Thaïs (from which the instrumental "Meditation" is often played). Bonnaure says that Don Quichotte sometimes surfaces, because of its strong roles for bass and baritone; Esclarmonde is not unheard-of … already, though, we are getting into serious opera-buff territory. Highlights from other Massenet operas make regular appearances at galas and in aria collections: "Il est doux, il est bon" from Hérodiade, "Vive amour qui rêve" from Cherubin.

"Massenet se caractérisait par un don mélodique particulier," says Bonnaure, but "Le compliment est ambigu" (11): Massenet is notable for his special talent for melodies, but that's a double-edged distinction. He was a one-man earworm farm. I had never heard the Gavotte, "Profitons bien de la jeunesse," from Manon, until I heard Diana Damrau sing it at the Met one night, and I have never forgotten it since. But composing catchy tunes must be an unserious occupation, right?

Of course, when you think of it, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Richard Strauss wrote tons of whistleable tunes as well, without detriment to their musicological acclaim. So Massenet's relative obscurity can't be entirely due to that. Another factor that Bonnaure identifies is "le culte de l'exceptionnel" (15), the mania for the unprecedented, that took hold of the musical world in the 1890s, just when Massenet was coming to represent the musical establishment. Even Verdi himself was continuing to innovate in those years. Otello appeared after Manon did, Falstaff after Werther, and nothing Massenet wrote is as striking as those two Shakespearean operas. Yet how can one fault an artist for being of his time? Surely aficionados don't carry a perfectly-calibrated sense of how innovative a work must have registered as being in, say, 1892.

Various smart remarks have collected around Massenet over the years – regrettably, Bonnaure says. Some are just catty, but others seem profound. Upon voting for Massenet for the Prix de Rome, the key to many a young composer's career, Hector Berlioz is supposed to have said "Il ira bien, ce gamin, quand il aura moins d'expérience" (30). He'll go far, that lad, once he has less experience. Oscar Wilde could hardly have said it better, and Berlioz enjoyed having thought of it so much that he apparently later said exactly the same thing about Camille Saint-Saëns.

Bonnaure, Jacques. Massenet. Arles: Actes Sud, 2011.