Jules (Émile Frédéric) Massenet (May 12, 1842 – August 13, 1912) was a French composer. He is best known for his operas, which were very popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Massenet was very able to use the orchestra and vocalists to reveal a plot and the personalities of characters on stage to the delight of the audience. The music that he created made the plot and characters more believable and he thus could impart a bit of his wisdom in the cultivation of character and moral growth through music education. Massenet's works later fell into oblivion for the most part, but have undergone periodic revivals since the 1980s. Certainly Manon and Werther have held the scene uninterruptedly for well over a century.
Massenet was born in Montaud, then an outlying hamlet and now a part of the city of Saint-Étienne, in the French département of the Loire. When he was eleven his family moved to Paris so that he could study at the Conservatoire there. In 1862, he won a Grand Prix de Rome and spent three years in Rome. His first opera was a one-act production at the at Opéra-Comique in 1867, but it was his dramatic oratorio, Marie-Magdeleine, that won him the praise of the likes of Tchaikovsky and Gounod.
Massenet took a break from his composing to serve as a soldier in the Franco-Prussian War, but returned to his art following the end of the conflict in 1871. From 1878, he was professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory where his pupils included Gustave Charpentier, Reynaldo Hahn, and Charles Koechlin. His greatest successes were Manon in 1884, Werther in 1892, and Thaïs in 1894. A notable later opera was Don Quichotte, produced in Monte Carlo 1910, with the legendary Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin in the title-role.
Massenet used Wagner's leitmotiv technique but gave it a Gallic lightness, a style considered by some, perhaps, to be a bit saccharine. The dry and stern Vincent d'Indy, for instance, accused him of purveying "un érotisme discret et quasi-réligieux"; while the ferocious polemicist Léon Daudet cordially loathed Massenet's manner, likening it to "the inflamed sensuality of the lyrebird or the peacock spreading his tail." In his lifetime, however, Massenet was one of the most popular and successful composers in the world, and the best of his music contains a vitality and charm that has lasted to this day. He was a consummate melodist and man-of-the-theatre and, for better or worse, a completely individual creative artist. None of his music could ever be confused for anyone else's.
In addition to his operas, he also composed concert suites, ballet music, oratorios, and cantatas and about two hundred songs. Some of his non-vocal output has achieved widespread popularity, and is commonly performed: for example the Méditation réligieuse from Thaïs, which is a violin solo with orchestra, as well as the Aragonaise, from his opera Le Cid and Élégie for solo piano. The latter two pieces are commonly played by piano students.
Jules Massenet is most famous for his operas, Manon and Werther, and the solo violin, Méditation, from Thaïs. His ability to create music which portrays the intimacy of human relationships and the emotions and conflicts that arise from them became his greatest achievement. He enjoyed wide popularity, which led to great wealth and acclaim from his public. Jules Massenet was unique in his concern for the well-being of others, especially in the scoring of his musical compositions, and with that concern, brought out the very best from the performers a well as the listeners.
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