Massenet is almost by way of being an international incident. How you respond to his music—or how you are allowed to respond to it—depends to a certain extent on where you were born. To Britons, who since the time of Cromwell and his major generals have always thought of art as something faintly indecent that only foreigners do, Massenet is a great deal too French, with all that that implies by way of national stereotypes. His music is seen as frivolous and often openly erotic, therefore not to be taken seriously. When London’s new Covent Garden (later Royal) Opera Company mounted Manon in its opening season in 1947, shocked press reactions were almost comical: how could so worthy an enterprise waste its resources on something so essentially trivial? Grove’s Dictionary of 1954 says that Massenet’s operas are fit only for a public “which regards music as an agreeable after-dinner entertainment”, which in turn probably says more about Brits than it does about Massenet.
In German-speaking countries art is only art if it is High Art. Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, as Lorenz Hart put it (and throw in Wagner on the operatic front), are the peaks to which composers should aspire, and music as smoothly accomplished, as pleasurable, as popular—ugh!—as Massenet’s was, again, not to be taken seriously. Only hedonistic Vienna broke ranks, and his operatic success in that city was significant when the triumph of Manon at the Court Opera in 1890 led to the management asking for a new work. Massenet took Werther down off the shelf where it had languished for three years, rejected by French opera houses for being too gloomy. Italians are more balanced: Massenet’s early works had a great influence on the veristi, who needed a model, any model, other than the colossus Verdi. And Italians know a melodist when they hear one—whatever else there is to be said about Massenet, he wrote the most wonderful tunes. The success of his first Grand Opera, Le Roi de Lahore, in Turin in 1878 led directly to the commissioning of his next, Herodiade, and it was performances of Thais in Milan in 1903 with Lina Cavalieri that ensured that work’s survival. Italian singers have always vied with their French colleagues in recording and performing Massenet’s music.
As for the French themselves, they seem by tradition to have been grudging in support of their own composers. They have preferred to import foreigners, from Lully to Gluck to Cherubini to Rossini to Meyerbeer to Donizetti and Verdi, and had no time for Berlioz. And that brings us to the first of many important things about Massenet: he was as French as the Eiffel Tower and his popular success, along with that of his senior colleague Gounod, re-established the Gallic muse in his homeland as no other French composer had managed to do since Rameau. And like Rameau, he re-established the French language as the most natural possible vehicle for music: his skill in word-setting, in freeing the flexible stresses of the language from the constraint of regular musical phrases and instead using that very flexibility to achieve extra freedom of musical expression, is something that not even his fiercest critics can take away from him. He passed this on as professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire, and Romain Rolland’s image of “a slumbering Massenet” in the heart of every subsequent French composer has more than a ring of truth to it—you don’t have to listen too closely to Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc to hear that it is indeed so.
Why has he always had so many detractors? Why do his admirers automatically go on the defensive? He was successful in his time, and success is something that people, especially colleagues and critics, find it hard to forgive. Massenet’s evident “ability to please”, noted in Debussy’s horribly snobbish obituary (the working classes, he wrote, hummed Massenet’s tunes on their way to work rather than the St Matthew Passion), stuck in many a throat. So did his boastful, highly misleading “autobiography” of 1912, Mes Souvenirs (in fact dictated to a journalist). In it he sought to give the impression that his composing life was an unbroken string of successes with “the dear public, which is seldom deceived”. This was far from true: he had many a failure, many a rejection (Werther, initially, among them), many an unproductive period. He also tried to give the impression that composition was falling-off-a-log easy, so that enemies have always accused him of facileness rather than the facility of which he seemed to be boasting. In fact, he took pains to destroy preliminary sketches and post-premiere revisions (which were frequent and necessary), mainly in order to maintain iron control over publication of his scores. He was a tireless perfectionist, not an easy, superficial worker. In his near-fictional Souvenirs, he was his own worst enemy.
How to sum him up? He wrote great tunes—straightforward tunes-as-tunes, endless melodies like the Meditation from Thaïs, or melodies built out of a single, obsessively repeated phrase, like Don Quichotte’s Serenade. He constructed whole operas out of tunes—Manon is as brilliant a piece of story-telling through melody as Carmen. His musical setting of the French language has not been surpasse. He had an infallible sense of theatre, of dramatic pace and shape, and supervised the stagings of his operas with the know-how of the canniest Broadway producer. He had extraordinary range: not just the narrative-through-melody of Manon, officially designated an opera comique, but “sung plays” like Chérubin and Sapho, textbook Grand Operas (Le Cid, Hérodiade, Ariane), fairy-tale comedies (Cendrillon), wham-bam verismo (La Navarraise), and a near-series of medieval romances—Grisélidis, Esclarmonde, Le Jongleur de Notre Dame and (somewhat surprisingly) the Rabelaisian and deliciously politically incorrect Panurge. He had a feline sense of humour, his saving grace if, as his detractors maintain, sentiment was his Achilles heel. Perhaps his greatest gift was for writing about unfulfilled erotic obsession—Hérodiade, Thaïs, Werther—which makes one wonder about his self-promoted reputation as a womaniser. Even when erotic urges are satisfied, most notably in Esclarmonde (an opera about a woman who sets her sights on the man she wants and gets him, unlike Strauss’s Salome, who only gets part of hers), you always feel he is writing about us, not about gods and goddesses, not about kings and queens. Before Puccini, he was the champion of the “the little people”. He knew his “dear public”.
All composers, all artists, are re-assessed in the decades after their deaths, particularly successful ones, usually suffering a period of denigration. Even Benjamin Britten was accused of being too facile in the 1980s. Massenet’s “dear public”—in France at least—ensured that his works were performed for 30 years after his demise. His reputation sank to its lowest ebb after World War Two: let the Grove entry cited above stand as the generally accepted view of the time. Even then, Manon kept its place in the international repertory—apart from anything else, singers loved singing it. Since then, as we have gradually struggled out from under a post-Wagnerian, German-dominated critical aesthetic, as a post-modernist movement establishes itself, we have been able to afford to be more relaxed about Massenet, to accept that pleasure is not by definition sinful. Werther has overtaken Manon in popularity. Other works have been taken off the shelf and dusted down, revealing unexpected delights. A biennial Massenet Festival has been established in St Etienne, the city of his birth. In all this, tribute must be paid to Richard Bonynge, who boldly championed Massenet long before anyone else dared to and recorded music—good music—that none of us had heard, broadened our knowledge of the composer and enriched our lives. This hugely welcome new collection broadens our knowledge even further.
Massenet is best known as an opera composer, but he was a prolific writer of songs and his earliest successes were with oratorios. “Sainte Thérèse Prie” (track 1) combines the two: a typically broad melody on a religious subject, with the saint celebrating her one-ness with Christ. It would take a theologian to deconstruct this lovely song. There is nothing whatsoever religious about “Amoureuse” (track 2): here is the gently erotic, yielding woman so beloved of the male sex offering herself as a cup of pleasure submissively waiting to be drained (times have changed). Rather than worry about the PC quotient, listen to the very first phrase, a fine example of Massenet’s skill in turning text into music. La Grand’ Tante (1867) (track 3) was Massenet’s first opera comique, a charming trifle about an army officer returning from the colonies to claim his inheritance from a deceased great uncle—a run-down chateau in Brittany—only to find that the old man married a 20-year-old girl on his deathbed. In this extract the young great aunt, unaware that she has company (he has fallen asleep), bids a last farewell to her home before entering a convent. Of course she doesn’t: there is some business with an unsigned will to be sorted out before the Happy End. The orchestral parts were destroyed in the Opera-Comique fire of 1887, and Massenet’s instrumentation has been reconstructed by Brian Castles-Onion.
The oratorio Marie Magdeleine (track 4) was the composer’s first big success. It had been rejected by the usual suspects, but was enthusiastically taken up by Pauline Viardot, who created the title role on Good Friday in 1873.
This extract comes from early in the first act: the about-to-be reformed prostitute urges her fellow workers to join her in following the Man of God she has heard preaching. Judas, already the villain, vainly advises her get back to the work she knows best; the action proceeds to Golgotha and the Resurrection. This heady mixture of sex-and-religion was to recur in Massenet’s output—Thaïs, Hérodiade—and was very much of its time. It gave rise to Vincent D’Indy’s famous citing of the “discreet, semi-religious eroticism” of Massenet’s music, a tag that has stuck. D’Indy also reported that the composer admitted to being insincere and merely purveying goods that he knew the public liked.
The public proved fickle. The follow-up Eve (1875) (track 5) failed to match the earlier success. The action starts with Adam waking after his rib-operation: he and his wife live in chaste bliss until tempted by Voices of the Night and Spirits of the Abyss. Here Eve muses on the beauties of the night in a piece of text-book Massenet composition: the cross-rhythms of the word-setting and the way a simple falling phrase is made to do a lot of work—and very effective work—are highly characteristic. La Vierge (1880, coming after the success of Le Roi de Lahore at the Paris Opera) (tracks 6&7) was a flop: it was taken off after just two performances. It deals with four episodes in the Virgin Mary’s life: the Annunciation, the Wedding at Cana, Good Friday and the Assumption. The first extract comes from part two, and is oddly, not to say provocatively, secular in tone: a mother bemoans the fact of her son leaving home after all she’s done for him. The second extract opens with a reminiscence of the score’s most famous moment, the Last Sleep of the Virgin, a melody so sinuous that it became one of Sir Thomas Beecham’s “lollipops”. The Virgin then contemplates the glories of Paradise with growing ecstacy.
Hérodiade (1881) (track 8) was based, like Wilde’s and Strauss’s Salome, on Flaubert’s novella of the same name, but the treatment of the heroine is completely different. Massenet’s Salome is an innocent, an abandoned child who doesn’t even discover who her mother is until the final curtain; here, she describes her chaste love for John the Baptist, with a beautiful little harmonic side-step at the words “L’air attentif passe sans bruit” that is, again, text-book Massenet. The later duets for Salome and the Baptist grow slightly less chaste: the composer so miscalculated his mixture of sex and religion that the Archbishop of Lyon pronounced an anathema on everyone involved in a production there, which must have done wonders for the box office.
Le Cid (1885) (tracks 9&10) is a straightforward Grand Opera with the characters striking straightforwardly Grand-Operatic attitudes. In an affair of honour, the hero has unfortunately killed the heroine’s father: “Pleurez, mes yeux”, with its darkly expressive clarinet obbligato, is one of Massenet’s most popular arias. “Plus de tourments” is sung by the Infanta of Spain as she distributes alms to her people, a cheerful melody in 9/8 with, in the second verse, a flute counter-melody of exquisite delicacy.
Sapho (1897) (tracks 11-14) could not be more different. It is a “sung play” based on Alphonse Daudet’s autobiographical novel, and both were considered highly scandalous at the time. Fanny Legrand, an artists’ model “with a past” nicknamed Sapho, starts a passionate affair with a much younger man. In the first of four extracts she tells him what she loves about him—the fact that he is 20—and again a single musical phrase is made to do all the work. Later the young man hears from old friends of her colourful past and stuffily rejects her: in the second extract she rounds on them with the sharpest of tongues for ruining her last chance for True Love. But she knows in her heart of hearts that it can’t last—he has a suffocatingly bourgeois family—and in the last act she prepares to leave their love nest (“Demain je partirai”) in a scene launched and accompanied by a sombre, highly expressive cello melody. But he returns, ready to start all over again, and when he falls into exhausted slumber she takes one last kiss and tiptoes out at curtain-fall (“Vais-je rester ici?”).
Griélidis (1901) (track 15) is my own very personal favourite of lesser-known Massenet. It tells the tale of Patient Grizel with heart-felt, never sickly sentiment, which is anyway kept at bay by making the Devil who tempts her a broadly comic character. Massenet’s control of dramatic mood is faultless. Here, the Devil has just spirited away the heroine’s little son Loys as a bargaining counter, and she prays to Saint Agnes to restore him, only to find that the saint’s statue has also been spirited away. The opera eventually ends happily with a barrage of heavenly choirs and not a dry eye in the house.
Chérubin (1905) (track 16) is another sung play, a sprightly vehicle for Mary Garden as Mozart’s and Beaumarchais’s randy and now definitely post-pubertal pageboy. Among his conquests is L’Ensoleillad, the king’s mistress, who here defuses the tension after a duel with a merry drinking song, glass of champagne in hand.
Ariane (1906, a late Grand Opera, successful in its day but seldom heard since) (tracks 17-19) tells the familiar story. In the first extract Ariane describes to her sister Phedre of how she fell in love with Thésée at first sight: a single musical phrase, obsessively repeated (at one stage upside down), is again textbook Massenet. Like the singer of Amoureuse, Ariane is too submissive for her own good: in the second extract she asks Phedre to press her case with Thesee, unaware that they too have fallen in love—Ariane’s stressing of how alike the sisters have always been adds a touch of bitter irony. And so to the unhappy end: Ariane watches her sister and lover sailing into the sunset to music reminiscent of “Pleurez, mes yeux”; solo violin intertwines with her voice; off-stage Sirens’ voices are heard with orchestral accompaniment of Straussian transparency, and Ariane falls into the sea. Many of Massenet’s little-known operas have been revived over the last ten years: Ariane’s turn will come
THE MASTER OF CHARMS
There is a feline quality to Massenet. He has the same independence as a cat, as well as the ability to be graceful without very much effort. Like a cat, Massenet’s music moves through a room, creating an incredible atmosphere without appearing to do much at all. There is a feminine quality, which tends to fade away into a swooning ecstasy. It is no secret that people like Debussy owe a great deal to that world that Massenet could create with the click of his fingers. The way a line expands at a certain moment achieves a certain graceful energy that pirouettes for a magical few seconds, and then descends and dies away with a beautiful grace and elegance. This is sometimes passionate, but it also has elements of diffidence, slight coolness and understatement —that is the true French genius: the ability to conjure. Fauré was called “the master of charms”, quite unkindly, but I would re-allocate that name to Massenet. He is the master of charms for me, because there is a masterful element about him. His charm was so much part of his character, so much part of his ability to play in his life, and probably was his own worst enemy. This endless charm still provokes doubts about his sincerity: you wonder how deep it goes. The same question confronts any assessment of Massenet’s music. Many people have reproached him for lack of depth. After Massenet died, Camille Saint-Saëns summed up his old friend and rival:
- The Greek artists whose work fills us with admiration were not deep. Their marble Goddesses were beautiful; beauty alone was enough for them. The rose with its fresh colours and scent is in its own way as precious as the haughty giant oak.
That is perhaps the sense one has of Massenet: the delicacy of a rose ratherthan the might of a tree.
Are-assessment of Massenet will come, I’m absolutely certain, once we no longer feel threatened by the struggle between the opposing factions of French music. We still actually regard Debussy as a bit of a modern composer and Ravel as a bit of a bit of a modern composer, and they were supplanted by the new fashion of Stravinsky. Even Poulenc was displaced by Messiaen and Boulez. Once all these things become old in themselves Massenet will maybe be re-evaluated. Of course it can’t be held against Massenet that he was not Debussy. Every composer has his place. Poulenc once pointed out that the greatest of composers are not necessarily innovators, they make use of what’s gone before them.
Massenet was innovatory in certain respects. In terms of the song repertoire, he invented a certain concept of song cycle, whose sequences of music are linked in a Schumann sense. He also used speech in conjunction with music between songs and also as a type of melodrama where actual music accompanies songs. Massenet composed a large number of songs of different quality and by widely divergent poets. Even though a lot of them are hard to come by today, they swamped the market in their time. He was an incredible market-leader with the sort of knack for success that must have frustrated other composers. And that has been held against him. I don’t think he was interested in exploring the deeper spiritual issues; he lived in his own time and wrote how he felt.
Massenet’s songs were a salon reflection of what remains at the centre of his entire life: operatic production. They were popular because people adored what they had heard in the opera house. Unlike composers who struggle endlessly against their own times, and who become angry and frustrated, Massenet simply gave people what they wanted. He was not just a shameless exploiter of populism; he simply understood supremely well how to go with the flow. Massenet knew what his public desired, and he gave it to them, in the process pleasing himself and producing things of great beauty.
The piano writing in the songs is never less than elegant and fluent; it is obvious that Massenet played well. The piano is used constructively, as an equal participant. In his time, there were many amateur accompanists who would have been grateful for easy piano parts that made the ultimate effect poetically rather than with fewer notes. Massenet was a specialist in thin, spun lines that actually created atmosphere, exquisite minimalism. The piano parts also didn’t eclipse the vocal line. We find the same thing in Richard Strauss: the sense of sheer enjoyment in nurturing a singer’s vocal personality. Massenet’s genius not only encompassed his remarkably fluent understanding knowledge of piano writing, but in placing the singer in a light where she remains the star. The ‘she’ is on purpose. When I think of Massenet’s songs, I think of charm, grace, elegance and perfume rather than the rough and tumble of pieces for baritone. He wrote effective pieces for male singers, but in a sense I think he was happier in that boudoir. There is something extremely feminine about what he writes. Not effeminate, but simply feminine.
Massenet also had exquisite manners. The idea of a pianist interrupting famous singers with huge interludes and cascades of notes or displays of virtuosity was anathema to him. There is an indefinable lightness to Massenet’s songs, the shapes that he traces, those elaborate musical pirouettes and forms. Despite this sense of refinement, Massenet’s colleagues found him a formidable opponent in terms of business. He knew exactly how to deal with audiences, managers, librettists. But for his music he reserved what Saint-Saëns described as the “indefinable and special charm of which only he has the secret” (adding, perhaps a bit unkindly, that Massenet was “capable of malice in everything that concerned his musical reputation”). Another rival, the composer Lecocq, concluded, “One feels for him the infinite indulgence that one accords to a pretty woman”.
(edited from an interview for the DVD documentary Jules Massenet:His Life and Music' Melba MR2000)