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Jules Massenet

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Jules Massenet


(born: Montand, St Etienne, 12 May 1842; died: Paris, 13 Aug 1912).

French composer. His family moved to Paris in 1847 and he entered the Conservatoire at the age of 11 as a piano pupil of Adolphe Laurent. He later studied harmony with Reber and composition with Ambroise Thomas, winning the Prix de Rome in 1863. In Rome he got to know Liszt and, through him, Constance de Sainte Marie, who became his pupil and, in 1866 after his return to Paris, his wife. The following year his opera La grandtante was given at the Opéra-Comique, and in1873 Marie-Magdeleine at the Théâtre de lOdéon initiated a series of drames sacrés based on the lives of female biblical characters. Many of his secular operas, too, are in effect portraits of women.

In 1878 Massenet was made a teacher of composition at the Conservatoire, where he remained all his life, influencing many younger French composers, including Charpentier, Koechlin, Pierné and Hahn. In his own music he began to move away from the suave, sentimental melodic style derived from Gounod and to adopt a more Wagnerian type of lyrical declamation. The change is apparent in Manon (1884), which placed Massenet in the forefront of French opera composers, and still more in Werther (1892).

But as early as 1877, in Hérodiade, Massenet had begun to modify the symmetry and loosen the syntax of his melodies to give them a more speaking, intimate, conversational character. Repetitions are usually masked or transferred to the orchestra while the voice takes a lyrical recitative line in the Wagnerian manner; literal repetitions are carefully calculated to provide an insistent, emotional quality. Often his melodies have a swaying, hesitant character (9/8 or 6/8) - first and most effectively used in Act 1 of Manon to express a girl's hesitant yet delighted awareness of her own charms. By Werther, the relationship of voice and orchestra is more sophisticated, and that opera contains clear examples of Massenet's dissolution of formal melody into rhapsodic recitative-like writing as evolved by Wagner. Massenet's music is harmonically conservative, rarely venturing beyond modest chromaticisms; rhythmically, it is original in the variations he uses to give the melody a more caressing, intimate character. He had a characteristically French ear for orchestral nuance. Though primarily a lyrical composer, he was also a master of scenes of action, as for example at the opening of Manon.

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