Jules Massenet was born in 1842, the son of a foundry-owner whose prosperity relied on the production of scythes. A decline in business led the family to move in 1847 from Saint-Etienne to Paris, where Madame Massenet supplemented the family income by giving piano lessons, her youngest son among her pupils. At the age of eleven Massenet entered the Conservatoire, where, in 1863, he won the Prix de Rome, his residence in Rome bringing some respite from the period when, as a student, he had found it necessary to support himself by serving as a percussionist at the Opéra and as a café pianist.
Success came to Massenet through the support of his teacher at the Conservatoire, Ambroise Thomas, and of his enterprising publisher Georges Hartmann. In 1872 he won his first operatic triumph with the Victor Hugo adaptation Don César de Bazan, followed, in 1873 by the sacred drama Marie-Magdeleine, a choice of heroine that was characteristic in an age that made much of the repentance of a fallen woman. Manon, in 1884, established his position without question, although the next opera, Le Cid, staged at the Opéra in 1885, failed to please. The coincidence of a new libretto, based on a medieval romance, and a meeting with the young American soprano Sybil Sanderson, lay behind the opéra romanesque Esclarmonde, in which the title ro1e was designed to exploit the remarkable range and quality of the young prima donna. The work was staged at the Opéra-Comique in 1890 and impressed a Parisian audience increased by the Exhibition of 1889. Based on the romance Partenopeus de Blois the opera tells the story of the princess Esclarmonde, daughter of the Emperor and magician Phorcas, and her secret love for Roland. The hero, while away fighting the Saracens, breaks the oath of secrecy that he had sworn to his beloved, the penalty for such treachery being death. From this fate he saves himself in a tournament in the Ardennes forest and is rewarded with the hand of Esclarmonde. The spectacular opera includes a scene in which Roland is transported to a magic island to be greeted by Dream-Spirits and a scene of hunting in the forest.
Massenet wrote eight orchestral suites, in addition to the suites arranged from operas, ballets and incidental music for the theatre. The second of these (actually known as Suite No. 1) — the first was his unnumbered Italian Pompeia Suite — was written in 1865, during the composer’s residence at the Villa Medici in Rome after his triumph in the Prix de Rome. It was performed in Paris under the distinguished conductor Pasdeloup, but failed to impress either the public or the critics. One of the latter, Albert Wolff, remarked that the suite suffered by appearing in the same programme as music by Mozart and Mendelssohn and went on to describe how the suffering score had to be taken to a near-by chemist to be given first aid, before the invalid was taken home by its composer. The sarcasm of the review provoked a reaction from Théodore Dubois, future director of the Conservatoire, and a rejoinder from Massenet himself, who observed that fools and intelligent men had one thing in common, they were both liable to make mistakes. Whether Albert Wolff was mistaken is a matter that an audience may now judge again for itself. The Suite is in four sections, a demonstration of the early technical competence of the composer, whose very facility and gift for melody has all too often led to his dismissal by those who seek in music a greater astringency of idiom.
Massenet’s fairy opera Cendrillon, based on Perrault, was first mounted at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1899. It follows in general the well known story of Cinderella and her bizarre family, although there is an additional episode in which her father Pandolfe returns with his youngest daughter to the country farm where they had lived before his second marriage. There, in a mysterious dream, Cendrillon meets her Prince Charmant, a vision that precedes the traditional dénouement, when the glass-slipper is found to fit her foot. The spectacular opera has much activity for the fairies at the command of the Fairy Godmother and evokes in the court dances the world of Cendrillon. Something of the magic of the opera is recalled in the concert suite drawn from a work that makes equally heavy demands on singers and on the scenic and financial resources of any opera house, but is hampered by a weak libretto.