Jules Émile Frédéric Massenet was a French composer and educator of the Romantic era predominantly known for his operatic compositions. His operas are often admired for their theatricality, lyricism, and sensuality, as is exemplified in Manon (1884) and Werther (1892). In addition to operas, Massenet also composed oratorios, ballets, orchestral works, incidental music, piano pieces, and songs throughout his career.
Massenet was born at Montaud in the modern city of Saint-Étienne as the youngest of four children. His mother, Adélaïde Royer de Marancour was an amateur musician who first encouraged Massenet’s engagement with music and provided him with piano lessons. In 1848, Massenet’s family moved to Paris, where he attended school at Lycée Saint-Louis. In 1853, Massenet was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire and pursued musical studies at the Conservatoire in tandem with his general studies at the Lycée. While studying at the Paris Conservatoire, Massenet notably became a loyal protégé of French composer and educator Ambroise Thomas, who heavily influenced his compositions and career trajectory.
In 1863, Massenet won the prestigious Prix de Rome prize in 1863 with his cantata, David Rizzio. His first well received full length opera composition was Le Roi de Lahore which was produced at the Paris Opéra in 1877. Massenet’s successes with the Prix de Rome prize and Le Roi de Lahore launched his career, and he proceeded to be commissioned by major opera houses and write over forty works for the stage prior to his death.
In addition to pursuing composition, Massenet returned to the Conservatoire as a professor in 1878, where he educated notable successors such as Gustave Charpentier, Ernest Chausson, Reynaldo Hahn, and Gabriel Pierné. He taught at the Conservatoire until 1896 after the death of the director and his beloved mentor, Ambroise Thomas.
In the final years of his career, some of Massenet’s works had become classified as unadventurous and traditional. But his works received widespread reconsideration by critics approximately 10 years after his death, and they are now widely accepted as well respected and canonical works of the Belle Époque period. Massenet died in Paris from abdominal cancer in August of 1912. His wife and family were with him when he passed.
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