MASSENET: Orchestral Suites Nos. 1- 3 / Herodiade (Jean-Yves Ossonce/ Murray Khouri/ New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.553124)
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Jules Massenet (1842 - 1912)
Herodiade (Ballet Suite) Suite No.1
Suite No.2: Scènes hongroises
Suite No.3: Scènes dramatiques
Jules Massenet was born on 12th May 1842 at Montaud, near Saint-Etienne, and was given the baptismal names of Jules Emile Frederic, although he always hated his first name. He was the youngest child of the family and had eleven brothers and sisters, including the children of his father by his first marriage. The latter, a graduate of the Ecole Poly technique and a staff officer, who had resigned his commission after the defeat of Napoleon, had taken as his second wife Eléonore-Adélaïde Royer de Marancour, daughter of a well- to-do official and known, at least, to the Duchesse d' Angoulême, daughter of Louis XVI. Massenet's family, therefore, belonged to the established provincial bourgeoisie, still attached to the grandiose national ideals of Napoleon. In 1848 Massenet's father, owner of an iron-foundry, lost his fortune, a situation aggravated by his ill-health. In consequence he decided to move to Paris with his whole family. In October 1852, Jules Massenet, now only nine years old, entered the Conservatoire, where he studied with Savard and with Laurent, while continuing his normal schooling. In 1859 he won the first piano prize and went on to study harmony with Henri Reber, who advised him to become a composition pupil of Ambroise Thomas.
Existing now in precarious financial circumstances, Massenet found various means of earning money. He played the piano in cafes, taught music in private schools and even played in various orchestras as a timpanist or triangle-player. He possessed considerable energy, witness his enthusiasm for composition. At each lesson at the Conservatoire he appeared with a new waltz, a fragment of an opera, an overture or part of a symphony. It is said that he never lost a chance to compose, even sketching music on the surface of his orchestral timpani.
In 1863 Massenet won the first prize for fugue and a first Grand Prix de Rome with his cantata David Rizzio. This latter award allowed him to spend two years in Rome at the Villa Medici, according to custom. There he met Liszt, who introduced him to Mme de Sainte-Marie, whose daughter became his piano pupil. Two years later, on 8th October 1866, he married her. During his time abroad Massenet travelled in Italy and also visited Hungary and Germany. These years brought a symphonic Overture, a Requiem and fragments that were later used for the sacred drama Marie-Magdeleine.
From 1866 onwards Massenet's music began to be performed in Paris, notably his suite Pompeia, on 24th February of that year, but it was a year before his work was heard in the theatre. His comic opera La Grand Tante was staged at the Opera-comique on 3rd April 1867. Its lack of success is seen in the fact that it was only given fourteen performances - Esclarmonde, for example, received a hundred. In 1870, with the outbreak of war with Prussia, the composer joined the Garde nationale, putting aside the unfinished opera Meduse. His comic opera Don Cesar de Bazan was staged after the war but was not well received by the public. On the other hand in 1873 his serious work, the oratorio Marie-Magdeleine, won a lasting success. Three years later Massenet was honoured with the Legion d'honneur. At the age of 36 he became professor of composition at the Conservatoire. A month later, in November 1878, he became a member of the Institut de France, the summit of public recognition.
Massenet's subsequent career brought intense activity as a composer and as a teacher. He always rose early, usually at 5.00 a.m., and was responsible for the training of a generation of French composers that included Gustave Charpentier, Florent Schmitt, Alfred Bruneau, Charles Koechlin, Ernest Chausson, Guy Ropartz and Reynaldo Hahn. At the death of Ambroise Thomas in 1896 he was offered the position of director of the Conservatoire, which he refused, resigning his teaching position in order to devote himself to his own affairs. He was much honoured during this latter part of his life. In 1888 he became an officer of the Legion d'honneur, in 1895 a commander and in 1899 grand officer. He lived principally in Paris, with summers spent in an old house at Egreville. On 13th August 1912, a date that he would have found ominous, he suddenly died during a visit to Paris to see a doctor.
Massenet had sought success and found it. The price he paid for this is seen in his reputation for writing music that seems at times facile. In fact he boasted a formidable technique, a reflection of his encyclopedic knowledge and incredible facility in writing. His compositions are very varied. Some operas are based on novels - Manon, Werther, Esclannonde and Don Quichotte - others on stories, such as Cendrillon. Others again are drawn from history, such as Herodiade. Nevertheless it is the pieces stigmatised as light that are the best known. There is no doubt, however, that Massenet can still surprise us, and if his music for the theatre seems the major part of his output, casting him as one of the great French opera-composers, it should be remembered that he also wrote nearly 200 songs, sacred dramas and oratorios, as well as orchestral works. This last category includes a piano concerto, as well as the very varied orchestral suites.
The subject of Hérodiade was under discussion with the Italian publisher Ricordi as early as 1877. A scenario was prepared by the writer Angelo Zanardini and Massenet continued to hope for a first performance of his new opera at La Scala, which in the event mounted the opera three months after the premiere in Brussels at the Theatre de la Monnaie, an occasion attended by four hundred enthusiasts who had travelled from Paris. The work had been completed by the end of 1879, while the orchestral scoring occupied Massenet for another eight months. Whatever competition there may have been from other opera-houses for a chance to stage Hérodiade, it had been refused by the Paris Opera, possibly because of the nature of the subject. In a version markedly different from that of the Bible and that of Oscar Wilde, the opera treats the story of Herod, Herodias (Hérodiade), Salome and St John the Baptist. John objects to the marriage of Herod and his brother's widow Herodias. Herod has fallen in love with Salome, apparently motherless, who has followed John to Jerusalem, her love for him openly declared. The priests accuse John of heresy, but Herod wishes to save him, as a possibly useful ally John, however, is imprisoned and when Salome intercedes for him with Herod, declaring her love, the latter gives up any attempt to save either of them. Vitellius, the Roman pro-consul, and his followers are entertained by Herod with the dances that form the orchestral suite from the opera, interrupted by the news of John's execution and Salome's attempt to kill Herodias, who now reveals that she is her mother. In despair Salome kills herself. The dances that form the divertissement in the final scene of the opera are strongly characterized, with all their exoticism.
Massenet's orchestral suites go back to the mid-1860s. The first suite was written in Venice in 1865 and first performed on 24th March 1867 at a Pasdeloup concert. It was listed as Symphonie en fa in the official report, when it was submitted as a necessary envoi from Italy, in fulfilment of the terms of the Prix de Rome. An early work, the suite nevertheless demonstrates the composer's command of sensual richness and dramatic subtlety that would contribute to the fascinating oper