I will rarely admit to having a crush on a Frenchman for two reasons: 1. They already love themselves enough and don’t need an extra boost to the ego; 2. They’re French…call to mind every stereotype that you can in regards to the French and ALL of them will fully explain why it is not in their favor to admit to them (the French) when or if you have a crush on one of them. That hesitation for honesty aside, I will admit an admiration and slight crush on Jules Émile Frédéric Massenet—French composer and a sweetie (at least in my mind).
His life, as we know of it, is not filled with the scandals, violence and treacheries one might expect of a Frenchman (come on, you know that’s not much of a stretch considering the French Revolution, the French Wars of Religion, and the Hundred Years War...though I’ll give on the last and admit that the Brits are equally to blame for it). No, Massenet was born humbly to a metalworker in 1842 in Montaud (it’s part of Saint-Étienne now and their coat of arms has a really awesome pissed fish.)
|Ah the far off stare that all musicians learn in school|
It appears that Massenet found iron too dull for his tastes and was able to enter the Paris Conservatoire between ages ten and eleven after his family moved there due to his father’s ill health (seriously, anyone working in a factory during the Industrial Revolution is b.a. in my opinion... the quality of life SUCKED). He studied under famed opera composer Ambroise Thomas (holy cow he’s also a brilliant hottie who aged really well). Massenet supported himself (I admire self-sufficient folks) by working primarily as a timpanist at the Théâtre Lyrique and also as a pianist at the Café de Belleville (why has there NOT been a movie made about this guy: “humble son of an ironworker sets out on his own to become a world famous composer, first having to support himself amidst the denizens of less than reputable places only to later win against all odds a prize that allows him to travel to Italy where he finds friendship and love but who then must…”? Hello Hollywood! Stop rebooting good stories already told and start digging into your history books. Thank you!)
He gained his first major recognition in 1863 when he won the Prix de Rome. This allowed him to study in Italy and as we all know Italy is where one goes to find love and pasta. It was in Italy that Massenet met Franz Liszt (I’d have fainted too if I’d ever seen this virtuoso pianist play. Good thing it wasn’t culturally acceptable to throw underwear at the performer back then because Liszt would’ve had boatloads of underwear to cart around). Liszt, knowing his way around pianos and ladies, encouraged Massenet to give “lessons” to Louise-Constance (an heiress FYI; so apparently my mum isn’t too far off when she encourages me to find “luck” and marry for love AND money.) “Ninon” as she was later called soon (1866) became Massenet’s wife as a result. (Oh and anyone who says a guitar is the only thing that makes a lady swoon needs to delve deeper into history and discover hurdy gurdies, zithers, and dueling shamisens.)
|Going for the wind-swept look here|
Another thing admirable about Massenet was his willingness to step out of his fame and comfort in order to do what he felt was his duty. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out he volunteered until the very end and only returned to composing in 1871. He worked primarily on his operas and incidental music until his former teacher (that’s right folks, teacher’s DO care!) approached him and invited him to become a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. Like Thomas, Massenet was able to positively influence a new generation of awesome French composers.
What makes Massenet especially fascinating to me is that he created his pieces “not at the piano.” This means that he created all his pieces entirely from his imagination (and as a connoisseur of living in the imagination I empathize with the plight of folks just not “getting it”); his imagination apparently was able to latch on to the intricacies of human relationships. His music often, surprisingly lucidly for the time period, portrays an intimacy of understanding of the conflicts and emotions that are associated with the ups and downs of all sorts of relationships. He had a unique gift for melody and was a great orchestrator, able to capture the moods and settings of numerous places and time periods.
He wrote around twenty-four operas but also composed approximately 250 songs--oratorios, ballets, orchestral works, chamber music, solo piano—that are all known for being graceful, lyrical, sentimental, and aptly “on the money” for how much it reflected reality in all its melancholic splendor (to achieve this, much his daily schedule often started as early as 4 a.m…hence the increasing unlikeliness that I’ll ever finish anything I’ve ever star-)
I believe his humble beginnings and his lack of getting into the “partying” lifestyle that even composers of the 19th century had access to (yeah the party scene today in some ways is quite tame to the party scene of then) caused him to exhibit what was then known as “curious” behavior. He actually avoided most public dress-rehearsals and performances of his works; he did this to such a degree that his friends or wife were often the ones to tell him when he had made a hit. Too bad more celebrities today haven’t taken a page from Massenet’s “How to be successful but not be a douche about it” book.
|Like I said: such a sweetie/cutie!|
Massenet died in Paris at the age of 70 in 1912, after suffering from a long illness (possibly cancer).