Jules Massenet was born in 1842, and at the age of twelve became a pupil of Bezit at the Conservatoire, was rejected by Bezit for want of talent, and afterward studied with Reber and Thomas, and won the Prix de Rome in 1863. Upon his return, in 1866, he wrote a number of small orchestral works, including two suites and several sacred dramas, “Marie Magdalen” and “Eve and the Virgin,” in which the general Meyerbeerian style militated against any suggestion of religious feeling. His first grand opera, “Le roi de Lahore,” was given in 1881. The second was “Herodiade,” which was followed by “Manon,” “The Cid,” “Esclarmonde,” “Le mage.”
One of the most disputed questions in modern music is that of opera. Although we have many controversies as to what purely instrumental or vocal music may do, the operatic art, if we may call it so, always remains the same. In creating the music drama, Wagner put forth a composite art, something which many declare impossible, and as many others advocate as being the most complete art form yet conceived. We are still in the midst of the discussion, and a final verdict is therefore as yet impossible. On one hand we have Wagner, and against him we have the absolutists such as Brahms, the orthodox thinkers represented by Anton Rubinstein and many others, the new Russian school represented by Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and the successors of the French school of Meyerbeer, namely, Saint-Saens, Massenet, etc.
In order to get a clear idea of the present state of the matter we must review the question from the beginning of the eighteenth century. For many reasons this is not an easy task, first of all because very little of the music of the operas of this period actually exists. We know the names of Hasse, Pergolesi, Matheson, Graun, Alessandro Scarlatti (who was a much greater man than his son the harpsichord player and composer, Domenico), to name only a few. To be sure, a number of the French operas of the period are preserved, owing to the custom in France of engraving music. In Germany and Italy, however, such operas were never printed, and one may safely say that it was almost the rule for only one manuscript copy to be available. Naturally this copy belonged to the composer, who generally led the opera himself, improvising much of it on the harpsichord, as we shall see later. As an instance of the danger which operas, under such conditions, ran of being destroyed and thus lost to the world, we may cite the total destruction of over sixty of Hasse’s operas in his extreme old age.
The second point which makes it difficult for us to get an absolutely clear insight into the conditions of opera at the beginning of the eighteenth century lies in the fact that contemporary historians never brought their histories up to their own times. Thus Marpurg, in his history, divides music into four periods; first, that of Adam and Eve to the flood; second, from the flood to the Argonauts; third, to the beginning of the Olympiads; fourth, from thence to Pythagoras. The same may be said of the celebrated histories of Gerbert and Padre Martini.