THE MASSENET QUESTIONNAIRE
A questionnaire given to many composers and published in MASSENET AUJOURD'HUI: HÉRITAGE ET POSTÉRITÉ: Actes du colloque de la XIe biennale Massenet des 25 et 26 octobre 2012 - for the Massenet centennial, published by Publications de l'Université de Saint-Étienne (in French) edited and compiled by Jean-Christophe Branger and Vincent Giroud
1. Quelle est selon vous la place de Massenet dans l’histoire du théâtre lyrique ?
[What is, for you, Massenet's place in the history of opera?]
Massenet might just be one of those composers who, because of craft and facility, has never quite been deemed respectable by the cultural vigilantes who purport to know best! He was a very great talent who advanced the tradition of French opera from Meyerbeer to Debussy, which is no mean feat. Just as Rimsky-Korsakov, another underrated master, begat Stravinsky and Prokofiev, Massenet begat Debussy, Ravel, and transformed the sound of French music. I know that Romain Rolland’s often quoted reference to ‘The Massenet slumbering in the heart of every Frenchman’ was meant condescendingly, but in fact, his influence is everywhere among his contemporaries and pupils. He also provided the Italian tradition with a new beginning. Puccini’s early work is unthinkable without the example of Massenet.
His attention to French prosody, in a tradition that in the mid 19th century French musical theatre had been dominated by foreigners (Meyerbeer, Offenbach), was obviously a huge influence on Debussy. Thaïs, always interested me in this respect. Much of the libretto gets rid of verse conventions expected in libretti at that time, and is in prose. Massenet’s melodic style seemed to change after this, asymmetric in phrase structure to mirror the freedom in the libretto. He left an operatic legacy in a range of theatrical genres, surely without parallel: Grand Opera, verismo, sentimental comedy, bourgeois tragedy, miracle play, fairy-tale, Wagnerian magic opera – while all the time contriving to please a bourgeois audience, which, from our viewpoint in an age where much new opera is greeted with indifference and incomprehension, is no bad thing. Unlike Debussy, he never revolutionized the form, but strove to expand its expressivity and variety from within. And, like all great opera composers, he was a master of theatre, breathing musical life into a far greater diversity of characters for which he goes largely uncredited.
I do think his operas are very difficult to bring off, they are elusive and some, more than others, are dependent on performers who have real charisma. And, in our time, when opera is so international, the dying off of the French opéra-comique tradition means that a crucial key to the performance of Massenet has been lost.
2. Quelle place occupe-t-il dans votre parcours personnel ?
[What does he mean to you personally?]
As an opera composer myself, I have two predecessors who I regard as my secret pleasures – one is Rimsky-Korsakov, whose 15 operas have a variety and vitality that belie their scant representation on stage, and the other, Jules Massenet. As a composition student in the 1970s, I had a couple of rigorous teachers who forbade me to write in a certain manner as it was not modern or original enough. So, to relax I would play through scores of half-forgotten operas on the piano. My first exposure to Massenet, at the age of 16, was bizarrely through one of his least known works: his grand opera Le mage. I found a score with a beautifully decorated title page in a dusty old junk shop, and found I was carried away by the seamless dramatic sweep of the scenes, particularly the tremendous second act.
I marveled at the incredibly detailed markings in the vocal parts, where expression and articulation marks precisely delineated the emotional journeys of the characters, and the very careful and natural way the words were set. I also enjoyed the fact, later, when I was more experienced, that Le mage was, in fact, pure hokum, but that the music had an intensity and beauty that made the action almost believable. It was a musical equivalent of those well-made Hollywood movies from the golden age that always delivered – maybe in a modest way, but you were rarely disappointed. I soon discovered a treasure trove of operatic variety, especially the less critically acclaimed but more genre-bending late works, from Thaïs onwards, which are the ones I now love the most. As a musical dramatist myself, I learn from Massenet that ‘little’ moments can be given the most memorable and unexpected emotional weight. The final scene of Thaïs comes to mind - Mere Albine’s first solo - where she sings
Son corps est détruit par le pénitence
to harmonies so sensuous, and painful, that one suspects that Poulenc must have internalized that moment and voila! - there is the kernel from which Dialogues des Carmélites springs. There are countless examples of these passing frissons in his music, but one of my favorites is Dulcinée in Don Quichotte, where she defends the knight with the words
Oui, peut-étre, est-il fou, mais, c’est un fou sublime!
The performer is left to do the job! The music gets out of the way, yet Massenet underlines this moment where the superficial Dulcinée show an unexpected depth, with some unexpected harmonic displacements – it’s over in a few seconds, but it is a wondrously subtle moment. For this reason, I prefer Massenet to Puccini, whose moments of revelation tend to be bellowed rather than murmured.
The proximity of laughter and tears in the late works are a great influence on me. In the underrated Grisélidis, a problematic operatic subject to revive today, to be sure, I love how the heroine gets tortured by a comic-opera devil and his sidekick, Fatima – almost a magician’s assistant, but patient Griselda’s anguish is so ripe and heartfelt. And the devil himself is gradually revealed to be more sinister through the piece, aided by some (for Massenet) unexpectedly pungent harmonies.
I learn much from Massenet’s simplicity. The music can almost look childish on the page, but become the moments in the theatre where you hold your breath: like the Légende de la sauge from Le jongleur de Notre-Dame, the little aria from the posthumous Panurge: Touraine est un pays (especially in the magisterial recording by its creator Vanni Marcoux) where a sudden lyrical moment in a Rabelaisian comedy becomes infinitely touching, or the strange experiment of the first act of Amadis – totally spoken, which culminates in a beautifully rapt orchestral lullaby. Ravel’s L’enfant comes directly out of these pages, the sublime Toi, le coeur de la rose is unthinkable without Massenet’s example.
3. Dans quelle mesure son œuvre peut-elle être encore une source d'inspiration pour des compositeurs d'aujourd'hui?
[To what extent can his work still inspire composers of today?]
Massenet’s language never really transcends the 19th century, so I’m not sure that his musical language is an influence on contemporary composers. But I feel that his industry and the incredibly high standard of his craft is a great example for anyone working in the field.
There is much to learn from a composer whose musical language remains constant throughout his career, and yet who can breathe life into such diverse creations as Esclarmonde, Werther, Cendrillon, Le jongleur de Notre-Dame, La navarraise, and more.
Massenet has that instinct, which only the greatest opera composers have, of knowing when not to write music – to stay out of the way when information needs to be conveyed to the audience, a consummate theatrical technician who knows that music is not the only element in opera. I feel so many present day composers write too much indiscriminate music in their operas. By studying Massenet, I have been privy to a master-class in clarity of operatic practice.
© Julian Grant 2014. This questionnaire was published in a French translation by Vincent Giroud.