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Book Review

MASSENET - A Chronicle of his Life and Times

by Demar Irvine

Amadeus Press; 398 pages; paperback. First published in 1994.
ISBN 1-57467-024-7 $22.95
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Over recent years Massenet's image has undergone a transformation and reassessment. Although Manon, Werther and Thaïs have always held a place in the repertoire, it is often forgotten that by the time he was 70, he had completed 28 operas and had seen 22 of them produced on the stage. Another three of them would be produced within the decade following his death in 1912.

This important book languished in an unpublished special typewritten edition in American libraries from 1974 until the author of the Foreword, Reinhard G. Pauly, discovered it while investigating the existence of an English version of Massenet's memoirs, Mes Souvenirs. As Gérard Condé observes in his Introduction, "It is surprising to note the extent to which even the most basic facts about Massenet's life are still, lacking." There have been other biographies, of course, but even the best of them brimmed with inaccuracies and Massenet's own memoirs were elusive and idealised. Demar Irvine's book must therefore be regarded as the definitive study of this unduly neglected composer.

The work is aptly titled for its pages are crammed with details of personalities long forgotten or only half remembered: singers, composer, conductors, poets, critics and artists whose lives touched that of Massenet. It also vividly depicts life in 19th century France through the turbulence of the 1848 and 1871 revolutions and the great Paris exhibitions etc. In 1848, for instance, "The Massenet family apartment was a ringside seat for revolution. Indeed on one occasion in that historic February when Madam Massenet and her sons had to cross the Tuilleries gardens, they found themselves pinned down by cross-fire, flat on their stomachs for several hours." Another absorbing and fascinating feature of the book, "as seen through the composer's eyes" is the experience of entering and winning the competition for the Prix de Rome. The experience is sketched in great detail including Massenet's youthful delights in Naples and Sorrento and his fulfilment of the obligations of the prize studying at the Villa Medici in Rome and elsewhere in Europe.

Massenet's private life was strictly private. The book reveals very little beyond the fact that he was happily married for forty-six years. "From a wife's point of view, Massenet must have been an ideal husband: kindly to the point of never wanting to hurt anybody's feelings; a ready and witty conversationalist with a twinkle in his eye; and while an obsessive worker, never too busy to attend to the nuances of sociability." (Although, "throughout his life, Massenet was never to be released from his moments of melancholy and doubt."). Massenet appears to have been equally important as an enlightened teacher well-loved by his students (including Gustav Charpentier) and "he always showed deep interest in all young persons who were studying to be artists whether it was for the lyric stage, for concerts or as instrumentalists."

The book has its weaknesses. For some reason there is no story of Manon whereas all the other opera stories are included (perhaps Irvine thought it unnecessary or perhaps it slipped through the editing net?). In the later chapters, the narrative falters in interest somewhat, being too concerned with the tedious coverage of the many journeys undertaken by Massenet to keep on top of the numerous productions of his operas. (Although one is interested to note that as he became increasingly more wealthy Massenet would take series of hotel suites with empty rooms on either side, under an assumed name, to assure peace and quiet for his work.)

There are many illustrations of his contemporary composers and the singers who starred in his operas including Mary Garden, Geraldine Farrar and Féodor Chaliapin. Appendices include a count of Massenet's opera performances in Paris alone (by 1915 there had been 580 performances of Manon, 358 of Werther, 145 of Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame and 104 of Thaïs.) There is a full list of compositions: completed operas; some fourteen unfinished, lost or destroyed operas; four ballets; incidental music and music for orchestra including the Scènes and the piano concerto; plus music for the piano, chamber ensembles, and for the church; and the vocal music including a very substantial number of songs. The selected discography is rather out of date though and does not, of course, include the wealth of new releases that have come out over the last three years, including Pappano's acclaimed Werther and Manon starring Alagna and Gheorghiu.

For Massenet admirers this is a full and fascinating biography of France's most successful composer. As a bonus, its earlier chapters have remarkable descriptions of life in 19th century Paris and what it was like to be a winner of the Prix de Rome. It is also a handy source of reference for the plots and details of all those operas.

Ian Lace

There is nothing I can add to disagree with Ian Lace's assessment of this book. Only to offer the opinion that this is a detached, academic-styled biography seeking to establish the facts as much as possible, without the requirement of producing an enthralling or entertaining narrative. Which is to say, in the best possible way, that this is not a riveting read, but then, it is not intended to be. Interesting yes, and notable for scrupulous attention to detail, though often having to fill-in with such statements as "In all likelihood…" (p.105) concerning matters not yet established. The fact is, there is still a lot which is not known about the life of Massenet; at the moment this volume is as definitive as we have.

Demar Irvine has a particular problem in writing about his subject, in that like so many good men, Massenet is not particularly interesting in himself - as actors are always saying, the villain is much more interesting than the hero. Massenet did very little to interest a biographer. Our interest lies in his music. Had he not been a composer, but a builder, engineer, merchant, he would like millions of others, passed into history unknown. Fortunately there is the music to write about, and Irvine does this well, chronicling each opera, performances, etc. and illustrating each with photos of the artists and reproductions of advertising posters from the period. It must be said that the book has first-rate production values, though the sheer amount of specific detail included may be of more value to the student than the general reader.

Finally, one must take the subtitle of the book into account, for this is very much "A Chronicle of His Life and Times", the detours, asides and background stories offering to the reader the entire musical, cultural, political and commercial world of the mid-19th to early 20th centuries. So much so that one often wishes a particular tangent could be followed in-depth. As such there are numerous historical jumping-off points which may stimulate further reading, making this an excellent introduction to an entire world.

Gary S. Dalkin

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