Jules Massenet, the Innovator

Jules Massenet, 1880

Jules Massenet (1842-1912) is one of the most celebrated French opera composers of the Romantic Era.  He’s responsible for composing some of the most beloved French operas including Thais, Manon, Werther, and dozens of other operas that still get performed to this day. Massenet studied composition with Ambroise Thomas at the Paris Conservatorie, and this connection to Thomas helped Massenet stage his first opera at the Opéra-Comique at the age of 25.[1]  He is most responsible for incorporating the saxophone into the full orchestra, and his composition studio at the Paris Conservatorie was filled with the next generation of saxophone composers. The saxophone is used as a solo instrument is in three of his operas, Le Roi de Lahore (1877), Hérodiade (1882), and Werther (1892). 

The first of the operas to include the saxophone, Le Roi de Lahore, is also one of Massenet’s first grand operas, staged at the Palais Garnier in 1877.[2]  Le Roi de Lahore follows in the footsteps of orientalist tales and stories that filled the late Romantic stage.  Le Roi de Lahore is set in India, and the saxophone accompanies the spirit of King Alim and the Hindu god Indra.[3]  You can hear the alto saxophone voice doubling King Alim in the video below.

In the ballet sequence in the third act, the “Divertissement” features both the alto and tenor saxophone in a waltz like melody.  While the setting is exotic, the music is still within the confines of French ballet music. The solo fits the voice of the tenor saxophone, but it is sometimes left out when performed and the bassoon and alto saxophone play the melody.  Some performances leave the saxophone out entirely and let the violin play the solo.  Massenet intended for both the alto and tenor to play the melody in unison, and with edits and rewrites, recordings of the “Divertissement” use different forms and different instruments. 

Tenor and Alto Saxophone solo, abridged form:

Alto Saxophone with bassoon double, longer form:

The next opera Massenet wrote with the saxophone in the score is Hérodiade, which premiered in 1881. The text comes from Gustav Flaubert’s novella about King Herod, Salome, and John the Baptist.  It’s worth noting this is far removed from the more scandalous Oscar Wilde play, Salome which became the plot of Richard Strauss’s 1908 opera of the same name.  With Salome and the “Dance of the Seven Veils” overshadowing Massenet’s Hérodiade, this opera could have fallen out of favor with audiences, but revivals in France and the United States keep this opera in the repertoire. Massenet began composing this opera after he replaced Ambroise Thomas as composition professor at the Paris Conservatorie.[4]  The saxophone is heard on the well-known second act aria written for King Hérode, “Vision Fugitive.” The opening of the aria has an alto saxophone solo, (minute 1:15 in the video below) and Massenet showcases the upper range of the saxophone, which now extends to a palm key F.  He’s well aware of the technical advancements that have been made to the saxophone, and writes accordingly. 

Later in the opera, the alto saxophone accompanies Salome in her aria, “te quitter, ô Jean” where she expresses her love for Jean and refuses to leave his side. The saxophone has a triplet ostinato pattern underneath Salome’s aria (minute 0:18 below).       

Like Le Roi de Lahore, the opera is written with both alto and tenor saxophone in the score. Most productions use the alto saxophone; I have not come across one that includes the tenor.

The last opera that includes the saxophone in Massenet’s 1892 masterpiece, Werther. Werther brings to life Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, a story based on a poet’s undying love for a married woman, Charlotte. The third act aria, “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes” is Charlotte’s reaction to a letter she receives from Werther. This sorrowful aria is colored by the range of the saxophone: the alto plays in the lowest octave, and many of the phrases start on low B, which at that time was the lowest note of the saxophone.  From the previous solo in Hérodiade to this one in Werther, Massenet uses the saxophone as a contrast to the vocal range.  Charlotte is written for a mezzo soprano, so the saxophone is voiced lower than her range.  In Hérodiade, the saxophone is written above the vocal range of King Hérode.  The dynamic range of this solo provides an extra challenge to the saxophonist, as the low B is generally voiced at the piano or pianissimo dynamic.  It’s almost like Massenet was writing for the clarinet in the chalumeau register, which has a dark woody sound.

In Massenet’s operas, it’s worth noting that the saxophone is both a solo instrument and part of the orchestra.  The saxophone acts as a bridge between woodwinds and brass, playing the technical flourishes of the woodwinds and doubling the french horn in the brass fanfares. Massenet also included saxophone in some of his other works outside of opera.  Massenet used nine saxophones (2s/2a/2t/2b/1bass) in his march, Marche Héroïque de Szabadi in 1879, there is no recording of this work but it was transcribed into a piano solo by Franz Liszt the same year. In 1882, Massenet wrote Scènes de féerie, an orchestral suite that includes the alto saxophone. In the this opera database, Massenet has five entries, the other two are 1875’s Éve, and 1891’s Le Mage. Le Mage includes a bass saxophone that doubles the tuba. More research needs to be done to see if contemporary performances of Le Mage includes the saxophone.

It’s important to note that Jules Massenet contribution to the saxophone extends outside of the opera world.  Many of his pupils at the Paris Conservatorie went on to write for saxophone in a variety of musical settings.  His pupils that have contributed to the saxophone repertoire include:

Massenet’s teaching links the saxophone solos heard in opera during the 19th century to the saxophone works in chamber settings, orchestras, ballets, and solos in the 20th century.  His influence as a composer of works for the saxophone is overlooked, and this is merely an introduction to his work.

[1] Annegret Fauser, Patrick Gillis and Hugh Macdonald. “Massenet, Jules (Emile Frédéric),” Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online. https://www-oxfordmusiconline-com.proxy108.nclive.org/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000051469?rskey=Fuv00S&result=1 retrieved 9/1/2020

[2] ibid.

[3] Cottrell, The Saxophone. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012) pg. 233

[4] Annegret Fauser, Patrick Gillis and Hugh Macdonald. “Massenet, Jules (Emile Frédéric),” Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online. https://www-oxfordmusiconline-com.proxy108.nclive.org/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000051469?rskey=Fuv00S&result=1 retrieved 9/1/2020

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