Jules Massenet – Don Quichotte
(b. Montand, 12 May 1842 — d. Paris, 13 August 1912)
The most prolific opera and mélodie composer of the Belle Époque, Jules Massenet began his musical training with his mother in his home town of St. Etienne before the family moved to Paris in 1847. At the age of ten, Massenet commenced his musical studies at the Paris Conservatoire and eventually studied composition with Ambroise Thomas. He won a premier prix for piano in 1859, a second prix for counterpoint and fugue in 1862, and the premier grand prix for the cantata David Rizzio in 1863. Massenet gave piano lessons and played timpani for the Théâtre Lyrique for four years, where he was exposed to classic and contemporary opera. He met his wife, Ninon de Sainte-Marie, through his friendship with Franz Liszt. They were married in 1866, and their daughter, Juliette, was born in 1868. Massenet’s thirty-five yearlong opera career began in 1867 with the production of his first opera, La grand’ tante, a one-act production commissioned by the Opéra-Comique. In 1878, Massenet accepted the position of composition professor at the Conservatoire, and in 1896 became director. Although his opera productions and music publications secured Massenet’s fame and wealth, Massenet remained gracious and generous throughout his lifetime. He died of abdominal cancer at the age of seventy, surrounded by his family members.
Composition came easy to Massenet; he wrote nearly forty operas and published twenty-five of them during his lifetime with the publisher Georges Hartmann. Massenet’s prolificacy, fame, and success gave him the liberty to choose stories and librettists that appealed to him and to compose roles for his favorite singers. In addition, contracts with multiple publishers and opera houses and his secure professorship at the Conservatoire allowed him the luxury of maintaining a consistent 19th-century French style while other fin de siècle composers felt the pressure of succumbing to the influences of Wagner or Debussy. That said, although Massenet’s harmonic and compositional style remained consistent, he was able to construct individual personalities for each of his operas. Massenet created operas as diverse in theming and mood as the opéra-comique Cendrillon (Cinderella), the opéra-exotique Thaïs, the bloodthirsty drama, La Navarraise, and the intimate Werther. His theatrical genius centered on his ability to give audiences what they wanted while maintaining a high standard of musical excellence.
Don Quichotte is a five-act comédie-héroïque set to a libretto by the French writer Henri Cain based on the 1904 play, Le chevalier de la longue figure by Jacques Le Lorrain, which was in turn based on Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. One of six operas commissioned by Raoul Gunsbourg for the Opéra de Monte Carlo, Don Quichotte premiered on 19 February 1910, and quickly became the most successful of Massenet’s late operas.
Read full English and German preface > HERE