I have a terrible time remembering people’s names and perhaps an even worse time remembering the names of singers, composers, and pieces of music. Can you relate? Click here to listen to “Meditation” from Thaïs, with Yo-Yo Ma on the cello and Kathryn Stott on the piano. I bet it sounds familiar. It was composed by Jules Émile Frédéric Massenet, who was born on May 12, 1842.
Massenet was taught piano by his mother, who did such a good job that he was able to enter the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris at age 11. He won the Prix de Rome at age 20 for his cantata David Rizio. The prize was three years of study in Rome. While there, he met the composer Franz Liszt who got him a piano teaching gig for the daughter of a wealthy widow. At the end of his stay in Rome, he took his student home as his wife.
Upon their return to Paris, he set about composing operas, cantatas, ballet music and other pieces in earnest. His wife’s social connections helped him secure important commissions. “Meditation” is part of his opera Thaïs, composed in 1894. He was appointed a Grand Officier of the Légion d’Honneur and was the youngest member ever elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts when he was only 36.
Although he was all the rage in the late 19th century, his pieces have mostly fallen into oblivion. His “Aragonaise” from the opera Le Cid is still murdered at piano recitals on a regular basis. Here is Marion Anderson singing his haunting “Élégie” from Les Érinnyes. Massenet often started work at four in the morning and his output was twenty-five full operas, not counting all of his other work. He died of cancer at age 70.
Today’s expression, ça me dit quelque chose (sah muh dee kelkuh shows) is what you say when something seems familiar but you can’t quite place it. It literally means “that says something to you.” I hope the next time you hear “Meditations” you’ll think about Massenet and vice versa.