Jules Massenet. A man, a Prince
Jules Massenet, born on 12 May 1842 in Montaud, in the Loire commune, which is today part of Saint-Etienne, was an important musician in the history of Monaco’s artistic life during Prince Albert I’s era. Massenet achieved rapid success. After receiving a first prize for piano in 1859, he won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1863 and spent two years at the Villa Medici. The meeting with Georges Hartmann, who would become his publisher and mentor, and a commission from the Opéra Comique, proved decisive for his career.
He wrote his first opera in 1867, “La Grand’ Tante”. He maintained a constant friendship with many artists, including Franz Liszt. The links between Massenet and the Principality of Monaco were numerous during the Belle Epoque, as seen through his friendship with Prince Albert I, which was strengthened by their relationship at the Institute. Massenet was elected to the Académie des beaux-arts (Academy of Fine Arts) in 1878, while Prince Albert I, who had already been a corresponding member in the geography section since 1891, became an associate member of the French Academy of Sciences in 1909. In fact, the last ten years of Massenet’s creative life are intrinsically linked to Monaco. From 1902, the Monte-Carlo Opera regularly hosted works by Jules Massenet (1842–1912): first “Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame”, a work dedicated to the Prince, then “Chérubin” in 1905, “Thérèse” in 1907 and “Don Quichotte” in 1910, one of his greatest successes with Chaliapin performing the title role.
In February 1902, while a guest, along with his wife, of Prince Albert I at the Palace of Monaco, the composer wrote in his diary: “Such an existence, the exact opposite of the one we left! We departed Paris in the evening, shrouded in a bitter cold, under the snow, and here, a few hours later, we found ourselves enveloped by a different atmosphere!... This was the South, the beautiful Provence; the Côte d’Azur that we were entering! It was very perfection! It was, for me, the East, practically on the doorstep of Paris!... The dream began. Need it be said how marvellous were those days, which passed like a dream, in this dantesque paradise, in the midst of this splendid decor, in this luxurious, sumptuous palace, filled with the scent of tropical flowers? [...] But what exceeded, in this opulent setting, everything that we saw with our eyes, everything that spoke to our souls, was the great intelligence, the calm goodness, the exquisite manners of our host, the Prince, who welcomed us.”
The links with Prince Albert I were strengthened by their relationship at the Institut de France. Massenet was elected to the Académie des beaux-arts (Academy of Fine Arts) in 1878.
A corresponding member since 1891, Albert I became an associated member of the French Academy of Sciences in 1909.
On 29 March 1910, the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, was officially opened. The Museum was designed by the Scholar Prince as a temple to the sea and a memorial of the oceanographic expeditions he had completed since 1885. Following this festive day, Massenet gave a toast on behalf of the Académie des beaux-arts (Academy of Fine Arts), which emphatically hailed Albert I as the “Prince of Light, the Prince of Harmony, the Prince of Science and Art, the Useful Prince”.
At the request of the Sovereign Prince, three new works punctuated the solemn opening ceremony: “Ouverture de fête” by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921), “La Nef triomphale” by Jules Massenet and a “Marche inaugurale” by Léon Jehin (1853–1928). Staying true to his preference for opera, Massenet was the only one to deliver a score for the voice, and the piece was performed by the orchestra and choirs from the Casino de Monte-Carlo. The piece, whose stanzas by the Provençal poet and Academy member Jean Aicard (1848–1921) proclaimed the glory of the Explorer Prince, appeared to make the greatest impression on the audience.
Closely connected to the circumstances surrounding its creation, “La Nef triomphale” has probably not been performed since, and the complete score appears to have disappeared at the publishing house, Heugel. As part of the commemorations of the centenary of the death of Prince Albert I, the work led by Didier de Cottignies, Artistic Director of the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Albert I Commemoration Committee – 2022 resulted in the commissioning of a modern version at the Palazzetto Bru Zane Centre de musique romantique (Centre for Romantic Music) in Venice.
This orchestration by Alexandre Dratwicki is based on a copy of the handwritten manuscript for voice and piano, which was obtained for research purposes by Jacqueline Carpine-Lancre (1933–2022), Prince Albert I’s historian.
“La Nef triomphale” was therefore able to be performed in a global recreation during the summer concerts at the Prince’s Palace on 17 July 2022.
For more details:
See the article by Jean-Christophe Branger, “the Prince of Science and Art, the Useful Prince. Albert I of Monaco and Massenet”.
Annales monégasques, 39, 2015. https://www.annales-monegasques.mc/content/search?SearchText=massenet