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At this stage his ambitions lay firmly in the direction of the piano virtuoso. He recalled later: ‘I wore my hair ridiculously long, as was the fashion with virtuosi and this outward resemblance suited my ambitious dreams. It seemed that unkempt hair was the complement of talent!’ Massenet’s facility for hard work, a trait which never left him, brought its own rewards when in July 1859 he gained a first prize at the Conservatoire for his performance of Hiller’s F minor concerto—an almost essential qualification then for a successful performing career in France.
The glittering playing career, however, never materialized—mainly due to financial difficulties. His father was unable to provide him with an allowance and so Massenet was forced to live with his married sister eking out a precarious existence by teaching, playing in cafés and working in the evenings as a percussionist at the Paris Opéra. It was here that night after night he would hear some of the finest singers of the day and that his life-long interest in opera was to begin. This experience of playing in the theatre pit gave Massenet an insight into orchestration and a love of theatre’s dramatic possibilities. And so, although a first prize traditionally marked the end of a student’s formal training, Massenet decided to return to the Conservatoire where, in 1860, he enrolled in the harmony class of François Bazin.
Unfortunately, Bazin had no time for Massenet’s early compositions. Massenet was labelled a black sheep and shown the door. It is surely fitting that eighteen years later Massenet was to take over Bazin’s harmony class at the Conservatoire and later his chair at the Académie des beaux-arts. In the end Massenet studied harmony with the more congenial teacher Reber and became a favourite composition pupil of Ambroise Thomas—an almost forgotten composer now, but one who achieved considerable success in his day with operas such as Mignon and Hamlet (Chabrier once commented, ‘There are three sorts of music: good music, bad music, and the music Ambroise Thomas writes’). Just as earlier with his piano studies, Massenet quickly found success as a composer and in 1863, at the second attempt, he won the coveted Prix de Rome. This enabled him to spend three years in Italy at the Villa Medici where he set about developing his talents.
‘It was in Rome that I first began to live’, declared Massenet, and it is certainly true that up until this point he had lived a life of poverty, an experience which made him careful with his money in later life and which gave him a healthy respect for commercial success. Rome’s most famous resident musician was Franz Liszt, who was a frequent visitor to the Villa Medici and often gave informal recitals there. Liszt soon noticed the young Massenet and, impressed by his playing, persuaded him to take over one of his pupils, a young beauty called Constance de Sainte-Marie. It was a fortuitous arrangement as Massenet soon fell completely in love with her and, in order to secure her parents’ permission to marry, threw himself into work with renewed determination—he was to marry Constance in 1866 after his return to Paris.
It was from Rome that Massenet wrote to his sister, ‘I am working more at the piano. I’m studying Chopin’s Études, but especially Beethoven and Bach as the true musician-pianist’. And it was as a ‘musician-pianist’ that Massenet saw himself at the time. What could be less surprising then that, with his future operatic success yet to come, he should embark on a piano concerto which was to remain as a collection of sketches until 1902, when, in a period of three months, he finally completed the version heard on this recording. Why he returned to these early sketches we shall never know, but it gives us a fascinating glimpse back to the young piano virtuoso who was later to conquer the world of opera but who never forgot his early ambitions. The influence of Liszt can be clearly heard, especially in the opening of the work and in the splendidly over-the-top last movement. The marriage of conventional French pianistic writing and Lisztian bravura is an unusual one and if there is a feeling that perhaps the whole is less than the sum of its parts—what parts they are! A combination of frothy abandon and elegant melody, youthful exuberance tempered by experience.
Massenet holds a place as one of France’s greatest musical influences, both as a composer and a teacher. His many pupils included Gustave Charpentier, Charles Koechlin, Florent Schmitt, Gabriel Pierné and Reynaldo Hahn.
from notes by Stephen Coombs © 1997