The Composition of Werther

On February 1, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a 24-year-old writer in Germany, begins writing The Sorrows of Young Werther. The novel, published later that year, is phenomenally successful.

Jules Massenet is born on May 12 in Montaud, a town in the Loire region of France. His mother is a gifted amateur pianist, and Massenet will receive his earliest music lessons from her.

The Massenet family moves to Paris.

Massenet, only 11 years old, begins studying piano at the Paris Conservatory. He is an excellent pupil, and in 1859 he wins the conservatory’s first prize for piano students.

Massenet begins formal composition lessons at the conservatory. The following year, he wins not only second prize in the conservatory’s composition competition but also an honorable mention in the contest for the Rome Prize, the most important compositional award in France. While at the conservatory, Massenet earns extra money by giving private music lessons and playing piano and timpani in the cafés and theaters of Paris.

Massenet wins the Rome Prize, which funds two years of study in Rome. While in Italy, he meets the pianist and composer Franz Liszt, who introduces him to Louise-Constance de Gressy, a young French woman traveling through Italy with her mother. De Gressy and Massenet will marry on October 8, 1866. Their only child, Juliet, is born 18 months later.

The Franco-Prussian war breaks out. Massenet joins the French National Guard.

A group of French composers founds the Société Nationale de Musique (National Music Society), intended to support young French composers. In the wake of the French-German hostilities of the previous year, the organization also hopes to develop a distinctly French style that can hold its own against the German style currently popular in Europe. Massenet is a founding member.

Massenet is appointed director of composition at the Paris Conservatory; he will stay in the position for 18 years. He also enjoys his first taste of international acclaim when his opera Le Roi de Lahore (which premiered in Paris the previous year) receives a tremendously successful performance in Turin.

In a letter to a friend, Massenet mentions that he has been thinking about writing an opera based on The Sorrows of Young Werther. Nevertheless, he waits until 1885 to begin this work.

Massenet finishes the score for Werther. He offers it to Paris’s Comic Opera for the premiere, but the organization turns him down.

On May 22, Massenet meets Sibyl Sanderson, a 22-year-old American soprano. He is instantly taken with her voice (and likely her beautiful face as well). Over the next decade, Massenet will write many of his most important female roles for her, including the title role in Thaïs.

Werther finally premieres on February 16 in Vienna.

Werther is performed for the first time in Paris, where it is enthusiastically welcomed by the French musical establishment. A critic in the Paris newspaper Le Monde declares, “Goethe has said somewhere that ‘where words leave off, music begins’; in the score of Werther words and music are so closely allied as to seem born of one and the same inspiration.”

The next few years will be remarkably productive for Massenet. In 1899, his Cendrillon will premiere at Paris’s Comic Opera, the very house that rejected Werther more than decade before.

On August 13, Massenet dies in Paris.

Critical Inquiry
When Werther premiered in Paris, French critics applauded the French style of the music. Which recent political events might have inspired them to draw a distinction between French and German art?