Jules Massenet was a prodigy who entered the Paris Conservatoire aged just 11, eventually studying opera composition under Ambroise Thomas, the Director of the Conservatoire and composer of the opera Mignon; Massenet would become a teacher himself at the Conservatoire in 1878, and still later take over from Thomas as Director, numbering amongst his pupils Gustave Charpentier, Ernest Chausson and Reynaldo Hahn.
In 1863 Massenet won the Prix de Rome, the most coveted European composition prize — which Berlioz had finally won in 1830 at his fourth attempt – with a jolly little cantata on the bloody and controversial murder in 1566 of Mary Queen of Scots’s private secretary David Rizzio, and went on to write over two dozen operas, several of which remain in the repertoire, including Manon, Werther and the Egypt-set Thais (from which comes the well-known Meditation for violin and orchestra). He was distinctly prolific in many genres, including ballet, cantata, works for orchestra and song. His opera Le Cid (The Lord), was based on the legend of the 11th century Castillian nobleman Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, who heroically rid Castile of the marauding Moors with the support of his wife Chimene (in French Rodrigue and Chimene). It is a story also immortalised in Anthony Mann’s film El Cid (1961), which starred Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren.
Massenet was inspired by a popular play by Corneille, as were both Bizet and Debussy, but Massenet was the only one of the three to complete his opera, which remained very popular throughout Europe for its first thirty-five years but then fell into disuse. Luckily Massenet was able to extract a ballet suite from the opera as a concert item in its own right, comprising seven movements, almost all characteristic Spanish regional dances.
The opening Castillane, from Castile, Rodrigue’s home province, is a mixture of elegance and full-blooded heroic Spanish dance.
The Andalouse, from Andalucia, is lazy and reflective, with cellos providing an atmospheric accompaniment to flute, then violins. The Aragonaise, from Aragon, is one of the most flamboyant dances in the set.
The Aubade, (Morning Piece) has bubbling flutes to the fore again with pizzicato strings.
The Catalane is again boldly Spanish, with triplet and duplet rhythms and the cellos to the fore in a smouldering dance which only bursts into flame at the end.
The Madrilene begins atmospherically, then becomes a rollicking dance which involves ricochet bowing in the strings.
Finally the Navarraise sets off with percussive accompaniment to a rather arrogant main theme before the Aragonaise returns to user in a bacchanalian finish.