Although it is often performed as a concert work, the achingly beautiful strains of the Meditation originate in the opera house as an intermezzo in Massenet's masterpiece, Thaïs. Although still performed to this day, it does not have a secure position in the operatic repertoire in the way that his Manon and Werther do. The title role in the opera was composed for the young Californian soprano Sybil Sanderson, who was known both for her vocal prowess and physical beauty. Massenet was enchanted by her, having already made significant changes to his hit Manon and written the opera Esclarmonde for her when he began composing Thaïs. The story follows the life of the famed Alexandrian courtesan Thaïs and the monk Athanaël who has come to convince her to renounce her sinful life. She is driven into hysterics by the monk's words, seeing emptiness in her life and the approach of old age, until she collapses.
The famous Meditation that follows her collapse musically depicts her conversion to a life of piety. The opera ends tragically, as Athanaël, having successfully converted her and returned to his monastery, is tormented by what he realizes is love for the former courtesan. He returns to Alexandria to find her dead and confesses his love and physical desire for her to the unhearing ears of her corpse. Religious conversion aside, the Meditation is a superbly beautiful melody crafted with extreme delicacy. It is no wonder that it has found a place in the repertoire independent of the opera and, though originally for solo violin and orchestra, has been arranged for almost every instrument imaginable.
- Composer John Glover is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Publications Assistant.