Discover Music

Meditation from ThaIs: Unweaving Massenet's Violin Classic

A woman meditating
A woman meditating

If you’re looking for the ultimate classical chill-out music, look no further than Massenet’s Meditation from Thaïs. In five glorious minutes the composer weaves a melodic spell that seems to transport listeners to a higher emotional plane. Small wonder, then, that is one of our most popular pieces here on 8notes (and we have more than 30 version of it to choose from! ). Despite its popularity however, the piece is also one of the least understood in the repertoire. Few people even know what ‘Thaïs’ is. The full story reveals a piece less saccharine than one might first have imagined....

What on earth was ‘Thaïs’?

Thaïs is an opera written by French composer Jules Massenet (1842–1912) that premiered in Paris in 1894. Its plot blends religion and eroticism. Set in the Egyptian desert in the fourth century, the monk Athanaël attempts to convert a priestess of Venus named Thaïs, whom he had admired and loved in his youth, to Christianity. He espouses to her a spiritual form of love, though this is a mask for his truer, more animalistic feelings. Despite winning her over, the story, with operatic inevitability, results in the death of Thaïs and the spiritual collapse of Athanaël.

What about the Meditation?

The Meditation is a violin solo that appears between the two scenes in Act II of the opera. In scene one Athanaël attempts to persuade Thaïs to forfeit her hedonistic lifestyle and instead find salvation through God. The interlude that follows depicts her meditation on this question. This context subtly changes the emotional impact of this solo, since it represents her doubts and feelings of longing for her old life as well as her spiritual transformation. It also, more darkly, presages her eventual destruction:

Why has the solo been separated from the opera?

The opera’s premiere caused some controversy, with one contemporary reviewing it as “beneath contempt, a shameless sand-and-sandals melodrama that mixed Egyptian erotica, pseudo-religiosity and sentimental kitsch into a trashy spectacle.” It’s fair to say that opinion has been divided ever since—whilst some consider it a masterpiece of French lyric art, others believe that much of the musical inspiration does not live up to the Meditation itself. As a result the Meditation has been detached and widely performed, the whole opera very rarely.

Meditation goes viral

Nowadays the Meditation is a beloved violin piece, especially popular as a sentimental encore. As such, there are a huge number of recordings to choose from, including by John Georgiadis , Anne-Sophie Mutter, Maxim Vengerov, Joshua Bell and others. It has also been widely adapted for other instruments, including many versions here on 8notes.

The piece has also served as an inspiration for other artists, with choreographer Frederick Ashton turning it into a short ballet that is considered to be amongst his best works:

It has also been used in film. In the 2005 movie ‘Transamerica’, for example, the music is deployed as the main protagonist practices changing their voice as they transition, a direct reference to the spiritual transformation that occurs in the opera. It was also used in the 1998 movie ‘Titanic’ and, more recently in the 2018 Netflix sci-fi horror ‘Tau.’