A composer whose role in the musical life of France as a conductor and promoter of opera matches his works in importance, Messager wrote primarily for the stage. Considered the last in a line of operetta composers that includes Offenbach, Lecocq and Hervé, his music possesses an ideal lightness of touch and demonstrates considerable gifts for melody and orchestration.
Messager was born in Montluçon on 30 December 1853. After studying with Saint-Saens, he succeeded Fauré as organist at St Suplice, before embarking on his long stage career, initially at the Folies-Bergère in the late 1870s. By this time, he had already been introduced to the music of Wagner and had composed a symphony and two well-received cantatas.
In the early 1880s, success came as an orchestrator of Bernicat's unifinshed comic opera François les bas-bleus, and with the ballet, Les deux pigeons. He continued to write light-hearted stage works, including the successful comic operas La Basoche and Mirette, but a number of more serious operas in the late 1880s and early 1890s met with little success. Messager considered retirement and moved to Maidenhead in Berkshire to live with his second wife.
In 1897, however, the enormous success of his operetta Les p'tites Michu brought him back into the limelight. He was appointed musical director of the Opéra-Comique in Paris and brought many significant works to the stage, including Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande and Charpentier's Louise. Between 1901 and 1907 he was also employed at Covent Garden, and conducted British premieres of operas by Saint-Saens and Massenet.
In 1907, Messager was appointed co-director of the Paris Opéra. On the basis of his Wagner productions, he was appointed conductor of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoires in 1908, an orchestra he took on a number of tours around the world. Messager continued to write works for the stage, though, including the quasi-Wagnerian, and ultimately unsuccessful, Béatrice (1914), but more and more of his time was being spent as a conductor.
For the 1919-20 season, Messager became musical director for the Opéra-Comique again, introducing the first complete French performance of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte. From 1921, though, his health began to decline seriously. Made a Commander of the Légion d'honneur, he died in Paris on 24 February 1929.
Messager had always intended to write opéra comiques in the style of Boieldieu, but he soon became pigeon-holed in the public's eyes as a composer of operetta. His more weighty works were therefore never as successful as his lighter contributions to the stage. Nevertheless, for his role at the centre of Parisian theatrical life, and his undoubted talent, he remains an important figure in French music.