André Messager is one of those examples of a musical talent that appears without warning in a non-musical setting. Although his family was affluent (the father prospered as a revenue collector), they did not play music. But they gave him the standard education that included playing piano, and he showed immediate ability and deep interest in it. In 1869, he entered the Neidermeyer music school. His teachers were Fauré and Saint-Saëns, who remained his close friends and supporters. In 1874, he succeeded Fauré as assistant organist at St. Sulpice to Charles-Marie Widor.
In 1876, Messager finished a symphony that won first prize in a competition organized by the French composers' rights organization and was premiered by the Concerts Colonne in 1878. He entered a cantata called Promethée the next year, winning second prize. He began conducting at the Folies-Bergère, where he also wrote some ballets. In order to have more time for these activities, he took a less prestigious and less demanding steady job as organist of the church of St. Paul-St. Louis in 1881. Even so, he accepted an offer in 1882 to become choirmaster of Ste. Marie des Batignolles.
In 1883, he married Edith Clouette (Fauré played organ at the ceremony). The same year, he received a major opportunity: Firmin Bernicat had left an unfinished operetta, François-les-Bas-Bleus. The publisher Enoch commissioned Messager to complete it. The music was charming and a success, giving Messager the opportunity to compose operettas of his own.
He was among the first French musicians to attend the summer Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, a trip that virtually became a pilgrimage for a generation of French musicians. He and Fauré gently satirized this trend (which had immediate stylistic effects in French music) in their jointly composed quadrille for piano duet, Souvenirs de Bayreuth.
Messager became famous for his operettas and other light music; in 1886 he wrote one of his most enduring pieces, the score for the ballet Les deux pigeons. One of his greatest successes was an opera named Madame Chrysanthemum (1893), based on a story by Pierre Loti which was also the basis of Puccini's Madame Butterfly. He became one of the few composers to co-write an opera with his wife; he had divorced his first wife and in 1895 married Dottie Davis, an Irish composer who used the pen name Hope Temple. This opera was only a mild success. The marriage had its share of troubles; the Scots soprano Mary Garden said that he was persistent in wooing her as she was preparing to create the role of Mélisande in Debussy's opera Pélleas et Mélisande, which was premiered under Messager's baton in 1902.
He was also in great demand as a conductor, both in light music and the operas of Wagner and Mozart in particular. And yet another talent manifested itself when he became a successful administrator. At different times, he headed the Opéra-Comique, the Grand Opera Syndicate at Covent Garden, and the Opéra de Paris. Although this curtailed time available for composition, he continued to write popular stage works. He showed a great deal of adaptability of style during his career. He produced hit operas, operettas, and songs in the late-Romantic style, and in the 1920s, successfully wrote popular songs in the latest chanson/cabaret style. He continued to achieve success into the 1920s and in 1927 was appointed a Commander of the Legion d'honneur. Many of his songs, some of his operettas, and Deux pigeons remain viable and popular, although his serious operas are rarely if ever encountered.