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Jacques Offenbach was one of the most outstanding composers of popular music in 19th century Paris. He achieved massive success as a composer whose claim to fame is creating some of the most cheerful and tuneful music ever written. He is particularly celebrated for hisTales of Hoffman and his Orpheus in the Underworld. It is thanks to Offenbach that the operetta became an established international genre, influencing composers likeArthur Sullivan, Franz Lehár andJohann Strauss II and developing the genre further, into the next century.
Jacques Offenbach came from German Jewish roots. Offenbach’s father was called Isaac Juda Eberst who came from the town of Offenbach am Main. He left his native town and moved to Cologne, which was then part of Prussia, around 1800 and became known as ‘Der Offenbacher’ and then simply Offenbach. Jacques Offenbach was born Jacob, the seventh of ten children, in Cologne. He became accomplished at the cello as a child and formed a trio with his brother Julius on violin and his sister Isabella at the piano.
In November 1833, Isaac took his sons Julius and Jacob to Paris in search of a substantial musical education. Both boys were accepted into the Paris Conservatoire and found positions in a synagogue choir to help support themselves financially. They soon became known as Jules and Jacques. Jacques left the conservatoire after a year in favour of freelance work playing cello in professional orchestras. He eventually found a permanent position at the Opéra-Comique which he kept until 1838. He gained access to Paris salons and performed cello and piano pieces there together with his friend Friedrich von Flotow. Through these exciting meeting places, Offenbach’s reputation grew and he gained commissions as well as private students. One of his early commissions wasPascal et Chambord for a vaudeville show which was produced in March 1839. That same season, himself and Jules gave their first public concert together.
During the 1840s, Offenbach’s career as a virtuoso cellist became extremely fruitful. He appeared in concert with Anton Rubinstein in Paris in 1841 and with Franz Liszt in Cologne in 1843. In 1844 he performed in London with Mendelssohn and the violinist Joseph Joachim at a Royal Ascot banquet. The same year, 25-year-old Offenbach converted from Judaism to Catholicism in order to marry his beloved, Herminie d’Alcain.
Offenbach was known for his good artistic and professional judgement: his apparent skill in talent-spotting was a huge help to his lasting legacy. Offenbach’s main librettist was Ludovic Halévy, who had a huge influence on the success of the Offenbach operettas. The fact that Halévy’s libretto content was full of genuine wit and workable subject matter was of great consequence for the productions as a whole. Offenbach also discovered some prominent leading ladies: Hortense Schneider who played the leading part in La belle Hélène, Barbe bleue, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein and La Périchole, was also discovered by Offenbach. He also chose Zulma Bouffar, who was the star ofLa vie parisienne and Les brigands.
Orphee aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) remains one of Offenbach’s most popular operettas. It features the famous cancan melody, which became synonymous with the Moulin Rouge scene of Paris. La vie parisienne is also very well liked for its sparkle.La Périchole was indicative of Offenbach’s transitional style, with less obvious lively satire and more human interest.La belle Hélene chronicles Helen and Paris eloping together and triggering the start of the Trojan War. It was an unstoppable success, with an unprecedented run of 700 performances in Paris following its premiere.
The 1860s were Offenbach’s most successful years. He was granted French citizenship by Napoleon III and was appointed Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur.
Despite his success, there were individuals from certain echelons of society who disapproved of Offenbach for his association with the seedy side of the Parisian music scene and Offenbach’s apparent lack of any sign of an elevated art form. An entry in the first edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians described Offenbach’s music as possessing ’a determination to be funny even at the cost of propriety and taste’. Wagner called Offenbach’s music‘the warmth of the dung-heap’ referring specifically to Offenbach's Le carnaval des revues(1860). It was said though that as time went by, Wagner’s opinion of Offenbach mellowed.
In the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, Offenbach fell out of favour as France was swept by anti-German sentiments. Despite his French citizenship and the honour granted onto him, the fact that he was born in Cologne was enough to raise a source of suspicion. His workLa Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein was banned in France due to its anti-militaristic views. Luckily though, Offenbach was warmly welcomed in England, where he went on a voluntary exile. By 1871, the situation in Paris had calmed down and he was free to work there again.
Many works that had little success in Offenbach’s time were revived in the 20th century. One such work is Offenbach’s comic opera Fantasio, which was dedicated to the music critic Eduard Hanslick. Premiered in 1872, it was dropped from the repertoire after being performed ten times at the Opéra-Comique. This deeply offended Offenbach who wrote a letter of complaint to the Opéra-Comique. It was revived in the 1930s and again in 2000 at the Opéra Rennes.
It was Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann (Tales of Hoffmann) that won him approval in the more respectable circles of the time. The libretto was by Jules Barbier, based on a play by Barbier and Carré portraying three tales of the German author E.T.A. Hoffmann. The source of inspiration of the famous Barcarolle was theVaterland Lied (Homeland Song) from the opera Die Rheinnixen that Offenbach had composed in Germany in 1848. It still holds onto the frivolous elements of comic opera, but with some powerful dramatic writing. Before he could complete the orchestration of it, Offenbach died of heart failure brought on by gout. Thanks to the musicologist and conductor Antonio de Almeida, a lot of original material from Tales of Hoffmann has been uncovered.