Jacques Offenbach - Pioneer of the Operetta January 21 2022

Jacques Offenbach was a German-born French composer and cellist during the Romantic Period. While his famed Les Contes d'Hoffmann is considered his only full-length opera, his musical legacy lies primarily in his 100+ operettas that contain a unique mixture of social and political satire, along with catchy melodies and popular dances.

Jacques Offenbach CDVMany consider Offenbach to be the “father of the operetta” His lighthearted, satirical compositions captivated the hearts of his audience, and he was a key influence on later operetta composers, such as Johann Strauss II.


[Image] Jacques Offenbach in his maturity (CDV -Carte de Visite)


Many of his best-known works continue to influence classical music well into the 21st century.


Jacques Offenbach was born as “Jakob Eberst Wiener” on June 20, 1819, in Cologne, Prussia (now known as Germany). He was the seventh out of nine children and one of two sons.

His father Isaac left his previous trade as a bookbinder to work as a cantor in Jewish synagogues. At the age of 6, Jacques learned violin from his father, and by the time he was 8, he was already composing songs.

When he was 9, Jacques found his passion in the cello, and he began to study with Bernhard Breuer, a well-known local teacher. While studying, he also performed at local restaurants, dance halls, and inns with his brother and sister.

While only 10 years old, Offenbach amazed his family and teachers when he replaced a star performer in a local quartet. His family realized his burgeoning musical aptitude and, they knew that it was time to cultivate his passion for music.



By the time he was 13 years old, Jacques had composed various pieces of his own. In 1833, his father took him and his older brother Julius to Paris to enroll them into the prestigious Paris Conservatory to further their music education.

The school had a strict policy against accepting foreign pupils, but after hearing Jacques, the director was so impressed that he immediately granted admission to him and his older brother. Both brothers then adopted French names: Jakob became Jacques and Julius became Jules.

Jules graduated and went on to become a successful violin teacher and conductor. Jacques grew bored with the academic portion of his musical education, and as a result, he left the left shortly after enrollment. In December 1834, the school officially removed his name from their attendance records.



After leaving the conservatory, Offenbach found temporary jobs in theater orchestras, and in 1835 he landed a permanent position as a cellist with the Opéra-Comique. During this time, he was somewhat of a jokester and frequently had his pay docked due to his pranks.

Violoncello pieces by Offenbach and Flotow 1839Still, his earnings afforded him additional music lessons with renowned cellist Louis-Pierre Norblin. During this time, Offenbach also became friends with fellow musician Friedrich Flotow, and the two collaborated on compositions for the cello and piano.


[Image] Violoncello pieces by Offenbach and Flotow 1839

Offenbach sincerely wanted to compose for the stage, but it was hard to get his foot in the door this early in his career. Flotow introduced him to playing in Paris salons, and he spent much of the 1840s touring as a cello virtuoso to various salons throughout Paris, London, and Cologne.


While touring the salons of Paris, Offenbach met Hérminie d'Alcain. They were in love, but Hérminie's parents felt that Offenbach was not financially stable enough to marry their daughter.

Offenbach with his son AugusteOffenbach then went on a tour of England, where he worked with famous musicians such as Julius Benedict and Michael Costa. In commenting on his success, The Illustrated London News wrote, “The astonishing Violoncellist, performed on Thursday evening at Windsor before the Emperor of Russia, the King of Saxony, Queen Victoria, and Prince Albert with great success."


[image] Offenbach with his son Auguste

He returned to Paris, converted to Roman Catholicism, and married Hérminie on August 8, 1844. They remained married for life and had four daughters and a son. Their son, Charles Ignace Auguste, later followed his father’s musical footsteps.


After marrying, Offenbach returned to the Paris salons, but he shifted his attention from cellist to a full-time composer. By this time, he had successful compositions under his belt, and he began to write, produce and perform burlesques for his salon compositions.

Just as he began to explore the territory of theatrical composition, Paris experienced violent political turmoil due to the 1848 Revolution. Offenbach, his wife, and their newborn daughter relocated back to Cologne, and he temporarily changed his name back to Jakob.




Offenbach and his operas - A print published in his timeWhen Offenbach returned to Paris in 1849, the grand salon scene was practically nonexistent, and as a result, he went back to work for the Opéra-Comique.


[Image] Offenbach and his operas - A print published in his time


In the early 1850s, Arsène Houssaye appointed Offenbach as musical director of Théâtre Français where he was successful and earned constant praise from the director.

From 1853 to 1855, Offenbach managed to write and stage three one-act works in Paris. Despite the success of these works, the management at Opéra-Comique showed little to no interest in allowing Offenbach to compose for their stage.

Offenbach's witty irony, which often exposed the overrated quality of French high society, clashed with the more formal style of the Opéra-Comique at that time. Seeing that there was no room for growth or happiness, Offenbach began to set plans in motion to start his theater that would give him the freedom of creative control.




Jacques Offenbach Autograph Letter Signed
Determined to achieve his goals, Offenbach rented a tiny wooden theater known as Théâtre Marigny or the Salle Lacaze in Champs-Élysées. In anticipation of the 1855 Paris Universal Exhibition, he renamed the theater to the Bouffes Parisiens and started to compose a series of short, satirical pieces.


[Image] Autograph Letter Signed by Offenbach with the letterhead of Bouffes Parisiens

His leap of faith paid off. The inaugural performance of Bouffes-Parisiens was on July 15, 1855, in which Offenbach conducted four of his works: Entrez, Une nuit blanche, Arlequin barbier, and Les deux aveugles. Offenbach produced additional satirical sketches throughout the summer, and he officially resigned as conductor of the Théâtre Français shortly after.


A few months after starting Bouffes-Parisiens, Offenbach entered a partnership with Salle Choiseul, a larger theater with a capacity of about 900. Government policies limited theaters to one-act performances, three characters, and no chorus.

Poster announcing one of Offenbach´s works at his theaterDespite these restrictions, Offenbach still managed to find success and his claim to fame.


[Image] Poster announcing one of Offenbach's works at his theater


Perhaps his most successful work at this location was the 1858 production Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld). It had a wildly successful run of 277 performances, and many considered it a prototype of later, large-scale operettas.

For many, Orpheus in the Underworld was a witty, satirical depiction of the Second Empire's bourgeois. The work was also popular for the famous Galop infernal in Act II. The dance became associated with the high-kicking can-can dance as a cultural symbol of Paris.


Offenbach enjoyed massive success from 1860 to 1870. Many people in Europe dubbed him “The Mozart of the Champs-Elysees” In 1860, he was granted French citizenship by Napoleon III, and in 1861 was appointed Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur.

Poster for La Vie ParisienneAt the height of his success, Offenbach produced nearly 100 operettas. In 1862, he retired from managing the Bouffes-Parisiens, but he continued to score hits with productions like La belle Hélène in 1864, La vie parisienne in 1866, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein in 1867, and La Périchole in 1868.


[Image] Poster for La Vie Parisienne - design by Jules Cheret 1866



Much of Offenbach’s work was not sentimental. They were witty, comical pieces that took satirical stabs at the politics of France’s Second Empire and the bourgeoise population in general. While the high French society appeared grand, Offenbach also depicted it as boastful and superficial.

In addition to the witty, satirical nature of his compositions, Offenbach had the natural ability to captivate his audience with the simple, beautiful melodies that the Parisian audience loved during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. This lighthearted, simple tone was precisely what many Parisians wanted to hear at that time.

His fame, however, frustrated his critics. They resented his depictions of French high society and demanded that he adopt a more poised tone that was more characteristic of that time. German composer Richard Wagner once referred to Offenbach’s music as "a dung heap on which all the swine of Europe wallowed".


Antagonism between Wagner and Offenbach
A German caricature depicting the antagonism between Richard Wagner and Jacques Offenbach

Nonetheless, Offenbach continued to revel in his success. The Paris Universal Exposition in 1867, for example, saw audiences such as the likes of the King of Prussia and his minister Otto von Bismarck. He also appeared as a guest conductor in London, Berlin, Vienna, and other prominent European cities.



A caricature of Offenbach at the peak of his careerDuring the Franco-Prussian war, the Second Empire of France fell to Prussia, and Offenbach suddenly his popularity declined.


[Image] A caricature of Offenbach at the peak of his career


He rose to fame primarily under Napoleon III, and as a result, he became associated with the declining reputation of the Second Empire.

Parisians no longer saw Offenbach's work as lighthearted entertainment. Instead, it became a miserable embodiment of Napoleon III's régime. La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, for example, was banned in France due to its antimilitarist nature.

During the war, France experienced a wave of violent, anti-German sentiments. Despite his awarded French citizenship, Offenbach’s German roots made him a prime target of these sentiments, and people sometimes accused him of being a German spy. As a result of the mounting tension, Offenbach and his family relocated to Spain.



When the war ended, Offenbach returned to France in 1871, but France’s defeat led to changes in the musical tastes of Parisians. Offenbach became somewhat obscure, and many people considered him a ghostly relic of the Second Empire.

Offenbach in PhiladelphiaAlthough much of his Parisian audience deserted him, Offenbach had become popular in England. He managed to regain some of his popularity with new compositions and reworks of previous ones.


[Image] Offenbach in Philadelphia

Between 1870 and 1872, Théâtre de la Gaîté presented about 15 of Offenbach's work to large, receptive audiences. In 1872, Offenbach re-opened the Bouffes Parisiens and in 1873, he acquired The Gaîté. This venture turned into a financial disaster and put Offenbach on the brink of bankruptcy.

Offenbach recovered from this financial loss with a series of tours in the United States as a part of the Centennial Exhibition. During this American tour run, he performed over 40 concerts of moderate success. One of these concerts was at the Gilmore Gardens in New York, where he performed before 8,000 people.



Offenbach returned to France in 1876 with sizable profits, and his later work enjoyed renewed popularity. These works include Madame Favart in 1878 and La fille du tambour-major in 1879, amongst others.

La fille du tambour-major was profitable though was, Offenbach found himself more concerned with another cherished project: a successful serious opera. For years, Offenbach tried hard to get into major opera houses, and in 1877 he began working on Les contes d'Hoffmann (Tales of Hoffman).


Les Contes d'Hoffmann world premiere in 1881 - Antonia´s death
Les Contes d'Hoffmann world premiere in 1881 - Antonia's death with Belhomme, Ugalde, Grivot, Isaac, Taskin and Talazac

The opera was based on a play written by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré titled Les contes fantastiques d'Hoffmann. Barbier and Carré got the inspiration from their play inspired from the short stories of protagonist E.T.A Hoffman.



By 1880, Offenbach was in failing health due to gout, but he desperately desired to live enough to see the premiere of his cherished Les Contes d'Hoffmann. He is said to have told his dog Kleinzach, "I would give everything I have to be at the première".

Jean-Alexandre Talazac
Unfortunately, Offenbach did not live long enough to see the finished arrangement. At the age of 61, He died in Paris on October 5, 1880, just four months before the debut of Les Contes d'Hoffmann


[Image] Jean-Alexandre Talazac, creator of the role of Hoffmann in the World Premiere


His cause of death was reportedly due to heart failure caused by acute gout. He had a state-sponsored funeral, and he is buried at the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.



Before he died, Offenbach began to work on the musical orchestration for Tales of Hoffman, and he left most of the vocal score incomplete. Ernest Guiraud, along with Offenbach's 18-year-old son Auguste, completed the orchestration, and they made some changes as decided by the Opéra-Comique's director at that time.

Les Contes d'Hoffmann debuted on February 10th, 1881, at the Opéra-Comique, one of the most formative junctions of Offenbach's professional music career. Much to Offenbach’s desire, it was the major success he had hoped for at the theater that early in his career remained hesitant about letting him compose for its stage.

Ernest Guiraud supervised the debut at the Opèra-Comique and added recitatives for a later December 1881 premiere in Vienna. Guiraud made other revisions later, but Offenbach’s son Auguste could not help with these revisions due to his unexpected death from tuberculosis in 1883.


Jacques Offenbach was just at the brink of seeing one of his best and grandest performances come to life, but he never got the chance to see the work in its splendor.

Scenes from The Tales of Hoffmann 1881Despite his untimely death, Offenbach made an incredible mark on the world of classical music.


[Image] Scene from the prologue of Les Contes d'Hoffmann 1881


As a composer and orchestrator, he developed the right balance between the musicians in the opera pit and the actors on stage for breathtaking performances filled with noteworthy climaxes between acts.

Despite the ups and downs of his career, there is little doubt that his peers and colleagues disregarded his legacy. His obituary in The Times stated, “The crowd of distinguished men that accompanied him on his last journey amid the general sympathy of the public shows that the late composer was reckoned among the masters of his art.”



Offenbach’s primary contribution to music was the classification of the operetta as a legitimate subgenre of classical music. Throughout his career, he composed over 100 operettas, and he influenced the likes of Johann Strauss II, Lehár, Sullivan, and countless other famed musicians.

While his legacy surrounds his many famous operettas, Les Contes d'Hoffmann is his only complete operatic composition and one of Offenbach’s most frequently performed arrangements today.

Jacques Offenbach remains one of the most influential European composers of popular music in the 19th century. His works will arguably remain relevant in the current and future classical music repertoire for years to come.





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