Classical Composer Biography: Jacques Offenbach
by Betty Fry
For my first article in this series on Classical Composers, I am going to begin with Jacques Offenbach, whose lovely melodies from ‘The Tales of Hoffman’ I am listening to even as I write these words. His work can be said to belong to the years between 1825 and 1900 which, by musicians, is referred to as the Romantic Era. Musical styles of this time can be described as rich and dramatic whether instrumental or vocal, and very often were songs, or music, that told a story.
Although of German-Jewish origins, Offenbach has come to be thought of as essentially a French composer because of his great regard for Paris and its ways, to which he became addicted.
He was born Jacob Eberst in 1819, but his father changed the family name to Offenbach after he had left his hometown Offenbach-am-Main and settled in Cologne, and it was there, while earning a living from composition, music teaching, and book binding that he became known to his colleagues as ‘Der Offenbacher’.
The tale is told of how, as a boy, Offenbach was taught to play the violin, but was discouraged from learning the cello. However he wanted to play the cello so much he would secretly practice on his father’s instrument, and then one day amazed everyone by taking part in a string quartet when the real cellist failed to turn up. He went on to make it his particular instrument.
Although admitted to the Paris Conservatoire he found academic studies little to his liking, and left to become a member of the orchestra at the Opera-Comique. And whilst he was almost certainly inspired by the tuneful operas of Donizetti and Nicolai which he heard while in the orchestra pit, Offenbach was the main founder of ‘operetta’ (light opera with dialogue). This was a genre which led toward the musical theatre of the 20th century, and a distinctly separate world of popular music.
He began to compose dance music and songs and made a reputation as an eccentric cello virtuoso, visiting London in 1844 in that role. But his success as a performer contrasted with his lack of success as a composer. The airy, sometimes pointed songs and music that he wrote was not viewed well by the Parisian musical theatre establishment.
In an effort to overcome this he leased and opened his own theatre, Les Bouffes-Parisiens, a tiny place where he produced one act plays. But limited in scope by lack of space and the whims of the licensing laws he moved to a larger theatre where he at last made an impression in 1858 with his scintillating and shockingly satirical ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’, and thereafter produced a constant stream of lively, witty, and melodious operettas that became the vogue of the major capitals of the world.
Much of his music is uniquely comic, and many of his numbers are composed in the style of the lively can-can dance with which the world particularly associates him. But there is also a fine lyrically romantic strain in his songs, and in his little known cello music.
Offenbach’s writing has a very special quality. While basically simple and always tuneful, there is a touch of wistful melancholy running through even the most lively of his works.
He was dubbed by Rossini ‘The Mozart of the Champs-Elysées’, the most fashionable boulevard in Paris. This was a pleasant assertion of both the genius and the Frenchness of the composer from Cologne who gave his Parisian audiences exactly what they wanted; music that sparkled like champagne and was tailor made to please.
Offenbach brought the same deft touch and gift for melody to his more serious opera, ‘The Tales of Hoffman’, regarded by many as his greatest work, and is I think my favourite piece of music. The moment I hear its lovely melodies I am filled with delight.
In 1844 he married Herminie d’Alcain and had four daughters.
In 1849 he was appointed conductor of the Theatre Francais.
In 1855 he became manager of his own theatre, Booffes-Parisiens
And in 1876 he visited the United States for the US Centennial Exhibition. While he was there he conducted two of his comic operas ‘La vie parisienne’ and ‘Le jolie parfumeuse’, and also gave as many as 40 concerts in New York and Philadelphia.
But it seems the audiences there were a little disappointed to find that the man who had scandalized the musical world with his ‘Orpheus’ was really quite a mild and likeable fellow.
Nevertheless the visit must have made quite an impression on the composer because he wrote a book about his experiences there when he returned to Paris, which would be a very interesting read.
However like most comedians he wanted to be taken seriously, and his last ambition was to compose a great work that he might be remembered by. So much of his previous music had been of a light and frivolous nature and he was aware that it might not stand the test of time. From this desire ‘The Tales of Hoffman’ was born.
Although no longer well he strove to complete the piece, but death denied him the chance of arranging it for an orchestra – a task later carried out by Ernest Guiraud.
Based on the strange tales of the German writer E.T.A. Hoffman, the opera contains some of Offenbach’s loveliest melodies including the famous ‘barcarolle’.
The five act opera tells of the bizarre adventure of the poet Hoffman and his tragic quest for love. On his travels he meets three beautiful women, but each encounter has a tragic ending. The ‘Barcarolle’ which is the most famous piece of the opera, comes at the start of Act IV.
Set in a Venetian palace, the beautiful courtesan Giulietta holds a party, and the guests sing the romantic barcarolle. In this particular tale, Guilietta ends up tricking Hoffman by stealing his reflection – and his soul.
Originally derived from the songs of the Venetian gondoliers, the term ‘barcarolle’ has come to describe boat songs in general, whether arranged for voice or instrument. A major characteristic of the ‘barcarolle’ is its steady flowing rhythm.
Offenbach died in Paris on the 5th October 1880, but in 1881 the posthumous premiere of ‘The Tales of Hoffman’ was performed.