Offenbach, Jacques

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OFFENBACH, JACQUES (1819–1880), French composer.

Jacques Offenbach, the operetta composer who would become "King of the Second Empire" and whose music would define the character of a generation in mid-nineteenth-century Paris, was born Jakob Offenbach in Cologne, Germany. He was the seventh child of Isaac Offenbach, a music teacher and synagogue cantor. He revealed himself early as a musical prodigy on the violin and cello, and at age fourteen was accepted at the prestigious Paris Conservatoire. But the mercurial young Offenbach soon became impatient with formal lessons, and after only a year he left the Conservatoire to become a practical musician. He joined the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique, and there received an invaluable education in French light opera, whose elegance, grace, and wit inspired him throughout his life. In 1838 he began performing as a cello virtuoso in private salons. In future decades, his intimate knowledge of Paris' moneyed classes—their intrigues, brilliance, self-satisfaction, and ennui—would provide material for musical satire both scathing and affectionate.

In 1850 he returned to the theater as conductor at the Comédie-Française, but did not establish himself as a composer until the Exhibition year of 1855, when he rented a tiny theater and dubbed it the "Bouffes-Parisiens." His first work, a one-act farce called Les deux aveugles (The two blind beggars, 1855) was an overnight success. His license allowed him only two or three singers—a restriction he sometimes subverted by augmenting his casts with mute characters—but over time he was allowed bigger casts, and his operettas expanded. Orphée aux enfers (1858), with two acts, chorus, and sixteen named roles, became the model for his larger-scale operettas, including La belle Hélène (1864), La vie parisienne (1866), La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867), and La Périchole (1868). Offenbach's satirical genius is apparent in his irreverent treatment of classical subjects (in Orphée aux enfers and La belle Hélène) and his burlesques of Second Empire society and politics (La vie parisienne and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein). The Exhibition season of 1867 marked the peak of his popularity, with three Paris theaters playing his works at once.

Offenbach's comedy relies on the exaggeration and subversion of operatic conventions and clichés. A favorite trick is to quote a famous tune in an absurd situation, as when the lovers in Ba-ta-clan (1855) suddenly burst into the love theme from Giacomo Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots (1836), or Orpheus in the underworld begins to sing Christoph Willibald Gluck's "Che farò senza Euridice." A more elaborate parody is that of the patriotic trio from Guillaume Tell in La belle Hélène. where William Tell had exhorted the vacillating Arnold to save Switzerland, Agamemnon now urges Menelaus to condone his wife's infidelity. This trio also shows Offenbach's gift for letting serious statements disintegrate into wild dance rhythms. The Rossinian device of organizing musical numbers around a progression from moderate tempo to a frenzied climax became in Offenbach's hands a musical rendering of the dizzying whirl of fashionable life. Intoxication is a frequent subject, both in comic numbers for drunken men and sensuous solos for tipsy or enchanted heroines. On a few striking occasions he also depicts the melancholy "morning after," as in the courtesan Metella's rondo in Act III of La vie parisienne.

Offenbach's operettas circulated widely in authorized and unofficial versions. His earliest international impact was in London, where the Bouffes-Parisiens toured in 1857. His operettas inspired Sir William Schwenk Gilbert (1836–1911) and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842–1900), who created a more respectable English form of the genre, purged of such "risque" elements as infidelity, sexual innuendo, and drunkenness. In the 1860s Offenbach frequently directed German productions of his works in Vienna; there he became friends with Johann Strauss (1804–1849) and thus influenced the development of German operetta, which by the end of the nineteenth century would outshine its Parisian forebear. In an effort to recover financially from his bankruptcy of 1874, Offenbach toured the United States during the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, and in his Notes d'un musicien en voyage he reported that American audiences were delighted to hear fully orchestrated performances, in the true Parisian style, of works that they had known only in pirated versions.

The composer's popularity declined in the 1870s after the fall of Napoleon III (r. 1852–1871). Even at the height of his success in the 1860s, he had been a target for critics of the amorality and vacuity of contemporary urban life. His status as a naturalized Frenchman and a Jewish convert to Catholicism, together with his ironic treatment of human emotions, dramatic situations, and musical materials, made him an icon of the rootless cosmopolitanism that Romantic nationalists feared and demonized. Richard Wagner (1813–1883), whose "Music of the Future" Offenbach had parodied in Le carnaval des revues in 1860, declared that Offenbach's music possessed "the warmth of the dung-hill; all Europe is wallowing in it." Offenbach's facetious and commercial art defied more "elevated" notions about the redemptive potential of art, theater, and music. The collapse of the Second Empire left his audience in a newly sober frame of mind, and postwar Paris, smarting after its defeat by the Prussians, had lost its taste for satires of itself served up by a native German. Offenbach's efforts to please this public produced some lovely works, such as Fantasio (1872) and Le voyage dans la lune (1875), but he could not overcome his reputation as a clown and a parodist.

After 1875, most of his creative energy was poured into his fantastical opera Les contes d'Hoffmann, and it was the posthumous success of Les contes in 1881 that redeemed Offenbach's reputation. This opera presents the German Romantic author E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776–1822) as the narrator-hero of three of his own bizarre tales. While the score bubbles with melodic and rhythmic esprit, its predominant tone is one of melancholy that progressively darkens into tragedy and neurosis. The opera's serious status was consolidated when the composer died shortly before its completion: his death from heart failure in October 1880 gave Les contes the prestige of a fatal work that had exacted the ultimate price from its creator. Its incomplete condition has made it a magnet for editorial and directorial interventions since its premiere at the Opera-Comique in 1881, in a version completed by Ernest Guiraud (1837–1892). The best-known version dates from Monte Carlo in 1907 and includes several beloved and utterly inauthentic numbers, including Dappertutto's aria "Scintille, diamant" and the sextet "Helas! mon coeur." Critical editions from the 1970s and the 1990s have incorporated newly discovered numbers, some unfinished and some cut during rehearsals before the premiere. Yet the opera, like its composer, remains an enigmatic synthesis of frivolity, grotesquerie, irony, and elusive yet compelling pathos.

See alsoCabarets; Debussy, Claude; Music; Napoleon III; Opera; Wagner, Richard.


Faris, Alexander. Jacques Offenbach. London, 1980.

Hadlock, Heather. Mad Loves: Women and Music in Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann. Princeton, N.J., 2001.

Harding, James. Jacques Offenbach: A Biography. London, 1980.

Kracauer, Siegfried. Jacques Offenbach and the Paris of His Time. Translated by Gwenda David and Eric Mosbacher. New York, 2002.

Heather Hadlock