Jacques Offenbach | Biography

Biography

Jacques Offenbach was a composer-entrepreneur in search of the perfect formula for the musical stage. When he found it, in La belle Hélène and La Périchole, it brought him fame and fortune. Had he lived to complete his last work, Les contes d’Hoffmann, he might have added a more serious masterpiece to his many earlier, infectiously tuneful comedies. Born Jacob Eberst, he was the second son of a bookbinder. At the beginning of the 19th century his father had taken the family to Cologne from Offenbach am Main, hence the new surname. Offenbach senior, cantor in a synagogue in Cologne, taught singing and composition. As a child, Jacob began learning the cello. Both he and his brother showed promise during their early lessons. When Jacob was 14 they were taken to France to enrol in the Paris Conservatoire. Jacob became Jacques and was from then on effectively French, despite frequent trips back across the Rhine. He was a student for only a year. For the next 17 years, often working with his brother, he was a jobbing musician. He played in the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique and performed as a cellist in the smart Paris salons. He had been introduced to these by his friend Friedrich von Flotow, and he used them to recruit students to augment his income. By the 1840s Offenbach’s reputation as virtuoso had crossed the Channel. In May 1844 he performed in London with violinist Joseph Joachim and composer-pianist Mendelssohn, and at Windsor Castle at a ball held in Ascot Week. But his ambition was to compose for the Opéra-Comique. They repeatedly rejected his proposals. Undaunted, he rented the Théâtre Marigny, a tiny wooden theatre on the Champs Elysées, for the duration of the 1855 Exposition Universelle. It was a step that was either bold or foolhardy, perhaps both. Offenbach renamed it the Bouffes Parisiens and programmed a series of short comic, and sometimes mildly satirical, pieces. It turned out to be one of the great successes of the six-month exhibition. He had found the first ingredient for his formula: musical satire. Within three years he had found the second element, his principal librettist Ludovic Halévy. Offenbach’s licence at the Bouffes initially restricted him to works for two or three singers only. Once this rule was relaxed he and Halévy created a hit with Orphée aux enfers (‘Orpheus in the Underworld’), said to be the first ever full-length operetta. Paris was smitten. Even those who disapproved of this satirical take on the Classical deities and Gluck’s revered opera Orfeo ed Euridice (Orpheus and Eurydice) came to the Bouffes. The famous ‘Galop infernal’ in Act II became synonymous with the can-can dance of Montmartre’s red-light district. Some of his audience frowned but it was Offenbach’s ticket to fame. All that was missing was a leading lady. That was settled when Offenbach met the singer-actress Hortense Schneider. She would go on to create some of his most winning heroines in La belle Hélène, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein and La Périchole. Offenbach also discovered another singer, Zulma Bouffar, who starred in La vie parisienne and Les brigands. Offenbach held Second Empire France, or rather Napoleon III’s rule, up to ridicule. Cynical, snobbish, worldly and boastful, it was a society that was beautiful to behold but entirely superficial. Politically it was a house of cards. After the military defeat at Sedan, where the Emperor himself was taken prisoner by the Prussians, the cards tumbled down. Offenbach’s satire is built around the simple device of quoting familiar music in inappropriate places. Thus Gluck’s haunting aria ‘Che faro’ features in Orphée aux enfers, and the patriotic trio from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell makes an appearance in La belle Hélène. On other occasions words and music are comically mismatched. When Paris is denounced as a vile seducer in La belle Hélène, Offenbach sets their abusive remarks to a lilting waltz. While his melodies are simple, they are packed with charm. Offenbach had limited instrumental resources but he proved a cunning orchestrator, particularly in his use of the brass, and he knew how to strike the right balance between pit and stage. He was also a master of accelerating an act towards a breathless climax, and sending an audience out into the foyer craving more. However, some wanted nothing to do with it. Prudes confused amorality with immorality. Purists deplored the borrowing of music from more serious composers for comic effect. Richard Wagner denounced what he called ‘the warmth of the dunghill’, his critique tinged with anti-Semitism. After the death of the Second Empire and the violent birth of the Second Republic, Offenbach’s popularity declined. Audiences, always fickle, preferred the work of a younger generation of composers. Offenbach continued to write and to stage his own works in new and often lavish productions. An ill-advised season at the Théâtre de la Gaîté bankrupted him, and he was forced to make a gruelling concert tour to America, details of which he recorded in his memoirs. In any case Offenbach was spending more and more time on what he hoped would be his masterpiece, Les contes d’Hoffmann (‘The Tales of Hoffmann’). A comic opera touched with great poignancy, its libretto was drawn from the stories of the German Romantic writer ETA Hoffmann. Offenbach had always aspired to write grander works for the stage. But it turned out that Hoffmann, an extended meditation on the relationship between art and life, and the nature of creativity, was his last word. Offenbach died in October 1880, leaving the opera unfinished. The most impressive of his scores, it was realised by the composer Ernest Guiraud.