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1819 1880

Jacques Offenbach

Offenbach, Jacques
  • Aka “the Mozart of the Champs-Elysees,” Offenbach was a composer of brilliant operettas and one repertory opera, The Tales of Hoffmann. His operettas are infused with social commentary.

Vital Statistics

Born: June 20, 1819, Cologne, Germany
Died: October 5, 1880, Paris
Nationality: German
Genre: Romantic
Performed as: Cellist
During the composer's lifetime: The Boulevard des Italiens, with its flaneurs (men about town), cafés, and crowds of strolling gentlemen and ladies – Offenbach’s milieu – was central to Parisian life. Louis Napoleon had himself crowned Emperor in 1852, inaugurating the Second Empire. Five million people visited the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1855. War with Prussia, in 1871, brought the Second Empire down.

Biographical Outline

  • Born: Son of a bookbinder/synagogue cantor. At 14, his father takes Jules and his brother to Paris, where he studies cello and composition at the Paris Conservatory. He also sings in a synagogue choir.
  • First gig, 1834: Cellist in the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique. By 1838, he gains entry to Paris’ salons, where he performs with composer/pianist Friedrich von Flotow. He spends the 1840s as a virtuoso, touring London and Cologne. He converts from Judaism to Christianity in 1844, in order to marry.
  • Rise of operetta, 1855: During the Paris Universal Exhibition, Offenbach rents a small music hall, which he names the Bouffes-Parisiens. Since the government controls all theaters in the city, Offenbach is limited to producing one-act works with three characters or fewer, no chorus. Even with those restrictions, he is successful, and transfers to a new theater in the winter.
  • The Big Time, 1858: Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the underworld), a three-act masterwork made possible by a relaxation of the theater laws, is a sensation, and runs for 277 performances. It becomes the work that defined Second Empire bourgeois society. Offenbach retires from managing the Bouffes-Parisiens in 1862, but continues to crank out hits for it.
  • Crash of 1871-76: After France’s defeat in 1871, tastes change and Offenbach is almost forgotten, a ghost of the Second Empire. Bad business decisions force him into bankruptcy, but he recovers with an exhausting tour of the U.S.
  • ”Legit” opera, 1877: Offenbach has tried for years to get his foot in the door at the major opera houses, with little success. His final attempt is Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The tales of Hoffmann), which he works on in between other commitments. Left unfinished at his death, it is completed the following year by Ernest Guiraud, who also supervises the first performance at the Opèra-Comique. Hoffmann is the big success its author had always hoped for — alas, posthumously so.

Fun Facts

  • Good guy: Offenbach was genial, funny, and generally good company, like many of the characters he wrote about. He was also often depressed.
  • Kept good company: He performed on the cello alongside the likes of pianists Anton Rubinstein and Franz Liszt, and conductor Felix Mendelssohn.
  • Father of Viennese operetta: Following the success of Orphée in Vienna, Offenbach set up an outpost there, exporting many of his hit operettas. He apparently encouraged Johann Strauss II to write one, yet it was Offenbach who laid the foundation of Viennese operetta.
  • International intrigue: Offenbach was accused of being a German spy during the Franco-Prussian War.

Recommended Biography

  • Peter Gammond, Offenbach. The Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers Series (Omnibus, 1986). This is the only available, English-language biography.

Explore the Music

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Can-Can (from the Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld) look inside

Listen!

Can-Can (from the Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld) By Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880). Arranged by Julie Eschliman. Choir Secular. For SATB divisi choir (A Cappella) and optional piano accompaniment (SATB choir). Choral Octavo; Masterworks. Choral Octavo. Choral, Classical Period and Opera. Octavo. 16 pages. Published by Alfred Music Publishing (AP.24023)

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6 Duos, Op. 50 Vol. 1: Nos. 1-3 6 Duos, Op. 50 Vol. 1: Nos. 1-3 (Cello Duet). By Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880). Schott. 24 pages. Schott Music #ED6105. Published by Schott Music (HL.49006020)

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