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Classical Composers A-Z: Jacques Offenbach

Peter Wintersgill introduces us to Jacques Offenbach, composer of Orphee aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld ), with its popular can-can.

...After getting thinner and weaker for some time, he finally died in Paris on October 5th, 1880, aged 61. A gentleman came to his house to be told by the maid "M. Offenbach died without realising it," to which the man replied, "He will be surprised when he finds out."...

Born
Jacob Eberst, 20th June, 1819, in Cologne.

Father
Issac, book binder, later cantor of Cologne Synagogue.

Mother
Marianne, daughter of money changer.

Family
Seventh child and second son in family of ten.

Childhood
Surrounded by music at home, taught the violin by his father from age six, started composing at age eight, taught the cello by Alexander from age nine, later passing to Breuer, a more advanced teacher. He was recognized early as a child prodigy, age reduced by father by two years.

Adolescence
Entered Paris Conservatoire at 14 with brother Julius and sister Isabella. Changed name to Jacques on arrival in Paris, took name Offenbach after father's home town. At first knew no French, but soon mastered the language. Played the cello in the orchestra at the Opera Comique.

Early Adult Life
Mother and brother were both ill, so returned to Cologne, where both died in 1840. Toured France and Germany playing his cello in 1844.

Became engaged to Herminie de Alcain, but first had to prove himself to her parents. He did this by writing a ballad called A Toi, which he dedicated to Herminie, and carrying out a short concert tour of Cologne, Paris and London. Here he played for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Windsor. He arrived back with a pocket full of money and a letter of appreciation from King Louis Phillipe. A further condition was that he became a Roman Catholic, which he swiftly did; the Jewish faith had never meant much to him anyway. He and Herminie got married shortly afterwards.

She was an influence on this highly strung temperamental musician, and a good moral support over the years. Their daughter Berthe was born the next year.

When the revolution started in 1848, he moved to Cologne but was soon back in Paris, where he became conductor to the Comedie Francaise in 1850. He soon tired of working for other people, so in 1855 he founded his own theatre, which he called the Bouffes Parisiens. His first work there was Deux Aveugles (The Two Blind Beggars) with libretto by Ludwig Halevy, who became a close friend and collaborator.

He made further visits to London, where he acted as conductor for the 1857/58 season. The Aveugles was a great success and his fame spread abroad.

His chief soprano soloist was Hortense Schneider, who was a star in many of his operas, of which he wrote about 90. In 1858 he put on his Orphee aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld ), with its popular can-can. After a slow start this was to prove a great success, which it has remained ever since. As with other works the critics found it rather shocking, though privately being quite amused. In 1860 he wrote Le Papillon, his only ballet.

Character
Offenbach was a moody soul, alternating between elation, when he would be the life and soul of the party, and fits of depression, especially when alone, when he would sit and brood. His music reflected his elated state, when he would constantly poke fun at people or institutions; his victims seemed to take it in good part. He was a very social being and entertained a lot.

Later Adult Life
His health now became worse. He was a compulsive worker, driving his performers as hard as he drove himself; this produced symptoms of tiredness and increasing depression. On the physical side he began to suffer from gout, no doubt linked to his intake of food and wine.

Several more comic operas now appeared, La Belle Helene (1865), a skit on a classical tale, La Vie Parisienne (1866), when he took off the gay life of Paris society, and La Grande Duchesses de Barb Bleu Gerolstein (1867), a skit on the army and especially its senior officers.

After a while his works lost their appeal; people tired of eternal satire, and longed for more serious things. In addition his German origin was constantly mentioned and he became generally unpopular. As a result his finances suffered and he eventually went bankrupt. In addition his gout got worse and very painful and he began to lose weight. His doctor sent him to Aix-la Chapelle for spa treatment.

In 1876 he was invited to the USA for the centenary of the Declaration of Independence. At first reluctant, he eventually gave in and enjoyed a highly successful conducting tour; he was so popular he could hardly believe it. It certainly helped to restore his morale.

A rival composer called Lecocq became very jealous of Offenbach's success; all the Paris musicians were divided into two camps, one for each composer and there was a sort of running battle between them. Lecocq wrote more conventional and harmonious music, but was just as successful.

The last opera (he wrote barely anything else) to be produced in his life time was La Fille de Tambour Major (The Drum Major's Daughter, 1879), which was a great success. He felt as though he had arrived again.

His final work, and his only grand opera, was Les Contes d'Hofman (The Tales of Hofmann), which was really three separate tales linked together. This, his swan song, took many months to write, the longest time of them all, and was not produced till after his death. The well-known Barcarolle has been done to death in recent times.

After getting thinner and weaker for some time, he finally died in Paris on October 5th, 1880, aged 61. A gentleman came to his house to be told by the maid "M. Offenbach died without realising it," to which the man replied, "He will be surprised when he finds out."

He had a big funeral at which some of his music was played. Herminie survived till 1887, when she died aged 61.


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