Jacques Offenbach’s Life
The composer and master of burlesque comic operettas, Jacques Offenbach was born at Cologne, Germany, June 21, 1819, of a Jewish family, one of the member of which, a chorister in the synagogue of that city, published songs commemorative of the exodus from Egypt, with a German translation, and ancient traditional melodies, in 1838.
Offenbach’s musical talent displayed itself at a very early age; and his father, a distinguished kapellmeister, taught him until he was thirteen, when he sent him to the Conservatoire of Paris, then under the direction of Cherubini, where he remained until 1837, after which he played the violoncello in the orchestras of different theaters, and finally in that of the comic opera.
In 1841 he brought out some of his own compositions, and became known as concert cellist.
At this time the young musician manifested his originality and taste for parody and eccentricities. Thinking, doubtless, that the sound of the violoncello was insufficient in itself, he imitated the violin and other instruments. He imitated the bagpipe so well that he misled his hearers, and excited the enthusiasm of the uneducated class, who formed the majority in the concerts of that time.
In 1848 he went to Germany, but returned to Paris in 1850, when he was engaged as leader of the orchestra in the Theatre Francais.
The deplorable state into which the orchestra had fallen was proverbial. Offenbach wished to make this the starting point of his fortune. He got up the characters, composed pretty little airs, preluded parodies of La Fontaine’s “Fables”, the publication of which obtained for him considerable success. The manner in which he made his orchestra execute Gounod’s beautiful music for the choruses of “Ulysses” did him great honor. Meanwhile his talent for jesting, drollery, and buffoonery was becoming more and more known in his circle of acquaintances. Artists and writers pressed him to take advantage of it in the music he wrote for theaters. But while he found no difficulty in getting texts, he for a while could find no theater willing to bring out such works as he was desired to write.
His “Orphee ausx enfers” played for the first time in 1858, is a grotesque and clownish parody, which commences by transforming Orpheus into a master of the violin giving private lessons, and finishes by a vulgar dance. This work obtained immense success. It was given over four hundred times in Paris alone. “Orphee” was in every way advantageous to its authors: it not only drew full houses, but even the honorary favors that government voluntarily bestowed to success, if not always to the beautiful, the good, and the useful. This work served as a sort of signal for the fabrication of pieces of the same stamp; so that all the French theaters became inundated with them, to the great detriment of good taste, wit, and art. Before long it was perceived that they had entered upon a dangerous path; but the impulse had been too strongly given, and they could not bridle it. Such buffoonery replaces the pleasures of the mind, the ear, and the emotions of the hear, by unhealthy sensations. Many of the melodies, however, are charming; we could willingly acknowledge their artistic merit; but then we cannot forget that they are associated with the grossest scenes.
In “Daphnis et Chloe” (1860) there are fine melodies; and the same may be said of the operetta “Fortunio”. Offenbach, who had the singular idea of competing and offering prizes, made a musical tour through England with his troupe in 1857, and through Germany in 1858. In 1860 he tried a ballet with the opera, but did not succeed.
In 1861 the composer tried “Barkouf” upon the stage of the comic opera; which had the reception it merited in this theater, where it was out of place. The failure of this piece was partly owing to Scribe, the author of the libretto, who had chosen a dog for the hero of the piece. The frequenters of the comic opera, though not very particular in the selections, protested against this novelty.
Offenbach resumed the direction of the theater, which he had given up for a while, and brought out several pieces; one of the most amusing was “Lischen und Fritzchen”. The latter, an Alsatian domestic, murders the French language so outrageously that his master turns him out of doors. Just at the moment he is venting his grief in comic complaints, he meets Lischen, also a young Alsatian; and the two speak so extravagant a language that they astonish each other. This little work is filled with pleasing melodies, and is very comical.
“La belle Helene”, a burlesque composition, put upon the stage in 1864, had unparalleled success in France, not particularly creditable to tech French taste of the times. Except the introduction, in which is a fine hautboy solo, there is nothing but dance music and drolleries.
“La grande-duchese de Gerolstein” also attracted a crowd, although the music is less interesting than that of the preceding works of the composer. Such was the infatuation which this piece caused, that at the time of the Exposition universelle, in 1867, many of the sovereigns of Europe, who were then in Paris, went to see it.
To do Offenbach justice, it must be said that his talent as cellist was genuine. He was a remarkable virtuoso before he became a composer; he had great facility for composition, as his numerous works prove. Besides, he possessed originality, drollery, and good humor. With such natural gifts, had he set a higher standard he might have produced works that would have placed him in the ranks of the greater masters.
In 1876 Offenbach made an unprofitable tour in America, of which he gave an account in his “Notes d’un musicien en voyage”, published in 1877. Offenbach died in Paris, October5, 1880.