Jacques Offenbach

The German-French composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) can be considered the father of the operetta because his lighthearted works conquered the world and found imitators everywhere.

Although he created a typically French musical idiom, Jacques, originally Jacob, Offenbach was born in Cologne, the son of a Jewish cantor and itinerant musician from the town of Offenbach. Jacques, one of 10 children, showed precocious musical talent, particularly for the cello. He studied with local teachers and performed in restaurants with a brother and sister. In 1833 the father took Jacques and another son to Paris for further training and for the musical opportunities offered there. The young German was accepted at the conservatory, but he left after a year to enter the professional world of music. His first position was as a cellist at the Opéra Comique, and for the rest of his life he was active in the musical-entertainment world as composer, conductor, and manager.

Offenbach was music director of the Comédie Française for 7 years, but when the International Exposition was held in Paris in 1855, he leased a theater seating only 50 people and presented his own satirical and topical sketches. The project was a sensational success, and he soon moved to a larger theater. In the following years he composed and produced almost 100 operettas. In them, he satirized political figures of the day and pretentious snobbery in the arts. There was nothing sentimental about Offenbach's operettas (this was a later development), only wit and high spirits. The most famous are Orpheus in the Underworld (1858), La Belle Hélène (1864), and La Vie Parisienne (1866).

During the Paris Universal Exposition in 1867 thousands of visitors, including royalty and nobility as well as commoners, visited Offenbach's theater. In his later years he appeared as guest conductor in London, Vienna, Berlin, and other European centers. In 1875 he visited the United States and conducted special concerts in New York City and Philadelphia. The tour was less than a success, but his memoirs of the trip, Orpheus in America, give lively insights into big city life of the time.

Offenbach wrote one serious opera, The Tales of Hoffmann, a masterpiece that is frequently performed. It is his operettas, however, with their mixture of social satire with attractive melodies and ebullient dances that gave him his fame. He did not invent the can-can, but his use of this high-spirited, high-kicking dance made it as much a symbol of Paris as the Eiffel Tower.

Further Reading on Jacques Offenbach

A translation of Offenbach's account of his trip to the United States was published as Orpheus in America: Offenbach's Diary of His Journey to the New World (1957). Siegfried Kracauer, Orpheus in Paris: Offenbach and the Paris of His Time (1938), is rich in its treatment of social conditions during the composer's life. For a reasonable estimation of Offenbach's importance as a composer see Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers (1970).

Additional Biography Sources

Faris, Alex., Jacques Offenbach, New York: Scribner, 1981, 1980.

Gammond, Peter., Offenbach, London; New York: Omnibus Press, 1986 1980.

Gammond, Peter., Offenbach: his life and times, Tunbridge Wells, Kent: Midas Books, 1980.

Harding, James., Jacques Offenbach: a biography, London: J. Calder; New York: Riverrun Press, 1980.

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