It was the cultural philosopher Walter Benjamin who defined Paris as ‘the capital of the 19th century’. During its heyday, Paris’s own large roster of native talent was enriched by figures who came from abroad to enjoy the creative and financial possibilities the great artistic metropolis offered. From Italy came Rossini and Bellini, both of whom would die there; Donizetti and Verdi were also based in the French capital for substantial periods. The Berlin-born Meyerbeer, who honed his operatic technique in Italy, moved to Paris in 1825 and there helped shape the most influential artistic genre of the day – grand opéra – dying at his Parisian home in 1864. In 1831 Chopin arrived from Poland, remaining until his death in 1849. Wagner set his heart on success in Paris, and his repeated failure there left him with a permanent sense of bitterness that would erupt in his malicious jubilation at the outcome of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. But none of these musicians, and not even the many French-born composers working in their own capital city, captured the mood of Parisian life at a crucial period in its history – that of the brittle but brilliant Second Empire – so perfectly as another foreigner, Jacques Offenbach, who summed it up in a string of works written for the popular musical theatre, and especially in his 1866 hit, La vie parisienne.
In Offenbach’s case, the decision to go to Paris was probably his father’s. Isaac Offenbach – his surname derived from the town of his birth – had moved to Cologne where his second and more musically exceptional son was born in 1819. After winning the approval of his fellow citizens through his cello playing and a handful of compositions, Jakob (as he was then called) and his elder brother Julius (later Jules) were taken to Paris by their father to audition for the august Conservatoire when the former was just 14. By rights, the director of that institution, Luigi Cherubini, should have turned them both down. However talented they were – Jules Offenbach was a gifted violinist – they were foreigners, and as such not entitled to admission: Cherubini had already rejected the young Franz Liszt on those very grounds. Yet for some reason Cherubini broke the rules on this occasion; the two young Germans were admitted and Isaac went back to Cologne. In fact, Jacques left the conservatoire, of his own volition, after little more than a year, to try his luck as a freelance cellist. He continued with private lessons, however, including composition with Fromental Halévy, the composer of the opera La Juive.
Offenbach’s solo career was an erratic one. At its height, having won some fame in the best musical salons of Paris, he aspired to virtuoso status and in 1844 visited London, playing trios with no less than Joseph Joachim and Mendelssohn, and appearing at Windsor Castle in front of Queen Victoria and Russian Tsar Nicholas I. But there was also a long period when he sat at a desk in the pit of the Opéra Comique, scraping away, night after night, through the theatre’s then standard repertoire – works by Auber, Hérold and Boieldieu prominent among them. Though the job probably bored him – by now he aspired to become a composer – it put him in an excellent position to learn how to write for the stage in terms of what worked and what didn’t work, also enabling him to unlock the vital mystery of theatrical timing.
Thus Offenbach formed his own ideas about the genre of opéra-comique (or opera with dialogue) as was then practised. Himself drawn to the lighter musical field, he believed that contemporary French composers were turning opéra-comique into something approaching small-scale grand opéra – far more musically serious than its earlier practitioners had ever imagined. But his own attempts to break into the cabal of composers allowed to have their stage works performed in the subsidised Parisian theatres continually failed. A job as music director of the Comédie-Française, home of France’s classical spoken theatre company, gave him limited opportunities to make his mark.
Eventually, after a few private try-outs, he decided to become his own impresario, and hired a tiny theatre on the Champs-Elysées in the year of Paris’s answer to London’s Great Exhibition: 1855. Based close to the exhibition site to catch the passing crowds, Offenbach’s Bouffes Parisiens was allowed, by some arcane law, just two or three singers in each production. Yet his initial triple bill, including the mordant comedy Les deux aveugles, took off, and he was launched. Over the next few years, he moved to larger venues where slightly bigger productions could be mounted. But the turning-point came in 1858, when he and his librettists produced an outrageous parody of ancient myth in the full-length Orpheus in the Underworld. It was an enormous success, running for 228 consecutive performances, at which point the cast was too exhausted to continue. He followed it by revisiting the French middle ages in Geneviève de Brabant (1859) and Barbe-bleue (1866), created another classical parody (La belle Hélène, 1864), and offered a scintillating view of how Parisian society and its wealthy visitors lived the high life (La vie parisienne). The zenith of his popularity came with La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867), which mocked both the pomposity and military pretensions of tiny European dukedoms. The German chancellor Bismarck is said to have left one performance with a particularly enigmatic smile on his face.
Bismarck was not the only important figure to attend the show. In Paris itself, the highest class of society patronised Offenbach’s theatre, including the Emperor Napoleon III himself; on one occasion Offenbach even collaborated with the Duc de Morny, the second most important political figure in France, as an anonymous librettist. Meanwhile his first nights became ever more prestigious occasions, with visiting royalty from far and near mixing with Paris’s most expensive courtesans – and sometimes offstage as well. The notorious Cora Pearl, with her cockney French accent and her 5,000 francs per night fee for private entertainment, sang Cupid in a revival of Orpheus in the Underworld in 1867. Some of Offenbach’s other home-grown stars – such as Hortense Schneider and Zulma Bouffar – combined starring roles in his operettas with escorting at the very pinnacle of the profession (Schneider with the future Edward VII, for instance); Offenbach himself had long-term liaisons with some of these singers, despite apparently enjoying a respectable married life with his wife Herminie,
to whose Catholic faith he had converted from Judaism shortly before their marriage in 1844.
Indeed an open display of sexual licence, including the wild dancing of the provocative can-can, was part of the initial appeal of the operettas themselves. Not everyone was keen on it. The literary Brothers Goncourt were disgusted by Offenbach’s whole aesthetic industry and its wealthy client/willing diva extra-curricular business arrangements. The stern Emile Zola based his actress-courtesan Nana, star of a fictional operetta called La Blonde Vénus, on Hortense Schneider and her ilk, providing in his 1880 novel a description of a first night at Offenbach’s theatre that seethes with moral indignation. In it, the theatre manager constantly refers to his venue as a brothel.
But by the time Zola wrote Nana the Second Empire was long over, and when the crash had come it had seemed certain that Offenbach would fall with it. Napoleon III’s regime collapsed in 1870, when he and the entire French army were taken prisoner by the Prussians at Sedan in a war cleverly engineered by Bismarck, causing the Emperor’s immediate abdication. Following this national humiliation, the Third Republic continued with the intense suffering of the Siege of Paris, succeeded by the Paris Commune and its bloody suppression,
which left much of Europe’s most glittering capital a smoking ruin and many thousands of French nationals killed or executed. What price Offenbach now?
Surprisingly, and despite the fact that his German name and birth had for a while made him a scapegoat for the whole debacle and the licentious profligacy of the period that preceded it, Offenbach was able to resume his career, though the sheer joie de vivre of his earlier successes was now tempered by more of the genuine sentiment that had always been its obverse coin. As well as some new successes and a few more failures, Offenbach’s last years were largely taken up with Les contes d’Hoffmann, a more ambitious piece than the three or four opéras-comiques he had written hitherto (when the theatre of that name had occasionally allowed him to ‘step-up’ from operetta), and a bid to be taken more seriously as a composer – if not by his contemporaries, then at least by posterity.
But in this period of his life Offenbach’s health, already seriously impacted by painful gout and rheumatism, was steadily worsening. He hastened to complete Hoffmann but even his creative fertility could not beat mortality and he died during the rehearsal period, his score incomplete and parts of it not orchestrated. Crucially, the kind of fine-tuning that was always part of his method at this stage – a process that involved the composition of new material and the scrapping of other sections – was denied to him. Hoffmann was left for others to order and arrange. The result was nevertheless a major posthumous success in 1881, though the score suffered more than most both then and subsequently from interventions by other hands, however well-meaning. It is only in recent years, through the discoveries and efforts of conductor Antonio de Almeida and musicologist Michael Kaye, that an edition of the piece has been created that arguably gets closer to what Offenbach had in mind than any previous one.
Yet for all the potent fascination of Hoffmann, and the recent revival of his most serious previous score – Die Rheinnixen, composed for the Vienna Court Opera in 1864, which contains the first outing for the melody we all know and love as the Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann – it is to the supposedly ephemeral genre of operetta that Offenbach contributed most. He gave the new form an instant worldwide circulation, directly inspiring its continuation in the outputs of Johann Strauss II, Arthur Sullivan and countless other practitioners in his time and long afterwards. In their vivacity, elegance, charm and chic, there is a musical sophistication to his pieces that not only sums up the Paris of his day – making Offenbach, in the final analysis, the most Parisian of all composers – but also speaks to modern audiences, transcending its own time and place with effortless ease.
We named Jacques Offenbach one of the best French composers of all time