Today in Yiddishkayt… June 20
Birthday of Jacques Offenbach, Composer & Cellist
Jacques Offenbach was born Jacob Offenbach on June 20, 1819 in Cologne, Germany. He was one of ten children and his father was a Jewish cantor and violinist. Offenbach began studying the violin when he was six and by the time he was eight, he was writing songs. When he was nine, Offenbach switched to the cello and a year later he volunteered to substitute for an absent instrumentalist in a performance at the Haydn quartet. He performed several original compositions by the time he was thirteen. In 1833, his father took him to audition for acceptance into the Paris Conservatory, and he was accepted despite the rule against foreigners. However, he left the conservatory after one year because he was bored by academic study.
He managed to secure a few temporary jobs in theater orchestras before gaining a permanent appointment in 1835 as a cellist at the Opera Comique. During this time, he took lessons from Louis-Pierre Norblin and Fromental Halevy. Some of his early compositions were performed in salons in Paris, but he was initially unable to make it in the theater. Offenbach married in 1844. During the 1848 Revolution in Paris, Offenbach decided to take his family back to Cologne to escape the tumult. Returning to Paris in February 1849, Offenbach found the grand salons closed down. He was appointed musical director of the Comédie Française, where Offenbach composed songs for eleven classical and modern dramas. Some of his songs became very popular, and he gained valuable experience in writing for the theater.
Finding the management of Paris’s Opéra-Comique company uninterested in staging his works, in 1855 he leased a small theater in the Champs-Élysées. There he presented a series of his own small-scale pieces, many of which became popular. In 1858, Offenbach produced his first full-length operetta, Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld), which was exceptionally well received and has remained one of his most played works. During the 1860s, he produced at least 18 full-length operettas, as well as more one-act pieces. His works from this period included La belle Hélène (1864), La vie parisienne (1866), La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867) and La Périchole (1868). These pieces are remembered for their sexually humor and political satire, and translated versions found success in Vienna, London and elsewhere in Europe.
Listen to the overture to Offenbach’s La vie parisienne, played by the Vienna State Opera Orchestra:
Napoleon III personally granted Offenbach French citizenship and the Légion d’Honneur. However, with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Offenbach found himself out of favor in Paris because of his imperial connections and his German birth. He remained successful in Vienna and London, however. He re-established himself in Paris during the 1870s, with revivals of some of his earlier favorites and a series of new works. In his last years he strove to finish The Tales of Hoffmann, but died before the premiere of the opera. He died in Paris on October 4, 1880.