Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
(b.Cologne, 20 June 1819; d.Paris, 5 October 1880)
To celebrate Offenbach’s bicentenary (which fell on 20 June) we show here a random selection of contemporary images from the Museum’s collection.
Obituary from The Queen, The Lady’s Newspaper, 16 October 1880.
ALTHOUGH he cannot be ranked among the great composers of his age, few men have achieved a wider popularity in the musical world than Herr Jacques Offenbach, whose death at Paris on the 5th inst. has been so widely chronicled. So popular indeed were the works of the deceased composer, that it is hardly too much to say that there is scarcely a town throughout Europe or America into which his bright and catching melodies have not found their way. A quarter of a century ago he introduced to the Parisian world a new school of music—the opéra bouffe—and as the musical novelty met with a ready acceptance, he worked the vein successfully and continuously to the end of his days. Whether opéra bouffe has proved a desirable acquisition, and whether it has not tended to lower rather than raise musical taste, is a question we do not now care to discuss. It is sufficient for the present to say it found an energetic exponent in Jacques Offenbach, and that the success which attended his efforts has called forth many followers. Chief among these may be named Charles Lecocq, Hervé, and Leo Delibes; but, although the works of his disciples have in many instances acquired considerable repute, Offenbach retained to the last his position as leader of the school which he had founded.
Mrs Gore, the novelist, used to say that novels dripped from her fingers’ ends. The same fertility of resource was a characteristic of Jacques Offenbach, for throughout his musical career a long stream of operatic productions have followed each other in quick and never-ending succession. In one year alone he produced no less than thirteen operettas, and the same prolific power of writing remained with him to the end. In illustration of his readiness of musical conception, an anecdote is told reciting how Alfred de Musset called at the Comédie Française in 1850, at which time Offenbach was musical conductor of that theatre, and asked him whether he would undertake to set to music one of the songs in the author’s “Fortunio.” “Certainly,” replied Offenbach; “let me fetch a pen and paper.” “But you are not going to do it now ?” said De Musset, with surprise. “Oh, yes !” was Offenbach’s answer, and in five minutes the music was complete. Later on the song was amplified into an entire opéra bouffe, and the “Chanson de Fortunio” was the voluntary played on the organ of the Madeleine at the composer’s funeral.
With such a copious pouring forth of new works, many of them, as was to be expected, soon passed into oblivion. A large number, however, have attained a world-wide popularity. Perhaps the best known work of the composer is “La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein,” an opera which was produced in the Exhibition year of 1867, with Mlle. Schneider in the title rôle, and from which Offenbach and the librettists, in the first year of its performance alone, succeeded in realising a sum of nearly ten thousand pounds. So popular indeed did the work become, that at one time it was played at no less than twenty-three French theatres simultaneously. “La Belle Hélène,” “Orphée aux Enfers,” “La Chanson de Fortunio,” “Le Mariage aux Lanternes,” “La Pont aux Soupirs,” and “Les Voyages de Dunanan” are among his previous operas which had met with more or less success, but the composer’s popularity may be said to have reached its climax in 1867. Many of his subsequent works are still fresh in the minds of the musical public, notably “Genevieve de Brabant,” “La Périchole,” “La Princesse de Trebizonde,” “La Roi Carotte,” and “La Jolie Parfumeuse.” “Madame Favart,” after a long run, has only recently been withdrawn from the Strand Theatre, while “La Fille du Tambour Major” is now being played at the Alhambra Theatre in London, and at the Folies Dramatiques in Paris. Just prior to his death he completed two new works, “Les Contes d’Hoffmann,” shortly to be produced at the Opéra Comique in Paris, and “La Belle Lurette,” to be produced at the Renaissance in Paris, and at the Globe Theatre in London.
Many of his operas are of an essentially ephemeral character, and whether his ablest achievements are destined to an abiding popularity remains to be seen. It is certain, however, that in his later days Offenbach felt that he was capable of something higher than anything he had yet aimed at, and we have his own authority for saying that in “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” he has striven after a loftier standard of art than he had at any previous time aspired to. Upon this work he has bestowed the most patient thought and careful attention. In May last he played the work over to a gathering of friends invited specially to hear it, and even on his bed of sickness he bestowed upon it finishing touches and such improvements as commended themselves to his maturer judgment. The score of “Les Contes d’Hoffman” was found open at the last act on the writing table in the room adjoining Offenbach’s death chamber, and he is said to have hurried on the completion of the work, under a presentiment that he had but little time wherein to finish it. He felt that since the production of “La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein” his popularity had been on the wane; and in the “Contes d’Hoffmann,” which he has dedicated to his son, he hoped to eclipse any of his previous efforts, and to find a position among the standard composers of his time. Opportunity will doubtless soon be afforded for estimating the value of the work from which he hoped so much.
Although Offenbach passed so many of his years in Paris, he was a native of Cologne, where he was born in June, 1819, of Jewish parents. His father was a teacher of singing, and, at an early age, Jacques was set to work to learn the violoncello. The fee to Herr Alexander, his music master, was a shilling a lesson ; but the pecuniary resources of the family were at such a low ebb, and the family credit so small, that, as Offenbach himself used to relate, the shilling had to be paid down before the teacher would undertake to give the lesson. Subsequently the composer studied at the Conservatoire at Paris, and later on he obtained a position in the orchestra of the Théâtre Français, of which, in 1847, he became musical conductor. It was about this time he first became known as a composer, the works he essayed, however, being of but a trivial character. In 1855 he took the Bouffes Parisiens, and at this theatre produced several of his successful operas. Other works of his, produced at the Variétés, met with even greater favour, and it was here “La Grande Duchesse of Gerolstein” first obtained a hearing. The Variétés company came over to London in 1867, and their visit here served to widen the popularity of the composer. The previous year he paid a visit to the United States, and his travels there called forth the only literary production which he undertook, “Notes d’un Musicien en Voyage,” to which a preface has been written by his old school-fellow, Albert Woolf. He afterwards took the Gaïeté Theatre in Paris, where he brought out several of his operas with much magnificence.
Offenbach has always been an energetic and untiring worker. For some years past, indeed, his health has materially suffered from his never-ending exertions. A few weeks ago he assisted at a concert at Etretat, in aid of a fund being raised for the church of the district. This was his last public appearance. Returning to Paris, he was seized by a sharp attack of gout. From this malady he suffered for about a week, and as soon as the disease reached his heart he succumbed, his death occurring in his house, 8, Boulevard des Capucines.
By his exemplary private life and his genial disposition Offenbach had gained a wide circle of ardent friends. Few men, indeed, were better known in Parisian literary and musical circles than he was. The poverty from which he had suffered in his early days, too, had taught him sympathy with the distressed, and many are the stories current concerning Offenbach’s benevolence. A characteristic one, which we give on the authority of the Paris Figaro, is worth recording. Being appealed to for help by a little beggar, he put his hand in his pocket to give a few sous to the young mendicant. He found, however, he had not a single coin left, having just parted with all his loose cash after a game of trente et quarante. The occurrence took place at a seaside town. He asked the boy to follow him to the nearest tobacconist shop ; entering it, he called for pen, ink, and paper. In a few minutes he had written a short musical composition to which he affixed his autograph. “There,” said the composer, “take this to the nearest musicsellers’ , and take care of the money he gives you for it.”
Offenbach was buried at Montmartre after a service in the Madeleine, in which Faure and other leading singers assisted. An enormous assemblage gathered to do honour to the musician, whom many of them knew so well. Wreaths and bouquets were sent from all the leading theatres to be placed upon the coffin, and among them was one from the Alhambra Theatre of London. Music, art, and literature were well represented, Ambroise Thomas, Jules Massenet, Charles Lecocq, M. Hervé, Leo Delibes, M. Pasdeloup, M. Carvalho, M. Jacoby, Mme. Bizet, Mlle. Schneider, Victorien Sardou, Jules Verne, M. Meilhac, M. Halévy, Gustave Doré, Mmes. Heilbron, Isaac, and Judic being among those who attended to pay a last tribute of respect to their departed friend. A bust of Offenbach is to be placed in the foyer of the Variétés Theatre, the funds for which will be raised by a public performance of Offenbach’s music in that building.