Jacques Offenbach

Jacques Offenbach

(born Cologne 20 June 1819; died Paris 5 October 1880)

Offenbach is a French composer of German origins (he became a naturalised French citizen in 1860) who wrote some of the most attractive and melodious music for the stage during the middle years of the nineteenth century.

While his final work, the opéra fantastique The Tales of Hoffmann is one of the most significant French operas of the nineteenth century, Offenbach’s main achievement is in the field of operetta in which he excelled, producing almost 100 examples.

Several operettas continue to keep a place in the repertory, notably Orpheus in the Underworld and La belle Hélène which, though based on ancient myth, mercilessly satirise Napoleon III’s Second Empire and Parisian society of the day.

Read our beginner’s guide to operetta

Offenbach 's Musical Style

Much of Offenbach’s success relies on the quality of the contribution of his librettists (Ludovic Halévy was his chief wordsmith), who consistently produced witty material and, with the composer, found practical subjects for treatment.

Offenbach himself evidently possessed sound theatrical judgement, which he was able to match to his highly developed gift for memorable melodies and effective though not especially innovative orchestration. At its best, his musical manners have an irrepressible joie de vivre which has guaranteed the survival of the best of his works to the present day.

Offenbach 's Life

Offenbach was the seventh of ten children born to a musical father. Having learned the violin and cello as a child, with his brother Julius he entered the Paris Conservatoire, and soon secured a position in the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique. He spent much of the 1840s as a virtuoso cellist touring Europe, including appearances in London and at Windsor where he entertained during the Ascot week banquet.

Despite his appointment as conductor at one of Paris’s theatres did little to help him get any of his stage works mounted until the mid-1850s when his fortunes changed. Based at Paris’s Salle Choiseul, Orpheus in the Underworld was a massive successive in 1858 and became something of a prototype for Offenbach’s subsequent large-scale satirical works in which he lampooned political figures and contemporary mores.

In 1864, his amusing take on the Trojan War – La belle Hélène – proved to be one of his greatest successes in the French capital, and his work spread throughout the chief European centres, including London and Vienna.

Offenbach became wealthy on the back of his popularity but the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) marked a shift in popular taste, and he lost money and was eventually forced into bankruptcy. He died during rehearsals for the premiere The Tales of Hoffmann, a work which, in many ways, may be considered the crowning glory of his career.

Notable Operas

  • La belle Hélène, 1864
  • La vie pariesenne, 1866
  • La Périchole, 1868
  • The Tales of Hoffmann (Les contes d’Hoffmann), 1880