Thursday, 16 April 2015

O is for Offenbach

Jakob Offenbach was born in 1819 to a Jewish family in the city of Cologne, Germany which was then part of Prussia.  The seventh of ten children, he showed musical aptitude at the age of six and was composing his own songs and dances soon thereafter.  Taking up the cello at age nine, he gave performances of his own compositions that were so technically difficult they stumped his own teacher.  With two of his siblings he played at local dance halls and inns, until their father decided that he should continue his studies at the Paris Conservatoire in 1833.  Upon his arrival in France he changed his name to Jacques.

Within a year, Offenbach grew bored of academia and struck out on his own, getting jobs as a cellist with various theatre orchestras.  His tendency to prank his fellow musicians got him into trouble routinely, but he eventually matured and built a reputation for himself in composing and performing at salons in Paris.  It was at one of these salons that he met Herminie d'Alcain, with whom he fell in love.  Since he wasn't in a strong enough financial position to propose to her, he spent a year touring France, Germany, and Britain to enhance his reputation and his bank account.  In 1844 following his conversion to Catholicism, the two were married.

Gradually he shifted his focus to composing and producing musical burlesques.  He was set to break into the musical theatre scene when the 1848 revolution occurred, and he quickly packed up his family and fled back to Cologne.  Upon their return a year later, the grand salons had been closed down but Offenbach was able to secure work with orchestras and begin composing anew.  Between 1833 and 1835 he wrote and staged small operettas in Paris which were received well and enabled him to open his own theatre.

From here his career in musical theatre ascended. He wrote many operettas, one-act plays, and satirical pieces.  Also he presented works by many other composers, including a neglected one-act comic opera by Mozart on the centenary celebrations in 1856.  By now he was known by Napoleon III who himself reportedly enjoyed Offenbach's work.  His productions were lavishly staged which often put a strain on the theatre's finances, and to offset this he opened a subsidiary production house in London for the 1857 season.

In 1858 Offenbach presented his first full-length opera "Orpheus in the Underworld" which touched off his most successful decade.  He was granted French citizenship by Napoleon in 1860 and his company flourished.  However the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 was devastating; he and his family fled to Spain and were unable to return due to public suspicions regarding his heritage and his connections to Napoleon and the old regime.  Fortunately he still had success in England and weathered the storm well.

Once Paris settled down after the war, Offenbach and his family returned.  Both his new works and revival of previous works did well.  A successful tour of the United States in 1876 enabled him to recoup his financial losses, and life in France proved more than satisfying.  His frequent travels and advancing age left him with severe gout and his health declined in the latter half of the 1870s.  Sadly he didn't live to finish his final opera, "The Tales of Hoffmann", which was later completed by his son and a close family friend. Jacques Offenbach died in Paris in 1880.

By his own count he had composed over 100 operas and more than 50 non-operatic songs amid many other works.  His work has been credited for inspiring the duo of Gilbert and Sullivan, and the composer Franz von Suppé, among others.

Here's a performance of a duet from Offenbach's final opera.
Barcarolle from Les Contes d'Hoffmann

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