Jaques Offenbach was best known as the man who composed nearly a 100 operettas. He was a renowned, highly regarded musician who inspired lines and generations of musicians with his works. He was a successful cellist at the time and showed a direct interest in playing this instrument at the conservatory. After a range and series of musical works, he was appointed as the music director at the ‘Comedie Francaise’ and also went out to creating his own theater, staging original works. He became widely popular with his debut opera performance called ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ and this went on to being staged all around the globe. Offenbach showed interest and an inclination to comic works and started composing and producing a number of these productions in this genre. Some of his notable pieces were ‘La vie Parissienne’ and ‘Les Brigands’ in collaboration with libretto writers Meilhac and Halevy. He earned respect and admiration from all around the globe including the Queen of England and the French government, which led them to granting him a permanent French citizenship though he was of German descent. Touring the world, he made an indelible mark with the usage of the cello, and was about to stage his grandest performance yet, but never made it as he perished.
Jacques Offenbach’s early life and childhood
There is very little known about the Offenbach family life and background. Jacques Offenbach, born as ‘Jakob Eberst Wiener’ on 20th June 1819, was born to a Jewish Cantor and his wife in the small town of Cologne in early Prussia (now known as Germany). The Offenbach family comprised of 9 other brothers and sisters and ‘Jakob’ happened to be the seventh child, and the second of all sons. His father was a Jewish cantor who officially changed the family name to Offenbach after remarrying and moving to Germany.
Jacques was an exceptionally talented child and inherited after his father who also an amateur violinist and singer. The young boy was pushed to learn the violin when he was just six and then later went on to compose his own songs at the age of 8. Jacques realized that his true calling lay elsewhere and went on to switch to the ‘cello’ from the violin. His parents were supportive of his decision. At the age of 10, Offenbach took a grave step and replaced one of the star performers at a performance in Haydn quartet. This not only startled his family members but also got them to realize that his talent had to be unleashed and channeled to productive uses. By the time he was thirteen, Jacques had composed various pieces of his own and his father, realizing his talent, took him to the Paris Conservatory in the year 1833. Jacques had to play and convince the director of the Conservatory as foreign students were strictly prohibited. However, he managed to win the heart of the director and went on to securing a place at the prestigious conservatory.
Jacques was enrolled at the conservatory in the hope he would come out a successful musician like ‘Jules’. However, Jacques grew extremely tired and found the academic part of the study very monotonous. He never seemed to like those classes and as a result never paid attention. This led him to being a rebellious kid and at the end of the day; he skipped classes and eventually left the conservatory as a result, in the following year. His name was officially struck off the Conservatory’s list on December 2nd 1834.
After a few years of on his own, and after numerous compositions, Jacques Offenbach finally met an English concert agent’s step daughter and married her in the year 1844. This led to a harmonious marriage that resulted in the birth of five children. Offenbach, along with his family went to Cologne, his birthplace and eventually returned to Paris for his new beginnings in the year 1849.
It was here, Jacques Offenbach gained his first and professional exposure to the musical world that awaited the entry of another musician who was later, going to be called a legend. In the beginning, he was rejected and was deemed inefficient in his music. As the years slowly progressed and as he slowly refined and polished his talent, his career kick started once more with the beginning of the Second Empire. In the year 1850, he became a musical composer at the ‘Theatre Francaise’. Along with being a conductor at the Theatre Francaise, he was appointed to play the cello at the Opera Comique as well. His friendly, mischievous nature led him to playing pranks that led him to lose a lot of money and eventually got him to quit his job as well. It was after this sheepish episode that Jacques resorted to private studies, confined to his room, where he collaborated secretly with the composer of ‘La Juive’; Jacques Halevy. He was now composing small scaled operas. He wasn’t too happy with the Opera Comique as they failed to make witty, humorous operas anymore. This got him to take the next step.
Offenbach founded his very own musical theatre known as the ‘Bouffes Parisiens’ rented in the Champs-Elysees. This was his infant step for bigger and mammoth operas to come. Within three years, he composed his first opera known as “Orpheus in the Underworld” that went on to becoming one of the most celebrated operas in the world. Within a few months of opening ‘Bouffes Parisiens’, he moved his theater to a smaller, more constricted area with very little space in the year 1863. Orpheus in the Underworld was making headlines all over the world until a certain, Mr. Jules Janin attacked and ridiculed the composition. A different story was then brought out after this particular opera was performed 228 times before different audiences who gave a much different verdict. They deemed him the Mozart of the Champs-Elysees. Offenbach’s popularity began to grow in England, America and other parts of Europe, despite being sorely criticized by cynics. He was also awarded the Legion of Honor because of the Operetta, “Orpheus in the Underworld’ that was nationally and internationally acclaimed.
In the year 1861, Jacques Offenbach gave up his full time job as a performer and at theater, and continued to write operettas for various other managers and theater productions. His legacy and success slowly began to die with the Second Empire disintegrating. In the year 1872, he went back to re-opening the Bouffes Parisiens and also went on to acquiring the Gaite Theater for a short while. This led to a financial crunch and the acquisition backfired. He ended up losing a lot of money and as a result ended up becoming bankrupt. The only way Jacques could repay his debts was by going on an American tour during the Centennial Celebrations, where he performed at multifarious locations including the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and at Gilmore Gardens in central New York.
The Franco-Prussian War
The Franco-Prussian War broke out in the year 1870, and Jacques was not allowed to enter the country because of his German descent. He arranged to go to his home in ‘Etretat’ and moved his family and children to safety in Northern Spain, joining them a short while afterward. Offenbach rose to fame under the reign of Napoleon the third and was also heavily awarded by him for his admirable music compositions. This led him to producing music under the old regime, and with the crash of the second empire his music suddenly became obsolete, losing its appeal among the masses. His operettas suddenly became worthless that only existed in the time of Napoleon the third. Some of his greatest works such as ‘La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein’ was banned in France because of its satirical inclinations. Although the Prussians started to disown him and his music, he was slowly becoming popular all around England and was also called as a guest of the Prince of Wales. Other, new composers took over in France and Germany and works such as ‘Angot’ by Charles Lecocq and works by Andre Messager started to take over the musical world. Although Offenbach was widely unsuccessful post 1860, he still managed to retain some of his success in other parts of the world.
Death and Legacy
Jacques didn’t manage to leave a very memorable legacy. He was only successful till the Second Empire was stoic and still an important part of the world. His death was a pathetic one. While dying, he regretted wasting his time over operettas. He began his production for a very serious operetta known as ‘the Tales of Hoffman’ but died too early to see it being performed for the first time. His death happened on 5th October 1880 in Paris, where he died after an alarming attack of suffocation.
1819: Born in Cologne, Germany as ‘Jakob Wiener’.
1827: Started composing his first songs at the age of eight.
1829: Surprised his family with his debut performance, replacing a key instrumentalist.
1833: Enrolled at the Paris Conservatory
1834: Dropped out of the Conservatory
1844: Married in 1844 and consequently gave birth to 5 children with his wife.
1849: Returned to Paris for his musical journey in 1849.
1850: Became a conductor at Theatre Francaise.
1855: He founded Bouffes Parisiens; his very own theater.
1858: Produced his legendary works “Orpheus in the Underworld”.
1861: He gave up theatre but continued to write and compose.
1872: Took over the Gaite Theatre and went bankrupt.
1880: Died due to a suffocation attack in Paris.