Monday, 20 June 2016


"Le Mozart des Champs-Elysées" 
("The Mozart of Champs-Elysées")

Jacques Offenbach turns 197 today.
Today’s featured duet comes to us from 19th century German-turned French composer Jacques Offenbach’s final unfinished grand opera Les contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann).

The gorgeous barcarolle for soprano and mezzo soprano, from the opera’s third act, 
“Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour" (Beautiful night, o night of love), and the entire work itself have become staple pieces in the West, with the famous barcarolle often finding itself enhancing many and varied soundtracks of mainstream and independent film, and Les Contes itself greatly assisting in the dogged quest of making for it’s creator a household name.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann’s popularity is especially notable, as both the work and it’s composer would have experienced many roadblocks along the journey to success.

Jacques Offenbach, born 
Jacob Offenbach 197 years ago today on June 20, 1819 at Cologne in Prussia (in what is present day Germany), was the 7th child of a family of 10 by Jewish parents. Although young Jacob showed signs of musical prodigalism as early as the age of nine years, having already mastered the violin with astonishing and “terrifying” ability,  and having begun the practice of composition and had recently taken up the cello, Prussian musical society in the early 19th century would prove problematic for musicians of Jewish origin looking to advance in their practice or trade and make a name for themselves across the continent.

Jacob’s father 
Isaac, would send his son west, to France by the age of fourteen alongside elder brother Julius, aged 18 - also musically gifted - to study in Paris.

An esteemed Italian in Paris:
composer and Paris Conservatoire
Director Luigi Cherubini

It would be in Paris, at the prestigious Paris Conservatoire that young Jacob would shatter his way through the first of his obstacles with remarkable ease: running the exclusive Conservatory was one of the early 19th centuries’ most prominent Italian masters of Opera in France, composer 
Luigi Cherubini. So exalted a station held Cherubini as Director of the conservatoire, and so particular were his refinements, even the likes of (a young) Franz Liszt had applied for, and had been refused admission within it’s hallowed ranks. Jacob’s tender age was but just one factor working against the young hopeful: unlike in Prussia, where the musician’s Judaism would prove a hindrance to himself, in Paris - which was more accepting of Jewish talents - it was Offenbach’s status as a Prussian national that was viewed by Cherubini and the Conservatoire as most distasteful.

It would only be after much persuasion on the part of Isaac Offenbach that the pubescent Jacob would be made allowed to audition. Moments into the young prodigy’s performance, Cherubini abruptly called for silence, allegedly remarking to Isaac’s most gifted son

“Enough, young man! You are now a pupil of this Conservatoire!"

It would be during this period that Jacob would become Jacques, and where the former singer and violinist would begin to hone his skills as a virtuoso of the cello. Although having spent only a year within it’s precincts, it would be at the Conservatoire that Jacques would find himself rubbing shoulders with classical music’s elite, and instilling within himself a very powerful sense of his own self worth as a musician. Very soon after voluntary withdrawing from the Conservatoire, Offenbach would enter into the cello tutelage of one Louis-Pierre Norblin, and join the Opéra-Comique orchestra as a cellist where he would even further refine his skills earn the distinction of one of the finest cellists on the continent. Jacques would also study composition under maestro Fromental Halévy of La Juive fame.

French composer Fromental Halévy
would prove instrumental in young
Jacques early foray into the art of
musical composition.

Around this period of self-discovery and burgeoning success, Offenbach would develop a taste for the musical theater, leasing a small property in the Champs-Élysées (which he named Bouffes-Parisiens) wherein he would test out some of his own compositions. In spite of the odds working against him as a Prussian Jew in Paris, the now 36 year old musician would find his latest venture a smashing success, with his small-scale productions earning him a reputation as a pioneer and master of the operetta, allowing him to branch out into in creating larger performances, in even grander venues. This was no small feat for the newly established composer given the Parisian government’s notorious restrictions on musical productions: such stageplays were to be limited to single acts, with a maximum of three characters, with a strict prohibition on the implementation of chorus.

Within three years of Jacques indoctrination into musical theater, the Prussian prodigy would find himself for the first time beginning to build a reputation outside of Cologne and Paris, as his satirical 1858 operetta 
Orphée aux enfers causes a sensation in France and eventually attracts the attention of the Second French Empire under Napoleon III, who would later grant the Prussian émigré French citizenship and the much prestiged Légion d'Honneur (a distinction shared by former tutor Luigi Cherubini). Offenbach’s reputation as a master of the operetta would extend to Vienna, which enabled the former Prussian national to introduce into musical Viennese society several of his successful works then unknown to it's high art-loving patrons.

Unfortunately for the newly minted Frenchman, nationalistic pride spurned on by the revolution combined with an ill-suited business sense would plunge the composer into bankruptcy as the European populous divided into sects following France's defeat by the Prussians in 1871. Once more, 
Jacques was viewed by the public as JacobPrussian intruder.

18th/19th century Prussian author and
polymath E.T.A. Hoffmann's short stories
would provide the base for Offenbach's
ultimate success and lifelong dream of
musical infamy. Sadly, Jacques did not
survive to revel in his posthumous notoriety.

It would only be following the death of Offenbach, 9 years later at the age of 61, that Jacques, through his second attempt at a grand opera 
Les Contes d’Hoffman (The Tales of Hoffmann, based on three short stories penned by author and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann) would finally achieve international fame, although, household name status would arguably not be seen until well after the composer’s passing, at the height of the twenty-first century, following a series of incomplete performances (said to have involved the much beloved barcarolle and the opera’s third act), a gas explosion and resulting fire at a separate, full-feature performance in 1881, and a further fire 6 years later in 1887 at the Opéra-Comique which had destroyed much of the orchestral parts – and the onset of the second world war, wherein composers and
works created by musicians of Jewish origin found themselves frowned upon and/or had been made the subject of bans in many parts of Europe.

It would only be in a post-war Europe that Jacques Offenbach’s magnum opus would be re-introduced into high musical society and made allowed to flourish, unhindered by the many historical roadblocks that had been forced upon it’s composer.

Sadly, it was a level of infamy unknown to Offenbach during his lifetime. 

Enjoy below the beautiful “Belle Nuit…” by Jacques Offenbach featuring mezzo soprano Elīna Garanča and soprano Anna Netrebko, and
marvel at the acoustic beauty that may have never been:


No comments:

Post a Comment