Jacques Offenbach: the most important writer of popular music in the 19th century
Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880) was arguably the most important writer of popular music in the 19th century. He created a type of light burlesque French comic opera known as the opérette, which became one of the most characteristic artistic products of the period. His many operettas are outstanding examples of the genre, while his opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) remains part of the standard opera repertory.
He was born in Cologne but his father, attracted by Paris’s more tolerant attitude toward Jews, took him there in his youth, and in 1833 he was enrolled as a cello student at the Paris Conservatoire. After a year’s study he went on to play in orchestras. In 1849, after playing the cello in the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique, he became conductor at the Théâtre Français. In 1855 he opened a theatre of his own, the Bouffes-Parisiens, which he directed until 1866 and where he gave many of his celebrated operettas, among them Orphée aux enfers (1858; Orpheus in the Underworld). Offenbach reached the pinnacle of his popularity in the 1860s with works such as Barbe-bleu, La Vie parisienne, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein and La Périchole. From 1872 to 1876 he directed the Théâtre de la Gaîté, and in 1874 he produced there a revised version of Orphée aux enfers. Described then as an opéra-féerique (“a fairylike opera”), this venture was a financial failure. In 1876 he made a tour of the United States. The remaining years of his life were devoted to composition, mainly taken up with work on Les Contes d’Hoffmann, which was left incomplete at his death.
The success of Offenbach’s operettas established the genre internationally, leading the way for composers such as Johann Strauss Jr., Arthur Sullivan and Franz Lehár and in part feeding into the development of the 20th-century musical.
Offenbach is credited with writing in a fluent, elegant style and with a highly developed sense of both characterization and satire (particularly in his irreverent treatment of mythological subjects); he was called by Gioachino Rossini “our little Mozart of the Champs-Elysées.” Indeed, he was almost as prolific as Mozart. He wrote more than 100 stage works, many of which were maintained in the repertory of the 21st century.