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Jacques Offenbach Edit Profile

also known as Jakob Offenbach

cellist , Composer , impresario

Jacques Offenbach was a powerful influence on later composers of the operetta genre, particularly Johann Strauss, Jr. and Arthur Sullivan. His best-known works were continually revived during the 20th century, and many of his operettas continue to be staged in the 21st. The Tales of Hoffman remains part of the standard opera repertory.


Offenbach was born Jacob or Jakob Offenbach to a Jewish family, in the German city of Cologne, which was then a part of Prussia. His birthplace in the Großen Griechenmarkt was a short distance from the square that is now named after him, the Offenbachplatz. He was the second son and the seventh of ten children of Isaac Juda Offenbach né Eberst (1779–1850) and his wife Marianne, née Rindskopf (c. 1783–1840). Isaac, who came from a musical family, had abandoned his original trade as a bookbinder and earned an itinerant living as a cantor in synagogues and playing the violin in cafés. He was generally known as "der Offenbacher", after his native town, Offenbach am Main, and in 1808 he officially adopted Offenbach as a surname. In 1816 he settled in Cologne, where he became established as a teacher, giving lessons in singing, violin, flute and guitar, and composing both religious and secular music.


When Jacob was six years old, his father taught him to play the violin; within two years the boy was composing songs and dances, and at the age of nine he took up the cello. As he was by then the permanent cantor of the local synagogue, Isaac could afford to pay for his son to take lessons from the well-known cellist Bernhard Breuer. Three years later, the biographer Gabriel Grovlez records, the boy was giving performances of his own compositions, "the technical difficulties of which terrified his master", Breuer. Together with his brother Julius (violin) and sister Isabella (piano), Jacob played in a trio at local dance halls, inns and cafés, performing popular dance music and operatic arrangements. In 1833, Isaac decided that the two most musically talented of his children, Julius (then aged 18) and Jacob (14) needed to leave the provincial musical scene of Cologne to study in Paris. With generous support from local music lovers and the municipal orchestra, with whom they gave a farewell concert on 9 October, the two young musicians, accompanied by their father, made the four-day journey to Paris in November 1833.

Isaac had been given letters of introduction to the director of the Paris Conservatoire, Luigi Cherubini, but he needed all his eloquence to persuade Cherubini even to give Jacob an audition. The boy's age and nationality were both obstacles to admission. Cherubini had several years earlier refused the 12-year-old Franz Liszt admission on similar grounds, but he eventually agreed to hear the young Offenbach play. He listened to his playing and stopped him, saying, "Enough, young man, you are now a pupil of this Conservatoire." Julius was also admitted. Both brothers adopted French forms of their names, Julius becoming Jules and Jacob becoming Jacques.

Isaac hoped to secure permanent employment in Paris but failed to do so and returned to Cologne. Before leaving, he found a number of pupils for Jules; the modest earnings from those lessons, supplemented by fees earned by both brothers as members of synagogue choirs, supported them during their studies. At the conservatoire, Jules was a diligent student; he graduated and became a successful violin teacher and conductor, and led his younger brother's orchestra for several years. By contrast, Jacques was bored by academic study and left after a year. The conservatoire's roll of students notes against his name "Struck off on the 2 December 1834 (left of his own free will)".


Jacques Offenbach, originally Jacob Offenbach, was born on June 20, 1819, in Cologne, Prussia (present-day Germany). Offenbach began playing the violin at an early age, then took up the cello. As Paris presented a more favorable atmosphere for European Jews, his father brought Offenbach there. In 1833, Offenbach began to study the cello at the Paris Conservatoire. Embracing his new surroundings, he also changed his name to Jacques during this period.

After a year of study, Offenbach left the Conservatory and began taking cello lessons from Louis-Pierre Norblin. In addition, he studied musical composition with Fromental Halévy. Playing in the Opéra-Comique orchestra helped him develop into one of the finest cellists in Europe. During this time, Offenbach also embarked on writing his first larger operatic works.

After converting to Catholicism, Offenbach married a Spaniard, Herminie d'Alcain, in 1844. Around this time, he also began traveling through Europe to give performances, playing with such figures as Franz Liszt and Felix Mendelssohn. The year 1847 marked a turning point for Offenbach, as his focus began to shift from performing to composing operettas. His first operetta was L'alcove.

Toward the end of the decade, Offenbach was named the new conductor at the Théâtre Français. He opened his own theater, the Bouffes-Parisiens, in 1855, and would serve as its director for more than a decade. At the Bouffes-Parisiens and at other theaters, he brought to life several of his operettas, including the huge success Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the underworld; 1858), La belle Hélène (1864), Barbe-bleue (1866) and La Périchole (1868). Offenbach also produced and directed works in Germany and Austria during this period.

The 1860s were Offenbach's golden years; the success he experienced then would not be replicated later in his life. In the 1870s, Offenbach took the helm of the Théâtre de la Gaîté for four years. However, his financial standing fell into disarray after a few theatrical flops, and Offenbach went bankrupt. To help replenish his accounts, he headed to the United States for a tour in 1876.

After his return to France, Offenbach once again dedicated himself to composing. He began to write his first and only grand opera, Les Contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann), which has been described as an opéra-fantastique. Unfortunately, he was not able to complete the work before he died in Paris on October 5, 1880, at the age of 61. Though it was left unfinished, Les Contes d'Hoffmann was produced at the Opéra-Comique in 1881, four months after Offenbach died.

Offenbach—who wrote more than 100 works for the stage—is best remembered for his development of the operetta. He helped mold the form into its own genre in world music, which influenced the likes of Johann Strauss II and Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan), among many others.


  • Both the famed “Barcarolle” from Tales of Hoffmann and the “Can-Can” from Orpheus in the Underworld remain two of the world’s best-known and most popular pieces of this genre.



Quotations: Offenbach once said about his future plans in life: “During this period I often thought of the possibility, although it always seemed impossible, of founding a theater. I told myself that the Opéra Comique was no longer the home of true comic opera, that really gay, bright, spirited music — in short, the music with real life in it — was being forgotten.... I knew that the Exhibition of 1855 would bring many people into this locality. I found supporters, I gathered my librettists, and opened the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens.”


During Offenbach's lifetime, and in the obituary notices in 1880, fastidious critics (dubbed "Musical Snobs Ltd" by Gammond) showed themselves at odds with public appreciation. In a 1980 article in The Musical Times, George Hauger commented that those critics not only underrated Offenbach, but wrongly supposed that his music would soon be forgotten. Although most critics of the time made that erroneous assumption, a few perceived Offenbach's unusual quality; in The Times, Francis Hueffer wrote, "none of his numerous Parisian imitators has ever been able to rival Offenbach at his best." Nevertheless, the paper joined in the general prediction: "It is very doubtful whether any of his works will survive." The New York Times shared this view: "That he had the gift of melody in a very extraordinary degree is not to be denied, but he wrote currente calamo, and the lack of development of his choicest inspirations will, it is to be feared, keep them from reaching even the next generation". After the posthumous production of The Tales of Hoffmann, The Times partially reconsidered its judgment, writing, "Les Contes de Hoffmann will confirm the opinion of those who regard him as a great composer in every sense of the word". It then lapsed into what Gammond calls "Victorian sanctimoniousness" by taking it for granted that the opera "will uphold Offenbach's fame long after his lighter compositions have passed out of memory."

The critic Sacheverell Sitwell compared Offenbach's lyrical and comic gifts to those of Mozart and Rossini. Friedrich Nietzsche called Offenbach both an "artistic genius" and a "clown", but wrote that "nearly every one" of Offenbach's works achieves half a dozen "moments of wanton perfection". Émile Zola commented on Offenbach and his work in a novel (Nana) and an essay, "La féerie et l'opérette IV/V". While granting that Offenbach's best operettas are full of grace, charm and wit, Zola blames Offenbach for what others have made out of the genre. Zola calls operetta a "public enemy" and a "monstrous beast". While some critics saw the satire in Offenbach's works as a social protest, an attack against the establishment, Zola saw the works as a homage to the social system in the Second Empire.

Otto Klemperer was an admirer; late in life he reflected: "At the Kroll we did La Périchole. That's a really delightful score. So is Orpheus in the Underworld and Belle Hélène. Those who called him 'The Mozart of the Boulevards' were not much mistaken". Debussy, Bizet, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov loved Offenbach's operettas. Debussy rated them higher than The Tales of Hoffmann: "The one work in which Offenbach tried to be serious met with no success." A London critic wrote, on Offenbach's death:

I somewhere read that some of Offenbach's latest work shows him to be capable of more ambitious work. I, for one, am glad he did what he did, and only wish he had done more of the same.

Efforts to present critical editions of Offenbach's works have been hampered by the dispersion of his autograph scores to several collections after his death, some of which do not grant access to scholars.


Julius Offenbach