Today is the birthday (1819) of Jacques Offenbach, a German-born French composer, cellist, and impresario of the Romantic period. He is chiefly remembered for his nearly 100 operettas of the 1850s–1870s and his uncompleted opera The Tales of Hoffmann. He was a major 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 repertoire. Without doubt his most famous melody is “The Infernal Galop” from Orpheus in the Underworld, the tune most associated with the can-can
Offenbach was born in Cologne, the son of a synagogue cantor. At the age of 14, he was accepted as a student at the Paris Conservatoire but found academic study unfulfilling and left after a year. From 1835 to 1855 he earned his living as a cellist, achieving international fame, and as a conductor. His ambition, however, was to compose comic pieces for the musical theatre. His first choice was to stage his pieces with the Paris Opéra-Comique, but they were not interested. So in 1855 he leased a small theatre in the Champs-Élysées. There he presented a series of his own small-scale pieces, many of which became popular.
In 1858, Offenbach produced his first full-length operetta, Orphée aux enfers (“Orpheus in the Underworld”), which was exceptionally well received and has remained one of his most popular works. During the 1860s, he produced at least 18 full-length operettas, as well as more one-act pieces. His works from this period included La belle Hélène (1864), La vie parisienne (1866), La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867), and La Périchole (1868). The risqué humor (often about sexual intrigue) and gentle satiric barbs about French society in these pieces, together with Offenbach’s facility for melody, made them internationally known, and translated versions were successful in Vienna, London, and elsewhere in Europe.
Offenbach was very closely associated with the Second French Empire of Napoleon III, and the emperor’s court was genially satirized in many of Offenbach’s operettas. Napoleon III personally granted him French citizenship and the Légion d’Honneur. With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Offenbach found himself out of favor in Paris because of his imperial connections and his German birth. He remained successful in Vienna and London, however, and then re-established himself in Paris after the war, with revivals of some of his earlier favorites and a series of new works. In his last years he strove to finish The Tales of Hoffmann, but died before the premiere of the opera, which has entered the standard repertoire in a number of different versions which were completed or edited by other musicians.
Opinion was, and is still, sharply divided concerning Offenbach’s oeuvre. One contemporary critic wrote, “Offenbach’s orchestral scoring is full of details, elaborate counter-voices, minute interactions coloured by interjections of the woodwinds or brass, all of which establish a dialogue with the voices. His refinement of design equals that of Mozart or 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.”
All of the obituaries I have read for Offenbach take the same tone – his music is delightful but will not survive to the next generation. They were wrong, of course; their opinion was based on the assumption that the music itself is not great art, and the operettas, being products of a particular time and culture, would give way to newer fashions. The same could be said of Gilbert and Sullivan. Their operettas were full of social satire which is mostly lost on contemporary audiences. But Sullivan, like Offenbach, had a knack for a catchy melody which stayed with audiences, and many of the issues the operettas deal with are enduring – such as, the conflict between one’s dreams and social pressure to conform.
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.
I suppose one might sum all this up by saying that whether you like operetta or not, Offenbach was master of the genre. I am not a huge fan of the genre, but I find Offenbach amusing and diverting when I am in the mood.
In general, Offenbach followed simple, established forms. His melodies are usually short and unvaried in their basic rhythm, although modified from time to time to fit different characters. In modulation Offenbach was similarly cautious; he rarely switched a melody to a remote or unexpected key, and kept mostly to a tonic–subdominant–dominant–tonic pattern. He did, however, switch occasionally from major to minor, also to suit the character. Once in a while he employed conventional operatic techniques, such as leitmotiv, as, for example, when he parodied Wagner in La carnaval des revues (1860), or throughout to accompany the eponymous Docteur Ox (1877).
In his early pieces for the Bouffes-Parisiens, the size of the orchestra pit had restricted Offenbach to an orchestra of 16 players. He composed for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, piston (type of oboe), trombone, timpani and percussion, and a small string section of seven players. After moving to the Salle Choiseul he had an orchestra of 30 players. With the larger orchestra Offenbach was able to be more expansive, and re-scored many older pieces in revival. When they were available he wrote for cor anglais, harp, and, on rare occasions, an ophicleide (something like a tuba), tubular bells, and a wind machine (Le voyage dans la lune). Offenbach’s orchestration is not always subtle, but it has its moments.
What I believe is of supreme importance is to set Offenbach’s works in their historical context. They are primarily an homage to the social milieu of the Second Empire of Napoleon III – a perfect mirror of the historical amnesia and escapism that pervaded Paris in the aftermath of the revolution of 1848. But they must be understood as more than glittering distractions. The fantasy realms of such operettas as La Belle Hélène were certainly reflections of the unreality of Napoleon III’s imperial masquerade, but they also made a mockery of the pomp and pretense surrounding the mechanisms of power. At the same time, Offenbach’s dream worlds were imbued with a layer of utopian content that can be seen as an indictment of the fraudulence and corruption of the times.
I turn once again to Auguste Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire for a recipe to suit the times; something complex, fancy, and delectable. I choose his oxtail soup recipe, which I love. This is taken from a 1909 translation of the original French version. This website provides a good, detailed description (with photos) of the process, although the author strays a bit with the ingredients, and I note some droplets of fat in the final broth which would not have been acceptable to Escoffier. The image here is from the site.
Escoffier’s Oxtail Soup
1.8kg of oxtail, browned in the oven
900g gelatinous bones, broken small and browned in the oven
1 carrot, finely chopped
2 medium onions
one faggot [a bundle of parsley, bay leaves and thyme, tied together]
2.5 litres ordinary broth
1 litre water
450g lean beef mince
½ an egg white
1 small carrot, cut into small dice
arrowroot if required
Brown the oxtails and the gelatinous bones in a roasting tin in the oven. Remove and cool.
Garnish the bottom of a small stockpot or stewpan with one finely chopped carrot and two medium-sized onions cut into thin rounds and browned in butter and one faggot.
Add the oxtails. The tails should be cut into sections, each of which should contain one of the caudal vertebrae. Also add the 900g of gelatinous bones, broken very small. Add 2.5 litres of ordinary broth and one of water. Set to boil very gently for 4½-5 hours.
When this is done, strain the broth, which should be reduced to 2.5 litres, and completely remove its grease. Transfer the largest sections of the tails, by means of a braiding needle, one by one to another saucepan. Cover them with broth, and keep them warm for the garnish.
Finely chop 450g of very lean beef. Put this mince into a saucepan with the white of a leek cut into dice and half the white of an egg, and mix thoroughly. Add the broth, the grease of which has been removed, set to boil, stirring constantly the while, and then leave to simmer for one hour, which is the time required for the beef to exude all its juices and for the clarification of the broth.
While the clarification is in progress, cut a small carrot in brunoise [small dice] fashion, or turn it by means of a very small spoon. Cook this garnish in a little water with butter, salt, and sugar.
A few minutes before serving, strain the oxtail broth through a napkin, put the sections of oxtail and brunoise into the soup tureen, and pour thereon the prepared broth.
This soup may be flavoured with port or sherry, but this is optional. Please note: if a thickened oxtail soup is required, add to the broth per every litre of it 10g of arrowroot diluted with a little of the broth or some cold water.