Jacob (Jacques) Offenbach (1819-1880) was a German-born French composer, cello virtuoso, and impresario who created the operetta, a type of light burlesque French comic opera which became one of the most popular and innovative artistic forms of his era. He is particularly known for three seminal works: Orpheus in the Underworld (1858), his first full-length opera; Gaîté Parisienne (1866), a suite of his music featuring the “Can-Can,” which remains one of the most recognizable melodies in the classical music oeuvre; and, ironically, The Tales of Hoffmann, a grand opera that he never completed and which is still a popular repertory standard. Rossini called Offenbach “our little Mozart of the Champs-Elysées” and, indeed, he was almost as prolific as Mozart, composing some 100 operettas.
Offenbach, who also launched avant-garde innovations in stagecraft and design, played a leading role in cultural change, not only in music but also in literature, art, and politics, as he offered an alternative and irreverent view of life and society that his audiences found refreshing and liberating. He was a powerful influence on later composers, particularly Johann Strauss, Jr. and Arthur Sullivan, but generally unknown is the influence he had on the great American March King, John Phillip Sousa, whom he engaged to play first violin for his production at the Philadelphia Exposition Centennial in 1876. (Interestingly, Sousa confirmed that his melody for the official hymn of the United States Marine Corps was taken from The Gendarmes Duet from Offenbach’s opera, Genevieve de Brabant.) Many critics argue that Offenbach’s operettas were the wellspring from which the beloved American musical form sprung.
Offenbach transformed himself from his proletarian Jewish class into the embodiment of Parisian wit and elegance and, ultimately, as an international celebrity and bon-vivant, notwithstanding his German accent and Jewish features, which included particularly a frequently-caricatured “prominent Jewish nose.” Nonetheless, as we shall see, this model of the French character and spirit was actually an outsider who was ultimately turned upon by his fellow Frenchmen as a distrusted Jew who contributed to the subversion of traditional French values and was somehow responsible the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
Through his sharp wit, much of Offenbach’s work mocked the establishment, attacked political governance, and satirized societal norms, including parodies of traditional musical forms and specific works by other composers. Some commentators see his talent for satire and parody as a reflection of Jewish humor, particularly the tendency to lampoon contemporary fashion and style and scorn governmental power.
Offenbach’s cosmopolitan flippancy and frivolous mockery; his challenges to the usual order; and his abandonment of high culture for “popular burlesque” did not endear him to antisemites (who needed no excuse in any event) and to the cultural elites who were often the subject of his parodies. For example, Richard Wagner, a notorious and well-known antisemite, used Offenbach as a prime example of how Jews were polluting the culture and denounced his work as “releasing the odor of manure from where all the pigs of Europe had come to wallow.” Of course, almost a century later the Nazis banned him as a perfidious Jew and his work as “degenerate music”
Exhibited here is a characteristic anti-Offenbach antisemitic cartoon published in Puck (1876), which depicts him as “Der semitisch-musikalisch-akrobatische Gorilla,” the “semitic-musical acrobatic gorilla Affenbach” (a pun on the German “Affe,” ape), grinning through the bars of the Friedrich-Wilhelm Theater.
In condemning Offenbach, many critics made a point to comment on his Judaism, including notably Paul Scudo, who dismissed him with a reference to the “fatal brand” he shared with the Jewish race, which disqualified him from expressing beauty and emotion. Even the liberal Emile Zola, the great defender of Alfred Dreyfus, characterized the new operetta form as a “public enemy and a monstrous beast” and viewed Offenbach’s work not as a societal protest against the establishment but rather as homage to the terrible economic distress of the poor and the coldhearted extravagance of the wealthy in the despised social system of Napoleon III and the Second French Empire.
Orphaned at a very young age, Jacques’ father, Isaac Eberst (1779?-1850), was trained as a printer in a Jewish printing company before leaving his hometown of Offenbach near Frankfurt in 1799, learning music from itinerant cantors, and traveling through various Jewish communities as a Klezmer minstrel. In 1802, he accepted a position as a chazzan in Deutz, a town near Cologne, and he supplemented his meager income as a popular violinist playing in ballrooms and taverns. He was affectionately nicknamed “der Offenbacher” which, following the Napoleonic decree of 1808, became his official family name. In 1816, he settled in Cologne, then part of Prussia, where he became established as a teacher giving lessons in voice, violin, flute and guitar, and in the 1820s, he was appointed as the full-time chazan at the Cologne synagogue, where he also acted as rabbi.
A resourceful and multifaceted musician, he was a prolific composer of both secular music, including Jewish-themed musical theater such as Esther, Queen of Persia or The Israelites Escaped Haman’s Vengeance, and liturgical works. He was also a noted author and translator whose publications include a Haggadah with German translation and six songs (1838); a Hebrew-German youth siddur (1839); and various pieces for guitar, including Twelve sonatinas.
Some of his original chazzanish compositions and notations on traditional cantorial melodies, which his granddaughters donated to the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem and to the Hebrew Union College in New York, are important not only because they provide a background against which to frame the musical career of his more famous son, but also in their own right as a history of the development of Ashkenazi chazzanut at the beginning of the Emancipation.
With this family background, it is perhaps not surprising that Jacob was a musical protégé, becoming a skilled violinist at age six; an outstanding cellist at nine; and a composer who wrote and performed his own technically brilliant arrangements at age 11. Nor is it surprising that he drew significant musical inspiration from the prayers and hymns of his childhood home and synagogue, including Rebecca, comprised of several waltzes on Jewish fifteenth-century motifs, and two synagogal Yom Kippur confessional prayers, Tovo lefone’ho and Ashamnu. However, these compositions sometimes did not meet with the approval of the critics; for example, one scathing 1837 reviewer bitterly criticized him for incorporating synagogue themes in Rebecca which, he claimed, profaned religious melodies.
The young Offenbach performed popular dance music and operatic arrangements at local cafes, taverns, dance halls and inns as a member of a trio with his brother, Julius (violin), and his sister, Isabella (piano), but there was already strong antisemitism in Germany and Isaac concluded that his gifted sons, Julius (then age 18) and Jacob (then 14), could not achieve their full potential in Cologne. France, with its greater toleration of Jews, was then the only country in Europe where a Jew could realistically pursue a meaningful public career in music without converting – although, ironically, as we will see later, Jacob did later convert and intermarry. However, when Isaac applied for admission of his sons to the famous Conservatoire de Musique in Paris, Luigi Cherunini, the director of the Conservatory – who, ironically, had denied admission a few years earlier to a young prodigy named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – initially refused to give Jacob an audition because of his age and nationality. Nonetheless, Isaac persisted and, before Jacob was very far into his audition, a blown-away Cherunini welcomed him to the conservatory.
Although Isaac had educated his children himself and permitted their attendance at the local Jewish school, Jacob, who changed his name to Jacques in Paris, had arrived there not speaking a word of French but, a quick study, he was able to support himself as the trainer/director of the choir at the Parisian synagogue Notre-Dame de Nazareth. However, his contract was not renewed after a disagreement with the synagogue’s rabbi and, lacking financial support for his musical studies – and, in any case, stifled by Cherubini’s strict curriculum and dreaming of a theatrical life even at this early age – he left the conservatory after only a year. After working in a string of temporary posts in theatre orchestras, he obtained a permanent appointment in 1835 as a cellist at the Opéra-Comique, where he made a favorable impression on conductor Fromental Halévy, the well-known Jewish composer of La Juive (“the Jewess”), who taught him composition and orchestration.
Although Offenbach’s ambition was to compose for the stage, he was unable to break into Parisian theatre. He began to compose dances in the then-popular waltz form, some of which, including particularly Winter Flowers, gained some popularity, but his first theatrical works met with little success and he experienced many years of hardship and struggle for recognition. Nonetheless, determined to pursue a career on the stage, he resigned from the Opera-Comique and began performing in fashionable Parisian salons while working on his original sketches and whimsies.
At one of his successful salon performances, Offenbach met and fell in love with Hérminie d’Alcain (1827-1887), the stepdaughter of a Carlist general and impresario who did not look favorably upon the odd-looking man with a questionable financial future as his son-in-law. To prove himself, Offenbach embarked upon a wildly successful 1844 concert tour of France and Germany during which he performed for Anton Rubinstein and Franz Liszt, and a tour of England, where he appeared to rave reviews with Felix Mendelssohn and Joseph Joachim, culminating in a royal command performance at Windsor before the Russian Emperor, the King of Saxony, Queen Victoria, and Prince Albert.
Even with this outstanding success, however, one great difficulty remained: he was a Jew. Hérminie’s family demanded that he convert to Roman Catholicism, to which, indifferent to his Jewish faith, he readily consented, and the couple married on August 14, 1844. Hérminie championed his dream to pursue a theatrical career and stood by his side through his many failures, and her support proved instrumental to his eventual success.
Fresh off his successful tour, Offenbach returned to performing at Parisian salons with renewed enthusiasm for writing and performing musical numbers but, on the threshold of great success in theatrical composition, he was derailed by the 1848 French revolution during which, although Jews fought and died to guarantee basic rights for all French citizens, new and more intense antisemitism manifested itself because many Christians feared that emancipation would lead to Jewish domination. With bloodshed in the streets of Paris and fearing for his family, he fled with Hérminie and their newborn daughter to join his family back in Cologne but, by the time of his return to Paris in February 1849, the grand salons had closed, forcing him to return to working as a cellist with the Opéra-Comique. However, with a growing reputation, he was appointed musical director of the Comédie Française and, pursuant to his charge to enlarge and improve the orchestra, he composed music for several classical and modern dramas and gained important experience in writing for the theatre.
A turning point in Offenbach’s career was the Paris Exposition of 1855 when he obtained permission from the Department of Interior to present small-scale pieces at a small theater in the Champ-Elysees near the new Palace of Industry, which he opened under the name Les Bouffes Parisiens. Although his license permitted only three singing actors in any piece, his success surpassed all expectations and he took Paris by storm with his short one-act musical plays. However, he still suffered great financial difficulties because the theatre was so small and he expended great resources on staging, costumes and décor, but things turned around in 1858 when he received a new license that authorized him to produce two-act plays. The result was Orpheus in the Underworld, which premiered in October 1858 and ran for 228 performances, including a command performance before the Emperor in April 1860 – this one performance, by itself, assured his solvency – and launched him into the pantheon of musical immortals.
While audiences adored the patter songs and the sweeping waltzes of Orpheus, so reminiscent of Vienna but with a new contemporary French flavor, perhaps its greatest appeal was the famous “Galop Infernal” in Act II – aka “the Can-Can” – which, at once the rage and the scandal of Parisian society, had led a racy life as a high-kicking frolic in Montmartre’s red-light district and other low places for decades and had now become a popular and uninhibited fashion.
Offenbach’s popularity coincided with the reign of Napoleon III (1852-1870), who extended social status to those not noble-born, including one Jacques Offenbach, to whom he personally granted French citizenship in 1860 and who, a year later, was appointed a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur. While the appointment enraged the snooty members of the musical establishment, who resented the granting of such an honor to a composer of “trifles,” the common people much preferred his light musical entertainment.
Offenbach flourished during the 1860s, producing at least 18 full-length operettas, as well as more one-act pieces, and his risqué humor, gentle satire and beautiful melodies made him immensely popular, and successful translations of his works in Vienna, London, and across Europe earned him international renown. His march Vive le France became a popular patriotic anthem and, much as Irving Berlin with G-d Bless America, an immigrant Jew became his country’s leading writer of patriotic songs.
In September 1870, there were four theaters in Paris featuring operettas by Offenbach but, with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, he suddenly found himself the subject of great derision in Paris because, notwithstanding his French citizenship and Légion d’Honneur appointment, Frenchmen now regarded him as a representative of the Imperial Napoleonic regime who had contributed to the subversion of traditional French values. When France fell in the wake of Bismark’s great victory at Sedan (1870), antisemites claimed that the French failure was due to the Jew Offenbach, whom they alleged was on the payroll of the Prussian King.
On the Prussian side, for the duration of the war there had been a boycott of his music in the major cities of Germany, where rumors persisted that he was maligning his homeland, and he grew anxious about Prussian accusations that he had written anti-German songs – which he had not. Caught between the animus of his fellow Frenchmen and the threat from Prussia, he exiled himself and his family to safety in San Sebastián in northern Spain. When Paris resumed some modicum of normalcy in 1871, he returned there, but his new works met with only moderate success while extravagant revivals of his earlier works, including particularly Orpheus, did well.
However, the high cost of his extravagant productions again brought him to the brink of bankruptcy until a successful tour of the United States in connection with its 1876 Centennial brought him back to financial solvency. He gave a successful series of more than 40 concerts in New York and Philadelphia and wrote about his experiences in America in Offenbach in America: Notes of a Traveling Magician.
Offenbach had suffered from gout since the 1860s and, in failing health, he devoted himself to his one great unfulfilled musical dream: to complete and stage a grand opera. Toward that end, he substantially completed the score for The Tales of Hoffmann, which is based upon three short stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann who, as the protagonist of the story, is prevailed upon to tell the audiences about his three great loves. Interestingly, Offenbach employs two negative, cliched Jewish characters in Hoffmann, the “crooked Jewish banker” (who we never actually meet) and “the shleimel” (Yiddish for bungler, a hopelessly incompetent person).
In the first act, Hoffmann apprentices himself to Spalanzani, a famous inventor who has created a life-like animated doll who he introduces to Hoffman as his daughter, Olympia, with whom Hoffman falls in love. Meanwhile, Spalanzani’s business associate, Coppelia, who had manufactured Olympia’s incredible eyes, discovers that Spalanzani had cheated him by paying his supplier with a bad check from the banking house of Elias (the Jew), which had gone bankrupt, whereupon he furiously crashes a party and smashes Olivia to bits. Hoffmann, who is subjected to much derisive laughter, is devastated to discover that his beloved was a robot.
In the second act, a drunken Hoffman is warned not to make an enemy of “Schlemiel,” but he laughs at the very idea of being smitten with a courtesan and says that if he ever is, the devil may take his soul. The evil magician Dappertutto overhears them and bribes Gulietta with a diamond to steal Hoffman’s reflection from a mirror, just as she had previously stolen Shlemiel’s shadow for him. After Gulietta successfully seduces Hoffman, who agrees to give her his reflection and seems to lose his soul, Shlemiel interrupts and challenges Hoffman to a duel, in which Shlemiel is killed, but the fickle Gulietta has already betrayed Hoffmann and is in the arms of another paramour.
Offenbach had made progress on the orchestration of Hoffmann before his death by heart attack brought on by acute gout and, sadly, he never was able to see his singular greatest work, which was the culmination of his lifelong dream.