Jacques Offenbach Biography

Songwriter (1819–1880)
Jacques Offenbach was a 19th century Paris-based German composer known for operettas such as Orphée aux Enfers and La Périchole.


Born in Cologne, Germany, on June 20, 1819, Jacques Offenbach studied at the Paris Conservatoire before becoming a composer of operettas. His works included Orphée aux Enfers and La Vie Parisienne. Offenbach worked at both the Théâtre Français and the Théâtre de la Gaité. He was 61 when he died on October 5, 1880, in Paris, France, leaving behind an unfinished grand opera, Les Contes d'Hoffmann.

Early Years

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.

The Composer

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.

Later Years and Legacy

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.

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