1902 Encyclopedia > Jacques Offenbach

Jacques Offenbach
German-born French composer

JACQUES OFFENBACH (1819-1880), the inventor of the latest form of the modern opera bouffe, was born at Cologne, of Jewish parents, 21st June 1819. His talent for music was developed at a very early age; and in 1833 he was sent to Paris to study the violoncello at the conservatoire, where, under the care of Professor Vaslin, he became a fairly good performer, notwithstanding his utter want of that earnestness which alone can make a true artist. In 1834 he was admitted into the orchestra of the Opera Comique as a " ripieno" violon-cellist ; and here his unrivalled tact and natural quickness of perception enabled him to acquire an amount of experience which he was not slow to turn to profitable account. His next appointment was that of conductor at the Theatre Français, where, in 1848, he made his first success as a composer in the " Chanson de Fortunio," in Alfred de Musset's play Le Chandelier. From this time forward his life became a ceaseless struggle for the attainment of popularity. His power of production was inexhaustible ; and, since he was ready to repeat himself without scruple whenever it answered his purpose to do so, the demand upon his ideas was invariably met with a rapidity which fairly astonished both theatrical managers and the general public. His first complete work, Pepito, was produced at the Opéra Comique in 1853. This was soon followed by a crowd of dramatic trifles, which daily gained in favour with Parisian audiences, and eventually effected a complete revolution in the popular taste of the period. Encouraged by these early successes, Offenbach now boldly undertook the delicate task of entirely remodelling both the form and the style of the light musical pieces which have so long been welcomed with acclamation by the frequenters of the smaller theatres in Paris. With this purpose in view he obtained a lease of the Theatre Comte in the Passage Choiseul, reopened it under the title of the Bouffes Parisiens, and night after night attracted crowded audiences by a succession of brilliant trifles which never failed to make their mark, though not one of them possessed substance enough to enable it to retain its vitality after the appearance of its successor upon the stage. Beginning with Les Deux Aveugles and Le Violoneux, the series was continued with almost unexampled rapidity, until, in 1867—twelve years after the opening of the theatre—its triumph culminated in La Grande, Duchesse de G'erolstein, perhaps the most popular opéra bouffe that ever was written, not excepting even his Orphée aux Enfers, ^\produced in 1858. From this time forward the success of Offenbach's pieces became an absolute certainty. He never failed. Without a trace of true genius or a thought of reverence for art, he possessed a talent so brilliant and a facility of invention so prolific that, in place of following the public taste, as he had so cleverly done at the outset of his career, he was able to lead it whither he would ; and the new form of opéra bouffe, which he had gradually endowed with as much consistency as it was capable of assuming, was accepted as the only one worth cultivating. That it should live is simply impossible. It has, indeed, found imitators in Lecocq and other aspirants of a younger generation ; and some of these have attained successes not much less brilliant than those of Offenbach himself. But to be really enduring an art-form must be based upon some stronger principle than a mere desire for the attainment of popular favour ; and so far is this from being the case with what is now universally accepted as the genuine opéra bouffe that it would be impossible to strain the point so far as to admit its connexion with any form of art whatever. But no artistic consideration dimmed the brilliancy of Offenbach's success. His theatre continued to flourish, and his works found their way to every town in Europe in which a theatre existed. Their want of refinement formed no obstacle to their popularity, and perhaps even contributed to it. In twenty-five years he produced no less than sixty-nine complete dramatic works, some of which were in three or even in four acts. Among the latest of these were Le Docteur Ox, founded on a story by Jules Vernei and La Boite au Lait, both produced in 1877, and, though not among his brightest triumphs, sufficiently successful to show that the reign of his popularity has not yet come to an end. Offenbach died in 1880.

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