Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880)



According to Wagner, "He writes like the divine Mozart", but it's a connection that isn't necessarily obvious. Jacques Offenbach is, after all, the man who gave us the can-can.

Offenbach's music is largely a product of the Second Empire, a period that's popularly associated with a cynical, pleasure loving mood and the rule of Napoleon III. The politics of the world he lived in was fodder for a wealth of topical gags and daring allusions, parodies that audiences streamed through the doors of the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens to watch. The triumph of "Orphée aux Enfers" in 1858 was followed by a breathtaking number of operas and operettas, the most successful, La Belle Hélène, La Vie Parisienne, Barbe-Bleue, La Grande-Duchess de Gérolstein and La Périchole, made him a fortune and took him to international fame.

His facility to compose was extraordinary. He could write, orchestrate and produce a one-act work within the space of a week, happy to compose amid the noise of his family, wife and five children. Wherever he went, he wrote music, even in his coach, where he had a desk made so he could continue while he was moving between theatres. By the time of his death in 1880 he'd written over one hundred works for the stage.

A thin, gaunt man, he struggled with painful gout and rheumatism all his life. Never weighing more than six stones, he nonetheless lived his life to the full, enjoying gambling, women, cigars and amateur dramatics whenever he could tear himself away from his multiple theatrical commitments.

The advent of the Third Republic presented an artistic crossroads for Offenbach. The king of operetta found himself out of step with the changing tastes of theatre-goers. As he struggled to find a place for his music in the new order, he began to move towards a more profound style of musical expression. In 1877 he began work on what's now regarded as his masterpiece, Les Contes d'Hoffmann. Tragically, he died before completing it, at the age of 61. The task of finishing Offenbach's final statement was given to Ernest Guirard, and the restoration of Offenbach's reputation turned into a posthumous victory.

In the first programme Donald Macleod traces Offenbach's roots back to Cologne, where he lived until the age of fourteen. Something of a child prodigy, it was his musical promise that encouraged his father to bring him to Paris, where pretty soon Offenbach was keen to make his mark as a composer.


Donald Macleod discusses Offenbach's La belle Helene and La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein.

Singing Offenbach proved to be "a life changing experience" for Dame Felicity Lott. Although she's well known as a recitalist and for her appearances in rather more serious operatic roles, she is also a leading interpreter of the title roles in Offenbach's La belle Hélène and La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein. In a festive edition of the programme, she shares her thoughts on these two comic roles with Donald Macleod.

With excerpts from La belle Hélène and La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein.


Donald Macleod discusses Offenbach's La vie parisienne and Les Brigands.


The advent of the Third Republic presented several challenges for Offenbach. A naturalised Frenchman, he experienced some critcism at home and also from his birth country, Germany. Furthermore the political upheaval had changed the artistic climate. Parisian audiences had an appetite for romance. In order to succeed in this new atmosphere, Offenbach would need to adapt his musical outlook. Presented by Donald Macleod.

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Offenbach began writing his final operatic statement, "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" in 1877. The project was to occupy him for the rest of his life. For the first time ever he worked slowly, deliberating carefully over the music.The result of his labour was to be his most profound opera, but tragically he was to die before completing it, so that task was handed over to Ernest Guiraud. The premiere took place at the Opéra-Comique on 10th February, 1881 and ran for more than a hundred performances in its first season. Presented by Donald Macleod.