10 Dinner Party Facts about Offenbach

On the occasion of his 200th birthday, we thought we’d get to know a composer whose trumpet is woefully under-blown.

Throughout his life, Jacques Offenbach composed countless chansons, orchestral numbers, potpourris for cello and piano, vaudevilles and incidental music, as well as over 100 operettas and Les Contes d’Hoffmann, his last operatic hurrah.

Offenbach’s music is rapturous, hysterical, delirious, tender, and romantic, all in its turn. Nietzsche called him both an “artistic genius” and a “clown,” and Flaubert believed he inspired the diabolic “evil eye,” but above all, this German-Jewish born composer was an incarnation of la gaieté française.

Here are 10 entertaining facts about an entertainer extraordinaire…

1)   If things had turned out differently, Jaques Offenbach would have been Jacob Eberst. His father Isaac Juda Eberst, searching for work as a musician, migrated from Offenbach am Main to Cologne, where he became known as “Der Offenbacher.” His ten children, Jacob included, took the name “Offenbach”. “Jacques” is the French equivalent of “Jacob,” the latter substituted when the young Offenbach went to study music in Paris. Luckily things turned out how they did because “Jaques Offenbach” is frankly much more glam. 

2)   Aged 11 he played in taverns. Aged 25, he played at the Ascot Week Banquet in front of Queen Victoria. By the age of 19, Jacques Offenbach was one of Europe’s leading cellists. Whilst he was  still living in Cologne, he formed a trio with his brother and sister, performing in local taverns (the very place that The Tales of Hoffmann both opens and closes…) It didn’t take long before he was performing with the likes of Mendelssohn and Rubinstein in front of the likes of the Russian Tsar, the King of Saxony, and Queen Victoria…  

Cariacature of Offenbach by Eduard Riou and Nadar

3)   He was a bit of a prankster. The young Offenbach was accepted into the Conservatoire Nationale de Paris right away, but he soon lost interest in the strict teaching and dropped out. His first professional appointment came in 1835, as a cellist at the Opéra Comique. His behaviour, however, was not altogether professional… He loved to play pranks on his colleagues; he and the principal cellist would play alternate notes from the score, sabotage surrounding music stands, and generally get up to no good!  

4)   He knew how to work the Parisian tourist circuit. In 1855, Offenbach took over a  300-seat theater right on the Champs-Elysées. He transformed it into his “Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens” just in time for the Exhibition Universelle, which saw thousands of visitors flood into the capital. Offenbach and his librettists put on a savvy selection of “shorts”, intimate cabaret-style numbers which combined sweeping waltzes reminiscent of Vienna with cheeky patter songs, terrific can-cans, and witty musical quotations. The tourists couldn’t get enough of it, and Rossini named him “the Mozart of the Champs-Elysées.”  

Advertising poster for the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens season, 1865, by the illustrator Nadar
Advertising poster for the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens season, 1865, by the illustrator Nadar

5)   He was a big spender. Offenbach’s forte was never his finances – he preferred to go all out on silks, satins, and full orchestras for his upcoming productions. The result? Bankruptcy. Aged 55, he decided to tour America in an attempt to get his finances in order. He gave fifty concerts and returned to Paris with his coffers far from full, but at least partially replenished. 

6)   He had a love/hate relationship with Napoleon III. The ruler of the Second Empire was remarkably generous with Offenbach, in spite of the latter’s teasing. In 1860, he granted the German composer French citizenship, and the following year, he made him a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur. During this period, he wrote his four best known and best-loved operettas: La Belle Hélène (1864) La Vie Parisienne (1866) La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867) and La Périchole (1868).

Offenbach truly was the mockingbird of the 2nd Empire. His music parodied the disorder of the establishment, for the entertainment and enjoyment of that same establishment. But Offenbach was by no means popular with everybody, and completely fell out of favor with the rise of anti-German sentiment following Prussia’s military successes.

7)   Offenbach brought bad luck. Genial and diabolical in equal measure, Offenbach does seem to be a fire-lighter (posthumously at least). Flaubert noted: “As soon as you hear his name, you have to close two fingers of your right hand to protect yourself from the evil eye.”  At the 1881 Vienna premiere of The Tales of Hoffmann, a gas explosion onstage left 100 dead. In 1887, a fire in the second Salle Favart during a performance of the same opera kills 60 and injures 18. Coincidence? Probably.  

 Offenbach by André Gill, 1866
Offenbach by André Gill, 1866

8)   He was a forerunner of takeaway. Offenbach only ever ate lunch in one of four restaurants. His favorite, Le Riche, was just around the corner from his apartment at 11 rue Laffite. Perfect for a home delivery! On the menu was soft-boiled egg and toast, a small lamb cutlet, a side of mashed potatoes and a slice of fruit. Classy.  

9)   Gilbert and Sullivan owe Offenbach a debt. Operetta, comic opera, and musical theater as we know them today all owe a part of their buffoonery to Offenbach original bouffonneries. The first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians disapproved of the genre’s “vulgar skepticism” and its “determination to be funny even at the cost of propriety and taste,” but it never lost its popularity.  

All over the globe,
when people want
a good laugh after
a few drinks,
they go and see
a French operetta
.” Saint-Saëns, 1876

Richard D'Oyly Carte, W. S. Gibert, and Arthur Sullivan, Entr'acte Annual, 1894
Richard D’Oyly Carte, W. S. Gibert, and Arthur Sullivan, Entr’acte Annual, 1894

10)   Offenbach was buried in true Parisian style. Ever a champion of bourgeois pleasures under the Second Empire, Offenbach nevertheless wanted to die a “serious” composer, not just a frivolous musician. But knew his time was running out. He wrote to the Opéra-Comique, where his opera-cum-autobiography The Tales of Hoffmann was to be premiered, pleading: “Stage my opera quickly, I am in a hurry, a hurry!” He made it to the first rehearsal and that was it. He died on October 5, 1880 and was buried in the Montmartre cemetery in a state funeral.

Happy 200th Birthday Offenbach! We hope it’s as “unpretentious” and filled with music as your famous Friday Evenings chez Jacques! Now you know the man behind the music, why not take the Offenbach 200 Quiz?!

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