Jacques Offenbach

Portrait of Jacques Offenbach

Jacques Offenbach was a German-born French operetta composer, cellist and impresario. He was born on 20th June 1819 in Cologne, Germany and died on 5th October 1880 in Paris, France aged 61.

Major Works

Orphée aux Enfers” (Orpheus in the Underworld) (1858)
“La Belle Hélène” (1864)
“La Vie Pariesenne” (1866)
“La Périchole” (1868)
“The Tales of Hoffmann” (1880)

Biography Timeline

Jacques (Jacob) Offenbach was born on 20th June 20, 1819 in the Großer Griechenmarkt, Cologne, Prussia, Germany. His father was Isaac Juda Eberst a bookbinder and then a cantor at the Cologne Synagogue who had been born at Offenbach am Main and was known as “Der Offenbacher”. His mother was Marianne, née Rindskopf and Jacob was the seventh of ten children.

1825: He is taught to play the violin by his father aged six. 

1828: His father is now the permanent cantor and can afford to give his son lessons in the cello with Bernhard Breuer.

1833: In November his father enrols him as a cello student at the Paris Conservatoire which was far more tolerant to Jews. He also takes his other son Julius to join and they both change their names to the French forms as Jacques and Jules respectively. His father is unable to find employment in Paris and returns to Cologne.

1834: Jules is a diligent student and later becomes a violin teacher and conductor. Jacques does not like the strict discipline of Luigi Cherubini’s Conservatoire and fails to study and is struck off the register on 2nd December.

1835: He gets a job as a cellist with the Opera-Comique in Paris but is constantly playing pranks during performances and is docked his pay. However, he continues to take cello lessons with Louis-Pierre Norblin and composes his own music. Wirth the help of Friedrich von Flotow he plays at fashionable Salons in Paris to earn money. He falls in love with Hérminie d’Alcain the daughter of a Spanish general at the Comtesse de Vaux’s salon but is not in a financial position to propose to her. He gives concert tours in France and Germany to expand his earnings and performs with Franz Liszt in Cologne.

1840: Death of his mother.

1844: He marries the seventeen-year-old Herminie on 14th August after converting to Catholicism and then embarks on a tour of England where he meets Felix Mendelssohn and performs before Queen Victoria and the Tsar of Russia at Windsor Castle. 

1846: In April he gives a concert at which he includes seven operatic items composed by himself.

1848: The outbreak of the 1848 Revolution puts his operatic career on hold and he and his wife and new daughter go to Cologne to escape.

1849: He returns only to find the salons still closed down and returns to the orchestra of the Opera-Comique. He then becomes conductor of the Théâtre Français.

1850: Death of his father.

1853: He begins writing operettas but the Opera Comique are not interested in staging them, however the composer, and impresario Florimond Ronger, known as Herve encourages him.

1855: The one-act opera “Oyayaye ou La Reine des Iles” is staged at Herve’s theatre the Folies-Novelles on 26th June and is a success. Meanwhile he abandons hope of the Opera-Comique and decides to start his own theatre. The Bouffes-Parisiens opens in the Salle Lacaze in the Champs-Elysees in July when the city is full of visitors for the 1855 Great Exhibition. By law it is limited to three characters in any piece. The comedy “Les Deux Aveigles” (Two Blind Men) is the most popular performance of the season. He moves to the Salle Choiseul later in the year where four performers are allowed and in December he produces “Ba-ta-Clan”.

1856: In May he produces “L’impresario” for the Mozart celebrations but despite his this success he remains on the verge of bankruptcy.

1858: The Government lift licensing restrictions on performers and he is able to present his first full length operetta. In October his most famous work “Orphée aux Enfers” (Orpheus in the Underworld) is performed with set designs by Gustav Dore, expensive costumes and a large chorus and orchestra.

1859: His next work is “Genevieve de Brabant” which is less of a success but is popular in England and the USA, where one of the duets becomes the basis of the US Marine’s Hymn.

1860: He is granted French citizenship and holds a command performance for the Emperor Napoleon the Third in April. He also performs his only ballet “Le Papillon” (The Butterfly) at the Paris Opera. “Barkouf” is given at the Opera—Comique but it is not a success.

1861: Due to new legislation in March his company is prevented from using two theatres and the Salle Lacaze is discontinued. He is appointed a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur. He goes on a summer tour to Vienna in Austria and even performs on the cello for the Emperor Franz Joseph. However, his production of “Le Pont de Soupirs” (The Bridge of Sighs) is a failure in Berlin.

1862: His only son, Auguste is born, the last of his five children. He resigns as the director of the Bouffes-Parisiens but continues to write for them.

1864: He produces operettas at Ems in Germany and an opéra-ballet “Die Rheinnixen” (The Rhine Spirits) in Vienna. He then returns to Paris to produce the serious opera “La Belle Helene” at the Varieties Theatre.

1866: He produces “La Vie Parisienne” and “Barbe Bleue” which are both successes.

1867: He produces “La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein”, a satire on militarism and it is his greatest success. Next is “Robinson Crusoe”.

1868: He produces “La Périchole”, “Le Chatuea a Tot” and “Lile de Tulipatan”.

1869: He produces “Les Brigands”.

1870: He returns from Ems and Wiesbaden just before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war but then moves his family to safety in San Sebastian in Spain. After the French defeat at Sedan and the removal of Napoleon the Third he is out of favour as he is seen as too close to the old regime.

1871: He returns to Paris.

1872: He produces the satire “Le Roi Carotte” (The Carrot King) there in January. The Gaiety Theatre in London also puts on a series of his works to enthusiastic audiences.

1873: He becomes the director of the Théâtre de la Gaîté in July and “La Jolie Parfumeuse” (The Happy Parfumier) is performed there. 

1874:  A revival of “Orpheus in The Underworld” proves popular but loses money and his lavish version of “Geneviève de Brabant” is less popular.

1876: He tours the United States of America which proves profitable and allows him to pay off most of his debts. His attempt to pass of a Sunday concert in Philadelphia as “Sacred Music” however is not given the go ahead. He returns to France in July and begins working on “Les Contes Fantastiques d’Hoffmann” (The Tales of Hoffman).

1878: He produces “Madame Favart” about the actress Marie Justine Favart.

1879: He produces “La Fille du Tanmbour-Major” (The Drum Major’s Daughter). He is now suffering from gout and has to be carried into the theatre in a chair.

Jacques Offenbach died of heart failure on 5th October 1880 in Paris, France. He was given a state funeral and was buried in the Montmartre Cemetery. “The Tales of Hoffman” was unfinished at his death and finally performed in February 1881 at the Opera-Comique orchestrated by Ernest Guiraud. (He often parodied other composer’s work. Some saw the funny side such as Adolphe Adam, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Daniel Auber but others such as Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner did not).

Further Information

List of compositions by Offenbach.