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Music / Jacques Offenbach

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Jacques Offenbach (20 June 1819 – 5 October 1880) is the man who wrote The Cancan Song.

That's what he's most famous for. And truth be told, he'd be proud to be famous for it.

Born in to a Jewish musical family in Cologne, his father gave him a violin at the age of six. By the age of nine, he was composing songs and dances and had taken up another instrument, the cello. At 14, his father had him move to Paris to study cello more seriously. And study cello seriously he did (becoming renowned as a virtuoso). At first.

However, studying cello was hard, especially given the performance schedule. Plus, you had to play all of this really boring serious music. Offenbach preferred the lighter side of life, and began composing fun, light pieces to play. It was on the back of such light pieces that he became famous.

You see, in the 1850s, French opera had become thoroughly serious and self-important. (It's France, after all; art of all kinds is Serious Business.) Offenbach, a lighthearted man with a delicious sense of irony, had always been known for his love of poking fun at the Parisian musical establishment, often in the most scandalous way possible. So he began writing operettas making fun of contemporary French society and particularly the French musical scene.

Despite some severe restrictions—thanks to some weird laws in force at the time,note  he was at first forced to write for a tiny (300-seat) theatre putting on shows with a maximum of three singing/speaking parts—Offenbach made himself the king of the Parisian comic stage. It's in this circumstance that he ended up writing Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld), reimagining the story of Orpheus and Eurydice (a famous one in opera) as the tale of a middle-class man and his wife getting up to some truly scandalous shenanigans. Hence the famous cancan—the dance is nothing if not scandalous.note 

In short: The French version of Gilbert and Sullivan, except with a lot more scandalous material (from an Anglophone point of view; from a French or German point of view G&S are a more stodgy version of Jacques Offenbach.)

Also, this about the "Gendarmes' Duet" from Geneviève de Brabant: the tune was used for the Marines' Hymn. Since the Gendarmes are actually cowards, this is very amusing. His final opera, The Tales of Hoffmann was made into a 1951 Technicolor film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Works of Offenbach with their own pages

Tropes in Offenbach's works:

  • Anthropomorphic Personification: Quite a few, usually with some sort of social commentary involved. The most famous is probably Public Opinion in Orpheus in the Underworld.
  • The Dandy: Several characters. Two central characters in La vie parisienne are expressly called that.
  • Farce: A main element of his work; he was sending up French society after all, and farce is a grand French theatrical tradition since at least the days of Molière.
  • Funny Foreigner: "The Brazilian" and the Swedish Baron and Baroness Gondremarck in La vie parisienne are foreigners who get quite turned around by Paris.
  • Genre Shift: A composer of comic opera, his final and unfinished work, Les contes d'Hoffmann was a darker, melancholy story about artistic sacrifice. It's usually considered his best work these days.
  • Ruritania: "Gerolstein" in his operetta "The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein" is probably the Ur-Example. There is a real place called Gerolstein, a spa north of Trier whose "Gerolsteiner" mineral water is the default brand in a large portion of western Germany, but it has never been the seat of a Grand Duchy.
  • Satire/Parody/Pastiche: Satire was a mainstay of Offenbach's work, as was parody of historical and mythological subjects turned into commentary on the French society of his day: besides Orpheus (which besides being a satire of Second Empire mores and a parody of the classical myth was also a parody of Christoph Willibald Gluck's serious opera Orfeo ed Euridice, one of the codifiers of the "serious" Classical style), he also did parodies of the Trojan War (La belle Hélène) and the tale of Daphnis and Chloe, among others.


Video Example(s):


The Theatre Raleur Cancan

Saint Denis' Theatre Raleur features its own Cancan adaptation as part of its revue.

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