Jacques Offenbach, the XIXe century in music

Jacques Offenbach, the XIX<sup>e</sup> century in music

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  • Jacques Offenbach.

    NADAR (Gaspard Félix TOURNACHON, known as) (1820 - 1910)

  • Scenes of the Grand Duchess of Gerolstein and Bluebeard of Offenbach.

    ORLEANS François Philippe d '(1818 - 1900)

  • Orpheus in the Underworld by Offenbach.

    CHERET Jules (1836 - 1932)

To close

Title: Jacques Offenbach.

Author : NADAR (Gaspard Félix TOURNACHON, known as) (1820 - 1910)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Photograph on salted paper.

Storage place: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Picture reference: 91-001114-02 / PHO1991-2 (58)

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Scenes of the Grand Duchess of Gerolstein and Bluebeard of Offenbach.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

To close

Title: Orpheus in the Underworld by Offenbach.

Author : CHERET Jules (1836 - 1932)

Creation date : 1874

Date shown: 1874

Dimensions: Height 127 - Width 90

Technique and other indications: Color lithograph.

Storage place: National Library of France (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo National Library of France

Picture reference: AFF-CHERET (JULES)

Orpheus in the Underworld by Offenbach.

© Photo National Library of France

Publication date: October 2006

Historical context

An extraordinary trajectory

When he arrived in Paris in November 1833, at the age of fourteen, Jacques Offenbach was a penniless little German Jewish immigrant who had no capital but his talent as a cellist and the relentless desire to succeed. He must be content to shine in the salons, hoping to obtain the essential support to "break through".

The revolution of 1848 brought Offenbach back to Cologne, his hometown, where he waited for better days. He achieved his greatest success there (La Belle Hélène, 1864 ; Blue Beard, 1866 ; The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, 1867 ; The Brigands, 1869), while imposing itself in other rooms (Parisian life at the Palais-Royal in 1866). Four months after his death, he obtained a posthumous triumph at the Opéra-Comique with his fantastic opera, The Tales of Hoffmann.

Image Analysis

A composer and his images

The collective memory has retained the image of the aging Offenbach, crippled with gout and bundled up in his furs. The portrait taken by Nadar around 1850 shows another, younger Offenbach. He already no longer has the long hair he wore when he was "cello Paganini," and his eyeglass and sideburns make him instantly recognizable. Installed in the same chair where Nadar will sit Gérard de Nerval a few years later, the young musician stares at the viewer confidently, in an attitude not devoid of a certain romanticism. The snapshot was taken when Offenbach entered the Comédie-Française.

The watercolor by Prince de Joinville relates to the most glorious period of his career since it presents a scene from Blue Beard (1866) and another by The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein (1867). The first shows the fury of General Boom as his sovereign appoints the private Fritz as general-in-chief. The second illustrates the presentation by the Lord of Barbe-Bleue of his new wife, the ex-peasant Boulotte, to the court of King Bobèche. The Prince de Joinville, third son of Louis-Philippe and emeritus sailor, produced these two scenes after score frontispieces, because, from 1848 to 1870, he was banished from France, like all his family.

While the prince's watercolor is the work of a gifted amateur and has arguably only been shown to relatives, the poster for ’Orpheus in the Underworld on the contrary, was designed to be seen by as many people as possible and to have the greatest effect. Through his advertising genius, Chéret manages to suggest the exceptional richness of the staging, Offenbach having spent more than 200,000 francs for the resumption of his favorite work at the Théâtre de la Gaîté. On the left, John Styx, the ex-king of Boeotia, hides the cohort of gods and goddesses while, on the other side, Eurydice raises his cup to Bacchus, in front of Jupiter disguised as a fly. These figures frame the chariot of Apollo, whose elevation in the sky marks the highlight of the show, in the finale of the second act.


An aesthetic of wealth

Offenbach has created a lyrical genre adapted to the expectations of a now larger audience. For all his contemporaries, his music - lively, nervous, electric - symbolizes the new society that was born under the Second Empire. If all social strata appreciate the one hundred and ten scenic works composed by Offenbach, he nevertheless intended them primarily for the good society of which he seeks the favors. It is significant that it is a prince, son of the last king of the French, who is the author of the watercolor presented here. The Prince de Joinville arguably applauded the singer Hortense Schneider (featured in the two scenes he painted) during a tour of London where the English aristocracy regularly gave her a triumphant welcome. We know that, from April to October 1867, the role of the Grand Duchess of Gerolstein earned Hortense Schneider a visit from all the crowned heads who came to Paris for the Universal Exhibition. In order to retain this elegant audience he had begun to approach from the orchestra pit of the Comédie-Française, Offenbach always wanted to offer them the richest and most magnificent shows.

The two theaters he directed, Les Bouffes-Parisiens and La Gaîté, were set up on his initiative to offer spectators the maximum in luxury and comfort. At La Gaîté, Offenbach invents "opéra-bouffe-féerie", a genre that competes with the splendor of "grand opera" and announces the music hall review by mixing music, singing, comedy, spectacular effects and ballet. Originally opéra bouffe in two acts and four tableaux, Orpheus in the Underworld in 1874 at La Gaîté became an opera-fairy in four acts and twelve tableaux. Chéret, in whom Offenbach had trusted in 1858, masterfully translates this "dazzling twelve paintings" that the press hailed.

  • imperial feast
  • music
  • opera
  • portrait
  • Second Empire
  • Offenbach (Jacques)
  • Nerval (Gérard de)
  • ballet
  • theater
  • French comedy


Siegfried KRACAUER, Jacques Offenbach or the Secret of the Second Empire, Paris, 1937, reprint Paris, Gallimard, coll. "Le Promeneur", 1994. Jean-Claude YON and Laurent FRAISON, Offenbach, The Files of the Museum of Orsay n ° 58, Paris, R.M.N., 1996. Jean-Claude YON, Jacques Offenbach, Paris, Gallimard, coll. "N.R.F. Biography", 2000.

To cite this article

Jean-Claude YON, “Jacques Offenbach, the XIXe century in music ”

Video: Jacques Offenbach: Overture to La Belle Hélène