Composers Of Opera Bouffe: M. Jacques Offenbach, 1874 Engraving © Heritage Images / Contributeur
Composers Of Opera Bouffe: M. Jacques Offenbach, 1874 Engraving © Heritage Images / Contributeur

10 (little) things you might not know about Jacques Offenbach

Unquestioned master of the operetta, Jacques Offenbach conquered the lyrical stages throughout the whole world during the second half of the 19th century with his unique music style, entertaining and incredibly virtuoso. Here are ten little things you may not know about the “jettatore” Offenbach.

Creator of the operetta, great cellist, maestro, theatre director, there are many adjectives to describe Jacques Offenbach. Born as Jacob Offenbach, he was one the few composers who saw their partitions played and appreciated by the general public. His work never lost its freshness and still has a prominent place inside the lyrical theaters. Yet we mostly know only a small part of his repertoire (Orpheus in the Underworld, La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein, The Tales of Hoffman) whereas he wrote more than 110 scenic pieces and an impressive number of compositions.

He started to perform in taverns alongside his brother and sister when he was eleven

Son of a musician called Isaac Offenbach, the young Jacques showed at an early age dispositions for music, especially with a cellist, as did his brothers and sisters who mastered quickly the piano and the violin. The creation of a trio (consisting of Jacques with his brother Julius and his sister Isabella) allowed the family to earn additional revenue. They performed in taverns and inns between 1831 and 1832. This experience gave the young boy the chance to find his path: he would be a composer.

He was victim of an accident in which he burnt his right hand and two fingers of the left hand

During a concert he had accepted to give at the Château de Villelouët in Touraine on the 25th of September 1850, Jacques Offenbach tried to rescue Guizot’s niece, Madame de Vaines, after her dress had been set on fire by accident. Offenbach was close to the poor woman’s room and tried in vain to put out the fire with his bare hands. He temporarily saved the lady who would dies four days later but the important burnings he got to his hands forced him to stop for a while his cellist activities. Fortunately, he didn’t keep any marks afterward.

He went to trial because of a conflict with the SACEM

In July 1852, Offenbach conducted comic little songs whose authors were registered at the SACEM (Société des auteurs, compositeurs et éditeurs de musique). Offenbach refused to pay the original composers and one of them, Adolphe Adam, assigned him to justice. This scandal would become a source of polemic in the press: Offenbach had to pay a fine of 25 francs and another 25 as damages.

He was said to bring bad luck and was called the Jettatore (spell-caster)

Jacques Offenbach [Misc.] © Time Life Pictures / Contributeur
Jacques Offenbach [Misc.] © Time Life Pictures / Contributeur

Flaubert wrote about Offenbach in his Dictionary of Received Ideas: “Every time one hears his name, one has to close two fingers from the right hand to keep the evil eye away”. Incidentally he was the subject of many caricatures due to his peculiar appearance (he had a hooked nose, long blond sideburns and a skinny figure).

He only wore black ties in satin

The composer’s unusual physical appearance was accentuated by his pretensions to be elegant, sometimes with no luck. If he only wore black ties in satin, the rest of his clothes were more colourful. In July 1869, Vizentini described one of his outfits: “The summer, his luxurious boater costume clashes a bit with the artistic pea jackets that suit the dolce farniente on the shingles of the Etretat beach. Fitting boots with golden tassels, puffed-out knickerbockers and black velvet tailcoat, polished belt with a shiny buckle, and so on.”

He took his lunches in only four restaurants

For every lunch he went down to one of his four favourite restaurants. At one of them, Le Riche, he always ordered the same menu: three spoons of a soft-boiled egg with half of a soldier, a piece of a lamb chop, a bite of mashed potatoes and a fruit quarter. From time to time, that same restaurant would deliver him his lunch directly at the apartment, 11 rue Laffite.

He had a passion for gambling

Because of that inclination he went every year to Normandy, Ems, Bade or Nice. As an example, on the 13 of July 1869 in Bade, he took advantage of the long interval between the first and second acts of La Princesse de Trébizonde (which was created that day) to leave and play Roulette. 

He was a bit tyrannical with his librettists

Much prolific, the composer expected of his favourite librettists (Meilhac et Halévy) a complete availability. On many occasions, he didn’t hesitate to press them to make sure they would keep up with his frantic rhythm of work. As an example, he wrote in a letter in 1877: “We all had the biggest successes at the last Exposition and I would like this time again that the piece would be ours three, only us three, Meilhac, Halévy, Offenbach. Therefore see, look, work”.

A piece of the young Bizet was played at the Bouffes-Parisiens thanks to him

Theatre des Bouffes-Parisiens, seats, engraving... © DEA / BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA / Contributeur
Theatre des Bouffes-Parisiens, seats, engraving... © DEA / BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA / Contributeur

Enjoying the notoriety of the theatre of the Bouffes-Parisiens that he created in 1855, Offenbach put together a competition for the young composers all over France. The young Georges Bizet would take the opportunity to present his partition and won (joint with Charles Lecocq). Therefore, his operetta Le Docteur Miracle was played in the theatre in 1856. From that day, the relations between Carmen’s composer and Offenbach would become quite hostile though as the piece was played only eleven times.

He was received like a prince in New York in 1875 

One evening, he found a huge crowd at the door of his hotel, a banner above the balcony had been hung and read “Welcome Offenbach” and an orchestra of about sixty musicians was playing his music.

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