When I was a teenager, I began learning about classical music by listening to radio programs in the evening. Often the shows would begin with an overture or “light classic”, such as the Light Cavalry Overture (which our school band played), or the William Tell Overture (the “Lone Ranger” to me). There was also a very lively piece that one announcer called “Gate Parisienne.” I assumed that this “Gate” was a must-see for tourists, like the Eiffel Tower.
All of this came back to me when I read that October 5 is the day when Jacques Offenbach died. Born in Cologne on June 20, 1819, Offenbach studied cello and composition at the Paris Conservatoire. Then, after working as a cellist, he became conductor at the Théâtre-Français.
By the 1860s he was celebrated as the composer of operettas, such as Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) and La Belle Hélène. Intended as a spoof of grand opera, Offenbach’s operettas influenced other creators, such as Johann Strauss, and Gilbert and Sullivan. This success made it possible for him to open his own theater, Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, which he directed for ten years.
Late in life, Offenbach began writing a grand opera, Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) and, although not quite finished when he died, it was performed in 1881 at the Opéra-comique.
“Helen of Troy in Opera”, DBM00145, is one of several recordings that can provide more information about Offenbach. Michael Barclay has talks on The Tales of Hoffmann, DBM00859; Merry Widow and Operetta, DBM00765; and La Grande-duchesse de Gérolstein, DBM01366. There is also “Orpheus in Opera” at DBM00127, which discusses “settings of the Orpheus myth … over the past 350 years.” And Ann Thomson explores Orpheus in the Underworld, DBM01260; and Tales of Hoffmann, DBM01427.
A braille libretto for Tales of Hoffman is at BRM35004. Celebrated Soprano Arias, compiled by Kurt Adler, BRM22085, includes Offenbach’s aria “Elle a fui”. The baritone recitative and aria from this opera, “Scintille, Diamant” may be found at BRM26467.
If you want to learn the “Can-Can” from Orpheus in the Underworld, there is a version for recorder at BRM06428, and one for organ in BRM20668.
To borrow any of these, or to learn about other Offenbach works that we have, please contact the Music Section!