MARKED the Centennial of the United States. Competing for front-page space with the delayed opening of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia were the visit of Dom Pedro, Emperor of Brazil, the express train which set a New York to San Francisco record of 80 hours and 20 minutes, and the Republican National Convention which nominated Rutherford B. Hayes. The forthcoming visit of Jacques Offenbach, composer of opéra bouffe, was relegated to the “Amusements” pages. Although they sang his delightful tunes, danced to his charming music, and laughed at his amusing operettas, Americans seemed able to consider his coming with complete tranquillity.
The composer, however, was sure that his arrival would be a sensation. For years he had been the darling of the Old World, spoiled and fêted wherever he went. It has been said that the nineteenth century preferred Offenbach to Bach. His music was played in every concert hall and drawing room, and his name had become a synonym for the gaiety and wit of French culture during the Second Empire. Now in 1876 the composer was to come to America to conduct his music. What had induced Orpheus to journey to the New World?
Paradoxically, the most Parisian of French composers, the epitome of the Boulevards, was born in Germany of Jewish parents. Isaac Eberst came to the Rhineland town of Deutz about 1802. Originally from the town of Offenbach in Hesse, Eberst was known in Deutz as “Der Offenbacher.” In due time he took a wife, moved across the river to the city of Cologne, changed his name to Offenbach, and continued his professions of “chassim,” composer of music for the synagogue, and violin teacher. His son Jakob, born June 21, 1819, was a sickly little boy, frail and skinny; indeed, as an adult he never weighed more than ninety-five pounds.
Isaac Offenbach started his son on the study of the violin, but Jakob fell in love with the cello and taught himself the rudiments of that instrument. Later, he took lessons from a humble teacher whose remuneration was only one mark an hour, but who, knowing the abject poverty of the Offenbach family, insisted on being paid before he would start the lesson. Jakob’s cello playing succeeded marvelously well, and by the time he was twelve he was appearing in concerts in Cologne.
During the second quarter of the nineteenth century the artistic and musical luster of Vienna was fading. For nearly a century the city on the Danube had been the musical center of Europe, but it was being rapidly supplanted by the city on the Seine. In spite of wars, revolutions, and political upheavals, in spite of the wastage of men and goods by the Napoleonic campaigns, France was teeming with creative energy. The Romantic movement was at its height in literature, in painting, and in music, and to Paris came all the greatest artists in search of recognition—Liszt, Chopin, Heine, Wagner, to name but a few. And in 1833 the youthful Offenbach, at the green age of fourteen, arrived in Paris to make his headquarters and to live for the next forty-seven years.
Into the maelstrom of artistic activity the little Jewish boy from Cologne plumped with the utmost confidence. By some artifice he persuaded the redoubtable Cherubini, director of the school, to let him enter the Conservatoire, although in theory he was too young and that institution was closed to foreigners. The next year Jacques, as he now called himself, found a place as cellist in the orchestra of the Opéra Comique. It was a job of sorts and brought in a little money. His father, who could not help much, soon returned to Cologne, leaving the sixteen-year-old lad to sink or swim. He swam and made his way into musical circles by his cello playing and into social circles by his charm and wit. He gave concerts in private houses and in music shops; at the age of twenty he wrote a oneact opera which was a complete failure.
In 1843 Jacques met Herminie De Alcann and immediately lost his heart. Her ardently Catholic Spanish family naturally objected to a bohemian musician as a suitor for Herminie, and before even considering the match, her father insisted that Offenbach should gain a considerable success in foreign lands and earn some money. To win her family’s approval, Jacques toured France and Germany and in the spring of 1844 made his first appearance in London.
He started at the very top of his profession, appearing in concerts with the most popular artists. At one performance, for example, “Master Joachim/’ then only twelve, later one of the great violinists of his age, was accompanied at the piano by “Dr. F. Mendelssohn-Bartholdi.” Offenbach held his own in this superior company. “Herr Offenbach, the violoncellist, made a highly favorable impression and may be pronounced one of the masters of the instrument” was the opinion of one reviewer. He appeared without pay at public functions, but was paid substantial fees for playing in private homes. His London success was assured when he performed at court before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the Tsar of Russia, and the King of Bavaria. In addition to receiving their expressions of admiration, he was given a valuable diamond ring.
Offenbach’s ability as a cellist was of a very special kind; it was a genius for imitation. One listener said of him that he played every conceivable instrument except his own. He capered with the cello, made it emit sounds it was never intended to give forth, and to the delight of his contemporaries accompanied his performance with a lecture spiced with Boulevard wit. To a musician it might be an unbearable perversion, but his audiences loved it.
Jacques returned to Paris with a fat purse, and Herminie’s father, convinced at last, gave his permission for the marriage. Jacques announced his conversion to Catholicism and the wedding took place in August 1844. Herminie proved herself a good wife. Retiring in disposition, she had tact and common sense. She bore him four daughters and finally in 1862, to her husband’s ecstatic delight, a son.1
The maestro was on tour a great deal of the time, but when he was in Paris, Jacques loved his role as head of the family and carefully supervised the rearing of his children. His daughters before they married were -not allowed to attend any of their father’s premières. Nice young girls did not go to Les Bouffes Parisiens or to the Variétés. In the country, however, when the family was at the Villa Orphée at Étretat, his daughters took part in the charades, parties, dinners, and concerts, in which their father was the leading spirit.
For seven years, 1848-55, Offenbach was musical director of the Comédie Française, his job that of conductor of whatever incidental music might be needed. But ever since his arrival in Paris he had dreamed of having his own theatre where he might produce his own works. The International Exposition of 1855 provided the opportunity. He leased a tiny theatre in the Champs-Élysées with only fifty seats, had it redecorated, and opened it as Les Bouffes Parisiens July 5, 1855. Since the license permitted only four actors on the stage, three one-act operas were on the first bill. The tiny house was sold out every night for three months, and in order to accommodate the crowds, Offenbach took a lease on a larger house in the Passage Choiseul in December 1855. He again redecorated and renamed the new theatre Les Bouffes Parisiens.
Luck was with him when he met Hector Crémieux, Henri Meilhac, and Ludovic Halévy, his superlative librettists, and Hortense Schneider, the perfect interpreter of his songs.2 It was not second-rate suppliers of texts that Offenbach found but distinguished dramatic authors who wrote excellent comedies or, rather, farces. For the form of their opéra bouffe the collaborators chose to revive a popular art form—vaudeville, in which passages of dialogue are varied by songs, choruses, and dances. It is at least as old as the seventeenth century when Molière and Lully teamed to write Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, the sentimental Psyché, and the farcical M. de Pourceaugnac. Fallen into low esteem in the eighteenth century, it made a strong comeback in the nineteenth and reached its apogee in the opéra bouffe of Offenbach and his librettists.
Now began the most productive period of Offenbach’s life, and for twenty years he worked at a pace which would have exhausted or killed most composers. He was always writing his librettists to ask for copy, pleading for work to do. He wrote of himself, “I have one terrible, invincible vice, that of working all the time. I regret it for the sake of those people who do not like my music, for I shall certainly die with a melody at the end of my pen.” Even in his carriage, which was celebrated in Paris, he had installed a little desk, and while his coachman drove him from one theatre to another; he worked by the light of two candles, covering music paper with his tiny handwriting which Saint-Saëns said was like flyspecks and spider webs.
Although his theatre was always crowded, his greatest successes did not begin until 1858 with Orphée aux Enfers.3 La Belle Hélène was produced in 1864, and La Vie Parisienne, the greatest success of all, in 1866. The year of the Universal Exposition (1867) witnessed a long run of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, and in 1868 La Périchole rivaled the popularity of its predecessors. These are the most famous of the thirty or more operettas, all of them successful, which Offenbach wrote during this productive two decades.
In the world of Offenbach’s theatre joy reigned supreme. Nevertheless, he was vaguely conscious of a social mission. Not a moralist, he indulged in criticism as long as he found it diverting. He felt that his work was essentially satirical, aimed at exposing and killing with ridicule some of the vices and foibles of his contemporaries. While they laughed at the poisoned darts aimed at idiotic monarchs, military usurpers, extravagant and vicious ladies of high society, rapacious and venal priests, his victims, without knowing it, laughed at themselves.
In 1857 Offenbach once more entertained Queen Victoria, this time in his own theatre. It is on record that she awas amused/’ In i860 he became a French citizen by Imperial decree, and was made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1862; he was received by the Emperor and accepted in the highest society. Offenbach liked the Second Empire and it liked him.
Offenbach’s personality helped his popularity greatly. A small, slender man, not much over five feet tall, with markedly Semitic features, he was the fulfillment of a caricaturist’s dream, and literally hundreds of drawings of him were published. He wrote French like a member of the Academy, but was never able to handle the spoken tongue; “he spoke German with an excellent French accent, on the other hand, he spoke French with a deplorable German accent.” He matched wit, verbally and musically, with his librettists; indeed, he was the wittiest of composers and no mean satirist in his prose.
When the Franco-Prussian War began in 1870, Jacques and his family took refuge in Italy. Returning to Paris in December 1871, he found a different city from the one he had left. The little world of “Tout Paris” had disappeared. The city had undergone a long siege and France had lost the war; the Empire had given way to the bourgeois republic; and Paris was in social, financial, and political turmoil. In the Third Republic the spirit of satire was out of fashion. At theatres gay pieces still were played but they were no longer parodies; they had become “operettas,” a type especially associated with Vienna. Offenbach was losing ground to Johann Strauss. But he returned to work—his own work of writing music and amusing the public. Les Brigands and Le Roi Carotte enjoyed moderate if not phenomenal successes.
He made a serious blunder in 1873 when he went back to producing operas in a theatre larger than any he had leased before, the Théâtre de la Gaieté. He had it redecorated and the first production was a revival of Orphée aux Enfers. His new operetta, La Jolie Parfw meuse (The Pretty Perfume Seller), followed and was successful. But Offenbach once again proved that he was no businessman; he spent too much money on his productions and in his private life. His operas brought in a great deal of money4 but he wasted it all; and by the time he took over the Gaieté he had sold all his scores and even the foreign rights and had no backlog. Then in December 1874, partly as a friendly gesture to his old collaborator, Victorien Sardou, he agreed to produce La Haine (Hatred), a lurid melodrama, which had to be withdrawn after only four nights. Offenbach was ruined and went into bankruptcy. However, he continued working and living in his accustomed luxury. He managed to keep his Villa Orphée at Étretat, still haunted the very best restaurants in Paris, gave his regular Friday soirees, and went occasionally to the luxurious Pavilion Henri IV at Saint-Germain for relaxation.5 During the summer of 1875 he composed La Boulangère a des écus (The Baker has Money), one of his greatest successes, in which Schneider appeared the following October. Meanwhile, in the early summer of that year he received a seductive offer to come to America.
In 1876 the United States was to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of its independence with a great international exhibition at Philadelphia, and the whole world was invited to participate. France had given the Statue of Liberty, Richard Wagner had written (for a price) one of his worst compositions, the “Festmarsch,” but Offenbach had not been included in the list of eminent persons officially invited to contribute. How then did it happen that he received an invitation to cross the Atlantic?
According to the Courrier des États-Unis, published in New York, a rich South American named Lino Bacquero, without expecting any profit from the tour, organized it at his personal expense and risk. On the other hand, Robert Grau, not always reliable in his memoirs, related that Marie Aimée had suggested the invitation to his brother Maurice, then a young impresario and later manager of the Metropolitan Opera. Grau, through Bacquero, made Offenbach an offer of a thousand dollars a performance for thirty concerts, the money to be deposited in advance in the Bank of France. The offer proved irresistible to a man in need of money, and after shedding some (not too many) tears at the prospect of parting from his beloved family for a few months, Offenbach accepted.
He sailed April 21 aboard the Canada, the latest luxury liner of the French line. The sweet sorrows of parting were soon supplanted by the more pedestrian throes of mal de mer, for the Canada, after breaking down once, ran into a terrific storm. The liner was three days late arriving at New York, and it was not until two o’clock of the morning of May 6 that it was sighted off Sandy Hook. According to the Suri s reporter, he alone remained of all the newspapermen who had come to the dock. But when the passengers disembarked at eleven o’clock, many of them had returned.
Among the cabin passengers appeared the composer Offenbach in company with Mlle. Aimée, the well-known opera bouffe singer. Carriages were waiting and he was driven to the Fifth Avenue Hotel where he will reside during his stay in New York. He expressed himself as much pleased with what he saw of the city and talked with great volubility about his voyage, saying there had been two or three days of very stormy weather, but he had not been sick [this was not true] and on the whole had enjoyed the trip very much.
M. Offenbach is a pleasant-looking gentleman; of about medium height, slender in build and slightly round-shouldered. His face is somewhat thinner and more deeply furrowed with wrinkles than is represented by the lithographs which are displayed in the shop windows. He has a fresh, lively way of speaking and acting and his face is always lit up by a smile. He can understand English but is not able to use it in conversation. His stay in the country will be of less than two months’ duration as he is engaged to present a new opera bouffe to the public in Paris during the first week in August.
Offenbach’s first care was to visit the hall where the concerts would be given. This amphitheatre, the remodeled station of the Harlem Railway and the site of the future Madison Square Garden, was known to most New Yorkers as the Hippodrome. During the winter and early spring of 1876 it had been the scene of the revival meetings of Moody and Sankey. Now the tabernacle which had echoed to the pious exhortations of Dwight Moody, the syrupy tenor of Ira D. Sankey, and the ecstatic Hallelujahs of the repentant had been transformed into a Summer Garden.
While in New York, Offenbach met many prominent New Yorkers, publicists, musicians, and politicians, and was frequently entertained. He found time to have his portrait made by the fashionable theatrical photographer of the day—Mora. He was lionized and wrote, “If I had eaten and drunk all that was prepared for me I should never have returned alive to France. They stuff their visitors in America as the good Bretonne dames do the breasts of their fat turkeys. My reputation no doubt was extended by my visit to New York, but mon Dieul I deepened the roots of my accursed gout.”
The first New York concert was announced on May 9: “Opening night Thursday, May 11, when M. Jacques Offenbach, the illustrious maestro, assisted by a grand orchestra of one hundred skilled musicians will inaugurate a series of twenty (20) [sic] concerts at Gilmore’s Gardens, which has been thoroughly renovated and improved and rendered the most delightful resort in the world. . . Prices of admission were doubled—general admission was $1.00 and private boxes, $5.00. The orchestra was not Gilmore’s concert band but a real symphony, consisting of thirty-eight violins, twelve violas, fourteen cellos, twelve basses, three flutes, three clarinets, three oboes, two bassoons, four horns, two cornets, three trombones, an ophicleide, drums, bass drum, cymbal, and triangle. The concertmaster was a young violinist named John Philip Sousa.
On opening night about five thousand people crowded into the Garden to see “the most fascinating composer of the age, the Operatic Puck/’ Many who attended rather hoped that Offenbach would dance the cancan and that the popular Marie Aimée would sing. Neither hope was fulfilled. When the slight, dapper composer finally appeared on the podium, he was given a standing ovation by the audience and musicians. He conducted with dignity, skill, and precision, but the audience was plainly disappointed and more than a third left the hall after the first number. Scarcely half remained until the conclusion. It was a catastrophe.
Several reasons have been given for the disastrous opening. The audience was presented straight orchestral fare; Offenbach conducted only four of twelve numbers, and Henri Boulard, his alternate, was not an inspired leader; the orchestra was too small for the immense hall; and an entire evening of one composer’s works tended to be dull, especially when there was no Hortense Schneider or Marie Aimée to sing the lyrics. The Tribune praised the composer-conductor: “His elegance of manner, his delicacy of person, and the serious gravity of his mental tone and demeanor are winning attributes. ... He is notable for naturalness, enthusiasm and grace in his work.” But the New York public which loved his operettas did not appreciate grace and elegance; they wanted the cancan.
Offenbach was crushed by the reaction of the first-night audience and offered to release Grau from his contract; instead of cancelling the performance the impresario made plans to pep up the program. At the fourth concert some numbers by other composers were introduced, and pieces by Weber, Strauss, Vieuxtemps, Gounod, Berlioz, and Meyerbeer appeared on the programs for the next four weeks. Beginning with the fifth performance, the pianist Henri Kowalski was an added attraction. Offenbach wrote a bravura waltz for the popular cornetist Jules Levy, and in honor of America called it “The American Eagle Waltz.” The maestro conducted more numbers at each concert; Boulard, who had been severely criticized for his conducting and his inability to control the orchestra of “square head Germans” (as the Courrier des États-Unis called them), was replaced by the popular opera conductor Max Maretzek. And on May 20 the price of admission was cut in half, from a dollar to fifty cents.
These remedial measures did attract crowds, and the thirty performances in New York concluded on June 9. “M. Offenbach wielded his electric baton Friday evening for the last time. His appearance was greeted with heartfelt approbation. Whatever may have been his success as an attraction, he has at least succeeded in satisfying public curiosity. He has conducted his own works as nobody else could have done, and he descends from public view for the present with the consciousness, and justly, of having realized the general anticipation of his personal merits.... He has proved himself a public benefactor by causing people to forget their cares in the hearing of his delicious music/’ The ever-popular band leader, P. S. Gilmore, then returned to Gilmore’s Gardens for the summer.
Impresario Grau, aware that he had an ace up his sleeve, or rather a king and a queen, now announced a week of opera at Booth’s Theatre in New York. The king and queen of opéra bouffe, Offenbach and Marie Aimée, would appear together in two of his works, La Vie Parisienne and La Jolie Parfumeuse.
Aimée was the most popular comic-opera diva in America in the 1870’s and had introduced nearly all of Offenbach’s operettas here.6 She had no peer in the New World, and it was her greatest personal tragedy that in France she must take second place to Hortense Schneider. The malicious Aurélien Scholl, editor of the Parisian journal, Le Nain Jaune, aimed this Parthian shaft at Aimée: “She is that charming singer with the marble shoulders who sang La Grande-Duchesse in such a way as to cause Schneider to be forgotten by everyone who had never heard her.”
La Vie Parisienne opened on June 12 to a full house, and crowds flocked to see the succeeding performances; La Jolie Parfumeuse was equally successful. The week of opera brought in more than $20,000, and Offenbach’s visit to America was now a financial success. The day after the final opera performance Jacques was off to Philadelphia for his first concert there on June 19.
Like all world’s fairs, the Centennial Exhibition was late in opening. Announced for the first of May, the gates were finally opened May 11. But nothing was ready. Buildings had not been completed in Fairmount Park, the grounds had not been landscaped, the exhibits were not in place. Not until June was the exhibition fully on display. Visitors from all over the world came to view man’s accomplishments in Science and Art, accomplishments which in the years to follow were to change the face of the globe. One of the sensations of the exposition was the newly invented telephone, for which its inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, received a prize. Offenbach, however, was not one of the attractions at the fair. His concerts took place in a newly built tropical garden in downtown Philadelphia named the Alhambra, which during his visit was called “Offenbach Garden/’
The weather was extremely hot when Offenbach opened his series in Philadelphia. He had brought with him sixty musicians from New York, “all solo performers comprising many eminent European musicians.” The price of admission was fifty cents, and in spite of the heat at least three thousand persons attended. “Their enthusiasm was great. If one had asked these people what they came forth to see they would have replied ‘Offenbach’; and not being disappointed therein their spirits were accordingly high and their applause ready. Last night M. Offenbach conducted those pieces composed by him, the others being given under the leadership of M. Maretzek. The best received numbers were the Zampa overture, the fantasie Geneviève de Brabant, Morgenblatter waltzes, and Offenbachiana.” A London paper reported that the first concert was a great success and that 40,000 francs had been realized from it. This was news indeed and would have surprised Offenbach and his manager. The week of concerts was well attended, however, and did show a substantial profit.
Maurice Grau, inspired by his success in New York, announced on June 26 that there would be six nights of opéra bouffe in Philadelphia, with Offenbach and Aimée appearing together. La Jolie Parfumeuse and La Vie Parisienne were played before large audiences, and the composer left Philadelphia with a heavy purse.
Offenbach, after a hasty trip to Niagara Falls, returned to New York to conduct a concert for the benefit of the musicians’ union on July 7. He left the country the next day in a glow of good will. To the World reporter he confided that “he had not wanted to come to America, but he had greatly desired to be present at the Centennial and so had yielded to the temptations held out by the insinuating and captivating Gilmore [sic.]. But now he was going home to write a book about his American experiences.”
During the voyage home Jacques began writing another operetta, La Fille du Tambour Major (The Drum Major’s Daughter), and sketching the grand opera, Les Contes d’Hoffman, on which he was to work for the next four years.
At the same time he must have been writing his American experiences, for within two months after his return, in the true tradition of French travelers to America, he had the manuscript of a book ready. He pieced it together out of a journal he had kept (which has disappeared), out of letters to his family (which have been destroyed), out of newspaper clippings, his memory, and his lively imagination. Notes dyun musicien en voyage appeared on the bookstalls in March 1877. An American edition, Offenbach in America, translated from proofsheets, appeared simultaneously with the French publication; a different translation, America and the Americans, was published in England. Offenbach’s book is lively, witty, a scattered series of impressions, often superficial, with occasional flashes of acute insight—a fascinating account of life in New York during the second half of the nineteenth century.
The last four years of Jacques Offenbach’s life were not happy ones. He suffered continuously from the gout, and his money troubles were never solved. But nothing could stem the flow olf his music nor dam his compulsive energy. When he wrote “Je mourrai avec une mélodie au bout de ma plume” he knew himself. He conducted revivals of some of his most popular operettas, La Belle Hélène, La Vie Parisienne, Orphée aux Enfers, and during the Exposition Universelle of 1878, La Grande-Duchesse. The next year his hundredth work and another great success, La Fille du Tambour Major, was presented. He completed the score of Les Contes d’Hojfmany considered his masterpiece by most critics, a few days before his death on October 5, 1880. Orchestrated by Ernest Guiraud, the opera was first performed on February 10, 1881, a few months after his death.
Paris, which adores statues of its great men, has not been very kind to the genius who amused it for nearly half a century. There is a tiny street in Passy named after him. There is his tomb in Père Lachaise cemetery, and a bust in the garden of the hotel in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. But his music is remembered and his operettas are still presented. Jacques Offenbach contributed greatly to the world’s pleasure—that is his monument.