Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

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Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880)

Composer

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His times: Offenbach was sent from his native Cologne to study music in Paris, a city that was fast forging a reputation as the world capital of entertainment (risqué, populist and otherwise) and was, for much of the composer’s adult life, under the regime of the Second French Republic and Napoleon III. Offenbach used these circumstances to forge a new genre of satirical operetta and proved particularly adept at mocking the Emperor in his works. But as Napoleon fell, so did Offenbach’s currency. From the 1870s he was forced to work increasingly abroad, but the shift prompted his late turn to opera and what is, for many, the composer’s masterpiece Les Contes d’Hoffmann.

His music: Offenbach’s music is direct and tuneful. The composer tended to rely on upward-rising themes in major keys, but could write with great lyricism and imagination too. Audiences loved the way he would gradually speed the music up towards the conclusion of an Act, or insert the most unlikely music in obviously satirical, jarring contexts (as in his most famous piece, the ‘Can-Can’ danced by the gods in Orpheus in the Underworld). One critic derided the music as having ‘a vulgar scepticism and a determination to be funny’, but Offenbach’s craft shouldn’t be underestimated in its spontaneity or its keen sense of irony.

Himself: Offenbach had the brain of an impresario if not a businessman. He made his reputation by going it alone in a tiny Paris theatre, but went bankrupt in 1874, after losses on a single production at one of the city’s biggest venues. He was generous-spirited, establishing a competition for young composers that was once won by Bizet.

On Sunday 15 December,  we perform Offenbach’s ‘lost’ opera Fantasio, in a concert performance featuring an all-star cast including Sarah Connolly, conducted by Sir Mark Elder.

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