Jacques Offenbach

By Camille Saint-Saens.

It is dangerous to prophesy. Not long ago I was speaking of Offenbach, trying to do justice to his marvellous natural gifts and deploring his squandering them. And I was imprudent enough to say that posterity would never know him. Now posterity is proving that I was wrong, for Offenbach is coming back into fashion. Our contemporaneous composers forget that Mozart, Beethoven and Sebastian Bach knew how to laugh at times. They distrust all gaiety and declare it unesthetic. As the good public cannot resign itself to getting along without gaiety, it goes to operetta and turns naturally to Offenbach who created it and furnished an inexhaustible supply. My phrase is not exaggerated, for Offenbach hardly dreamed of creating an art. He was endowed with a genius for the comic and an abundance of melody, but he had no thought of doing anything beyond providing material for the theatre he managed at the time. As a matter of fact he was almost its only author.

He was unable to rid himself of his Germanic influences and so corrupted the taste of an entire generation by his false prosody, which has been incorrectly considered originality. In addition he was lacking in taste.  At the time they affected a dreadful mannerism of always stopping on the next to the last note of a passage, whether or not it was associated with a mute syllable. This mannerism had no purpose beyond indicating to the audience the end of a passage and giving the claque the signal to applaud. Offenbach did not belong to that heroic strain to which success is the least of its cares. So he adopted this mannerism, and often his ingeniously turned and charming couplets are ruined by this silly absurdity now gone out of fashion.

Furthermore, he wrote badly, for his early education was neglected. If the Tales of Hoffman shows traces of a practised pen, it is because Guiraud finished the score and went out of his way to remedy some of the author’s mistakes. Leaving aside the bad prosody and the minor defects in taste, we have left a work which shows a wealth of invention, melody, and sparkling fancy comparable to Gretry’s.

Gretry was no more a great musician than Offenbach, for he also wrote badly. The essential difference between the two was the care, not only in his prosody but also in his declamation, which Gretry tried to reproduce musically with all possible exactness. He overshot the mark in this for he did not see that in singing the expression of a note is modified by the harmonic scheme which accompanies it. It must be recognized, in addition, that many times Gretry was carried away by his melodic inventiveness and forgot his own principles so that he relegated his care for declamation to second place.

What hurt Gretry was his unbounded conceit, with which Offenbach, to his credit, was never afflicted. As an indication of this, he dared to write in his advice to young musicians:

“Those who have genius will make opera-comique like mine; those who have talent will write opera like Gluck’s; while those who have neither genius nor talent, will write symphonies like Haydn’s.”

However, he tried to make an opera like Gluck’s and in spite of his great efforts and his interesting inventions, he could not equal the work of his formidable rival.


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Although not a great musician, Offenbach had a surprising natural instinct and made here and there curious discoveries in harmony. In speaking of these discoveries I must go slightly into the theory of harmony and resign myself to being understood only by those of my readers who are more or less musicians. In a slight work, Daphnis et Chloe, Offenbach risked a dominant eleventh without either introduction or conclusion—an extraordinary audacity at the time. A short course in harmony is necessary for the understanding of this. We must start with the fact that, theoretically, all dissonances must be introduced and concluded, which we cannot explain here, but this leading up to and away from have for their purpose softening the harshness of the dissonance which was greatly feared in bygone times. Take if you please, the simple key of C natural. Do is the keynote, sol is the dominant. Place on this dominant two-thirds--si-re--and you have the perfect dominant chord. Add a third fa and you have the famous dominant seventh, a dissonance which to-day seems actually agreeable. Not so long ago they thought that they ought to prepare for the dissonance. In the Sixteenth Century it was not regarded as admissible at all, for one hears the two notes si and fa simultaneously and this seems intolerable to the ear. They used to call it the Diabolus in musica.

Palestrina was the first to employ it in an anthem. Opinions differ on this, and certain students of harmony pretend that the chord which Palestrina used only has the appearance of the dominant seventh. I do not concur in this view. But however the case may be, the glory of unchaining the devil in music belongs to Montreverde. That was the beginning of modern music.

Later, a new third was superimposed and they dared the chord sol-si-re-fa-la. The inventor is unknown, but Beethoven seems to have been the first to make any considerable use of it. He used the chord in such a way that, in spite of its current use to-day, in his works it appears like something new and strange. This chord imposes its characteristics on the second motif of the first part of the Symphony in C minor. This is what gives such amazing charm to the long colloquy between the flute, the oboe and the clarinets, which always surprises and arouses the listener, in the andante of the same symphony. Fetis in his Traite d’Harmonie inveighed against this delightful passage. He admits that people like it, but, according to him, the author had no right to write it and the listener has no right to admire it. Scholars often have strange ideas.

Then Richard Wagner came along and the reign of the ninth dominant took the place of the seventh. That is what gives Tannhauser, and Lohengrin their exciting character, which is dear to those who demand in music above everything else the pleasure due to shocks to the nervous system. Imitators have fallen foul of this easy procedure, and with a laughable naivete imagine that in this way they can easily equal Wagner.  And they have succeeded in making this valuable chord absolutely banal.

By adding still another third we have the dominant eleventh. Offenbach used this, but it has played but a small part since then. Beyond that we cannot go, for a third more and we are back to the basic note, two octaves away.

But innovations in harmony are rare in Offenbach’s work. What makes him interesting is his fertility in invention of melodies and few have equaled him in this. He improvised constantly and with incredible rapidity. His manuscripts give the impression of having been done with the point of a needle. There is nothing useless anywhere in them. He used abbreviations as much as he could and the simplicity of his harmony helped him here. As a result he was able to produce his light works in an exceedingly short time.

He had the luck to attach Madame Ugalde to his company. Her powers had already begun to decline but she was still brilliant. While she was giving a spectacular revival of Orphee aux Enfers, he wrote Les Bavards for her. He was inspired by the hope of an unusual interpretation and he so surpassed himself that he produced a small masterpiece. A revival of this work would certainly be successful if that were possible, but the peculiar merits of the creatrix of the role would be necessary and I do not see her like anywhere.

It is strange but true that Offenbach lost all his good qualities as soon as he took himself seriously. But he was not the only case of this in the history of music. Cramer and Clementi wrote studies and exercises which are marvels of style, but their sonatas and concertos are tiresome in their mediocrity. Offenbach’s works which were given at the Opera-Comique--Robinson Crusoe, Vert-Vert, and Fantasio are much inferior to La Chanson de Fortunio, La Belle Helene and many other justly famous operettas. There have been several unprofitable revivals of La Belle Helene. This is due to the fact that the role of Helene was designed for Mlle. Schneider. She was beautiful and talented and had an admirable mezzo-soprano voice. The slight voice of the ordinary singer of operetta is insufficient for the part. Furthermore, traditions have sprung up. The comic element has been suppressed and the piece has been denatured by this change. In Germany they conceived the idea of playing this farce seriously with an archaic stage setting!

Jacques Offenbach will become a classic. While this may be unexpected, what doesn’t happen? Everything is possible—even the impossible.



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