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Listening Lists: Jacques Offenbach

Updated: Jun 9, 2023



German-born French composer Jacques Offenbach is best known for his operettas, of which he composed almost 100! He was also a skilled cellist, which was how he got started in the world of music. Ultimately, he wanted to be known as a composer who played the cello, rather than the other way around. Even if you have never heard of Offenbach before, you have certainly heard some of his music, such as the "Can-Can" from "Orphée aux enfers" (Orpheus in the Underworld).


 

Les contes d'Hoffmann: Les oiseaux dans la charmille (The Doll Song)


The opéra fantastique "Les contes d'Hoffmann" is one of Offenbach's best-known works, and is a staple of the operatic repertoire. The poet Hoffmann is the central figure of the story. He is challenged to tell florid stories about his three loves, the first of whom is a wind-up doll named Olympia. She sings one of the most showstopping arias in all of opera!




 

La Belle Hélène: Overture



La belle Hélène is an opéra bouffe (a type of French comic opera) which parodies the story of Helen of Troy and her elopement with Paris in the legend of the Trojan War. The overture is often performed on its own in orchestral concerts; however, it is not (entirely) Offenbach's work. The most frequently performed version is an arrangement by Eduard Haensch, prepared for the Austrian premiere of the work in 1865.



 

La Périchole: Act I: Ah! quel dîner je viens de faire



"La Périchole" is another opéra bouffe, based on the 1829 play "Le carrosse du Saint-Sacrement by Prosper Mérimée. The title character is based on 18th century Peruvian street entertainer and (famously) the mistress of Spanish military officer Manuel de Amat y Junyent. One of the highlights of the work is La Périchole's "tipsy" aria "Ah! quel dîner", where she sings about the great night she had!



 

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Orphée aux enfers: Act II: Galop Infernal (Can-Can)




"Orpheus in the Underworld" was Offenbach's first full-length opera. After the first two-act performance, it was revised in a four-act opéra féerie (fairy-tale opera) version. It is a comic modified retelling of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. It was highly successful and broke box-office records, and has been performed regularly in France and internationally ever since. In the late 19th century, the Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergère cabarets used the music of the "Galop infernal" excerpt of the opera to accompany the can-can dance. Ever since, this music and the dance have been inseparable!



 

Grand concerto pour violoncelle et orchestre ("Concerto militaire"): II. Andante


The manuscripts for Offenbach's difficult cello concerto have only recently been discovered after the work fell into obscurity, and it has now re-entered the cello repertoire. It's nickname of "concerto militaire" is confirmed by the prominent timpani and snare drum parts. Offenbach performed the first movements in 1847, but it is unknown whether he ever performed the complete work. After some mistakes were made initially putting the rediscovered manuscripts together, the full concerto has now been recovered, performed, and recorded. The melodic lines of the piece show Offenbach's skill as a composer for voice, and the challenging, technical passages show the other side of him as a virtuoso cellist.



 

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