Les Contes d'Hoffmann

The reawakening of a monumental work

Offenbach and Hoffmann

By Jean-Christophe Keck 10 November 2016


© Ian Patrick/OnP

Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Opéra national de Paris, 2012

The reawakening of a monumental work

Who has never heard or even hummed the famous galop infernal from Orphée aux Enfers, the no-less-famous “Feu partout” from La Vie parisienne or those three bewitching notes from the exquisite Barcarolle in The Tales of Hoffmann? Those melodies, known to all, are part of humanity’s common heritage. They have even been engraved in platinum and sent out into space as ambassadors of our species to potential extra-terrestrial populations...

In addition to singing, our alien friends should also be able to dance. Was it not Offenbach who invented the French cancan in his Gaîté parisienne? Well, no actually! The gallop from Orphée aux enfers is not for a bunch of tricolour legs destined for the cabarets of the Butte Montmartre, it is a fiery, almost frenzied Bacchic dance. As for the Gaîté parisienne, only a few of the melodies in the work were actually drawn from Offenbach’s vast collection, because it was a ballet arranged by the conductor Manuel Rosenthal in… 1938.

Joyful music but a sad fate… It was Jean de La Bruyère who said that in France there is little esteem for people who like to have fun... Joyful music indeed, but a sad fate to be reduced to three hit tunes of which you are not necessarily the composer, especially when you have written over six hundred works including an ample harvest of masterpieces that are still unknown a century and a half later …

Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Opéra national de Paris, 2012
Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Opéra national de Paris, 2012 © Ian Patrick/OnP

Over 130 stage works (a romantic grand opera, Die Rheinnixen, numerous comic operas, opéras bouffes, operettas, and stage music); a few oratorios and cantatas, but also concertos for his own instrument the cello (including a vast “military” concerto), numerous pages of symphonic music, sacred music, chamber music, dance music, melodies, and educational works... While the situation may have evolved over the last two decades, many of these works are still unpublished, or awaiting accurate, restorative editing. Smothered for many years under crude arrangements that fluctuated from the bombastic to the cursory, Offenbach’s work is finally beginning to regain its true dimension having been reconstructed to reflect its genuine musical and dramatic power. The primary aim of the on-going musicological works is to reveal the composer’s true face to the world again.  

So how does one describe Offenbach’s music? It is, in fact, the fruit of a vast culture and an early admiration for great masters like Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Weber. There is also the training from his tutor Fromental Halévy, who wrote the opera La Juive. Then there is his Rhenish and Jewish roots, and his own modern and entirely personal perspective. Verses of an ideal classicism and a “Mozartian” candour, scathing humour, romantic passion, inventive orchestration (created by himself and not some surrogate, as some persistent rumours maintain), skilful harmony… nothing seemed unfamiliar to him. The discourse itself is based upon a highly unique art of “natural contrast”, that is at once obvious and yet surprising; it blends buffoonery and melancholy, tenderness and provocation, discipline and brutality, character study and dance with a wholly unique proficiency.

Les Contes d'Hoffmann - Les oiseaux dans la charmille (air d'Olympia)

His work method is now familiar to us: Firstly, Offenbach noted down the many melodies inspired by the libretto in large notebooks which he always carried with him - some barely legible drafts were even noted down on a table that he had installed in his carriage. It was also fairly common for him to write (musical or literary) annotations directly onto the manuscripts of his librettists. His correspondence with them reveals many secrets as to the way he guided his collaborators. That collaboration was always close and often to the point of becoming invasive and overbearing... He would then take a sheet of music paper intended for instrumentation. First he would note down the vocal lines in the centre, then, on the two lines below he would add a piano accompaniment. Sometimes it would be highly developed; at other times it would be limited. Finally, as soon as he was sure that the piece would be performed, he would begin the task of orchestrating it. To save time, he also used a codified system that, with a little experience, is easy to decipher. Throughout the rehearsals, he would modify or delete certain verses, or passages, and even entire numbers according to his own instincts as a dramatist or the demands of the Paris censorship bureau. We know that Offenbach’s method of orchestration bordered on genius because he was able to balance that task, receive his collaborators in his sitting room and talk with them about something completely different whilst his pen continued to fill the page with his famous scribbled, chicken-scratch handwriting.   

Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Opéra national de Paris, 2012
Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Opéra national de Paris, 2012 © Ian Patrick/OnP

Offenbach used only sixteen musicians at his first venue, the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, but that was only for the first ten works which had their debut performance in the theatre between June and December 1855. It was a reduced “Mozart-like” orchestra. Offenbach would soon be able to take advantage of a larger orchestra pit (after he moved to the Passage Choiseul in December 1855) which could accommodate some thirty instrumentalists. Generally, there are two major types of orchestration for Offenbach’s theatrical works. The first is described above and was used for almost all the works performed in France prior to 1874—together with a few subsequent pieces. Even so, the composer knew how to adapt to the means that different theatres offered him and he did not hesitate to expand his orchestra if he had the opportunity to do so. For more substantial works, like those composed for the Opéra-Comique, the ballets, and more particularly, the extravaganzas and other grand performances staged at the Théâtre de la Gaîté after 1874, Offenbach increased the size of the orchestra. He also did the same for the Viennese versions of most of his works. Did he not once declare that: “I write my music for Paris, but I hear it played in Vienna”?

To continue to claim that Offenbach only produced a single opera seria, The Tales of Hoffmann, at the end of his life as if to apologise for simply being the Second-Empire’s jester and entertainer is both the product of legend and calumny. To believe as much is to ignore Les Fées du Rhin, La Haine (the Victorien Sardou play for which he wrote the music), and Fantasio, not to mention other masterpieces that could not be any more serious. It is also to ignore everything that is scathingly funny in La Belle Hélène, deeply moving in La Périchole, and satirically cruel in La Grande-Duchesse… The legend persists but time marches on. A far more complex, unpredictable Offenbach than the one who amused our forebears is now making a major comeback and nothing seems to be able to stop him, much to the delight of us all.

Jean-Christophe Keck

Jean-Christophe Keck has overseen the monumental Offenbach Edition Keck (OEK Boosey & Hawkes) since 1999 and is regarded as the leading musicologist and specialist on the composer. As a conductor, he has performed and recorded numerous works. A producer at France Musique, he is currently the musical director of the Orchestre de Chambre des Hautes-Alpes, and the Châteaux de Bruniquel Opera Festival. The Festival de Radio France et Montpellier has debuted several of his edited works including Les Fées du Rhin (2003), La Haine (2009), and Fantasio (2015) for which he was also musical advisor.

Les Contes d'Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach
Under the baton of Philippe Jordan, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Ermonela Jaho, Kate Aldrich, Yann Beuron and Ramón Vargas , interpret the legendary airs of this work whose brilliant mystery will continue to dazzle opera houses for countless years to come.

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