Why and to what end an Offenbach edition?


Beyond the Offenbachiade
Concert and Chamber Music

The most important goal of Offenbach-research is the production of a reliable edition that can serve as a representative basis for his work. All approaches to that aim, i.e. analytical, philological, historical and social, or biographical questions can only be legitimate when it is based on the actual preserved works. If, however, during the process of research on a score it is discovered that authorship has been tampered with through unrestricted intervention, and if, furthermore, the history of that score is unclear then the whole oeuvre degenerates to form a diffuse mass lacking inner structure and intellectual legitimization. But only inner structure (in the sense of conceptual clarity) and intellectual legitimization (in the sense of establishing relevance beyond the time of the work’s genesis) can turn the legacy of a composer into "cultural heritage" which, briefly defined, provides worthy and creative answers to the perennial questions of human existence.

The so-called Offenbachiades, i.e. the satirical and socially critical music theatre of Offenbach’s pen, comprise the hard core of musical theatre as such, with about a dozen pieces dating from 1855 to 1869 (from Ba-Ta-Clan, Orphée aux Enfers, La Belle Hélène, Barbe-Bleue, La Vie parisienne, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, La Périchole etc., to Les Brigands). They embody musical-dramatic innovation in France during the middle of the 19th century. They are the culmination of 200 years of French Opéra-comique and at the same time the point of departure for the entertaining music theatre in Austria (the Viennese operetta), in England (the Savoy opera) and in America (from the classical musical to the "American opera" of Kurt Weill).

The Offenbachiade is the only truly new musico-dramatic development in European opera of the second half of the 19th century next to Wagner’s Musikdrama with which it holds ties in a complex manner just as it does with certain tendencies in Verdi’s work.
Considering the music historical significance, the musical value and theatrical effectiveness of Offenbach’s "Opéra-bouffe" it is so much more astonishing that the basic preconditions for its contemporary presence on the stage have still not been provided for. I would therefore like to repeat here what I have written elsewhere: "It must be sought after that scholarly certified score texts of Offenbach’s principal works are published... Only then will musicology have the material at hand to competently evaluate Offenbach’s significance. Otherwise his work will continue to be marginalized as a smiled-upon side-kick. Only a certified text will enable conductors and production designers to create authentic music theatre à la Offenbach that truly moves and impassions the spectator. Indeed, nothing serious can be produced with third or fourth hand versions and producers will be rightfully reluctant to take on such material!" And I added: "The conscience of our publishers must hence be sharpened and equally that of the laudable Bote & Bock in Berlin which has in its function as German publisher of Offenbach’s works archived the complete performance materials of his works..."

It is highly appreciated that this very publisher has now begun to tackle the above- mentioned challenge in collaboration with the worldwide distributor Boosey & Hawkes. To clarify once more: only a reliable edition can guarantee the establishment of the presence of Offenbach’s works.

Beyond the Offenbachiade

The Offenbachiade is but a segment within the complete works of this composer, if a truly supreme one. An edition such as the OEK wants to go even further: in making yet more works available it wants to stimulate the appetite, saying: "Look here, this exists too. Wouldn’t you like to…"

This would enable the domain of research to:
- show to what small degree - contrary to popular conception - Les Contes d’Hoffmann actually is isolated within the complete works of Offenbach, by furthering the knowledge of the other operas (from Fées du Rhin to Fantasio);
- clarify through increased knowledge of Offenbach’s Opéras-comiques written after the war of 1870/71 (from La Jolie parfumeuse, Madame Favart, La Fille du tambour-major to Belle Lurette), that contrary to the commonly flippant use of "operetta", this genre in fact became the "modern comical opera" (after its end);
- furthering the knowledge of the Féerie-works (such as Le Roi Carotte or Le Voyage dans la lune) and thereby gaining insights into the lines of tradition within the "operetta"-genre in France up until its late forms after the Second World War;
- learning about the creative process, work interpretation, and varying expectations of the public by comparing various versions of well-known and lesser-known works. For the theatre this means:
- the availability of first-rate music for the stage off the trodden paths and of excellent quality, therefore minimizing risks for any producer or director. Besides the works mentioned above this also applies to the "semi-Offenbachiades", such as Madame l’Archiduc or the tuneful short Les Bavards and Coscoletto or the larger Les Bergers.
- access to a wealth of single-act works for smaller stages, cellar theatres, and the free arts scene, which all produce maximum effect with modest means, be it in the realm of slap-stick (Les Deux Aveugles) or in that of the exciting and playful (Monsieur Choufleuri restera chez lui le...).

Concert and Chamber Music

One shouldn’t always just talk of Offenbach’s theatre music, even if this may comprise the largest part of his work. Exciting and stimulating evenings can be put together with his Lieder and chamber music works (e.g. the cello-duets), as was shown over the recent years. A brilliantly written and orchestrated work such as the Schoolboy-Polka is a gem on any New Year’s concert. The two concerti for cello or the Overture for Large Orchestra will be pleasant surprises in any orchestra concert, not to mention the fact that no cellist today can afford to ignore Offenbach anymore.

I’m aware of the fact that the source and manuscript situation in Offenbach’s case is tricky: where is the autograph? Which version is the last one authorized by Offenbach? For many works some questions will forever remain unanswered. But thanks to the comprehensive collaboration of a French editor-in-chief with a German publisher under British distribution and an international panel of experts a warrant for a superior evaluation of the material in the present volumes has been provided for. Were one to wait for the moment of complete availability of the sources, one would have to wait until the end of time. I still remember an encouraging word by Professor Ernst Märzendorfer at the meeting of experts in Frankfurt/Main on research and editing questions in 1997. It was addressed to the musicologists, archivists, and publisher representatives present: "Get started!"

June 2001 © Peter Hawig. Any use outside of the tight borders outside of ownership law is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Peter Hawig is a longtime research staff member of the German Offenbach-Society in Bad Ems. He is also the editor of a 1999 anthology of essential topics pertinent to Offenbach editions.


Monsieur Choufleuri restera chez lui
Piano-vocal score (French)
88pp, paperback


Introduction, Prière et Boléro
Camille Thomas, cello / Orchestre National de Lille / Alexandre Bloch
DG 47975205