The need for an authentic Offenbach


Originals instead of arrangements
Finding the right balance
Myths and legends
Offenbach’s way of composing
Singers or actors?
Orchestra size
The Paris and Vienna versions


How is one to qualify Offenbach’s music? It is indeed the product of a musical culture steeped in the admiration of Mozart and the French masters of the 18th century, that nevertheless also had its Rhinish roots and - to a large part - contributions of an entirely personal nature. Just as easily as Offenbach was able to compose in a strictly classicistic manner with plainly instrumented couplets reminiscent of Grétry, Philidor or Monsigny he was capable of expressing himself in a highly Romantic idiom full of inventive instrumentations and surprising harmonies. The contrast between these two "species" is characteristic for the third act of Les Contes d’Hoffmann (between the couplets of Franz and the romanza of Nicolas) but already surfaces in much of Offenbach’s earlier work.

Originals instead of arrangements

Hardly any other composer has had to endure such tampering-with of his works as Offenbach. His arrangers overlooked the fact that Offenbach was primarily a great man of the theatre. He knew how to tighten his often over-boarding manuscripts in order to create the remarkable balance found in his work. Cutting from these works or adding on music is to destroy their unity. On the one hand it is correct that the length of yesterday’s opéras-bouffes might not appeal anymore to today’s audiences. Experience shows here that the best solution (or at least the one that causes the least damage) is to shorten the dialogues and take out time-specific allusions that might have amused our great grandparents but seem largely foreign to us today. But let us stop with arbitrarily shortening arias and ensembles. Offenbach’s finali are often among the best parts of his scores. They are specifically and successfully paced to create the effect of a dramatic crescendo.

Offenbach’s orchestral scoring is full of details, elaborate counter-voices, minute interactions coloured by interjections of the woodwinds or brass, all of which establish a dialogue with the voices. His refinement of design equals that of Mozart or Rossini. If one ignores this aspect of his music one doesn’t understand and love it.

Finding the right balance

In search for a tempo many conductors frequently come to the conclusion that Offenbach’s music should be played fast and "bouncy". The result is an impression of superficiality. But this music is based on contrasts and change, varying from melancholia to slap-stick, from Romantic sentiments to irresistible dance music. It adds up to the question of the right balance. No other music has to endure such excess of all manner and kind than Offenbach’s - be it that it is conducted too heavily or too hysterically. True, Offenbach’s tempo indications are capriciously inaccurate. Just as with Mozart, ‘andante’ or ‘allegro’ mean very different things. Often a 2/2 beat is hidden in a 4/4 meter. There are two ways of finding out the exact intentions of the composer. First, there is a reference: the familiar performance practice as it is found in French recordings from the beginning of the 20th century or with the great French conductors who cared to pass on this tradition (Cluytens, Gressier, Cariven, Martignoni etc.). Secondly, there are the metronome markings in the original piano reductions. This is a much debated and contested issue. Some musicologists accept only the autograph and claim that metronome markings in printed piano reductions are not by Offenbach himself, and therefore worthless. I, for my part, am quite of the contrary opinion and believe that these markings can especially be of great interest since they originate from Offenbach’s assistants - Boulard, Salomon, Bazille etc. - who were in charge of the piano reductions and also did most of the correpetition rehearsals. The markings they made are based on the intentions of the composer, expressed during the production of his works. Furthermore, one should remember that according to French tradition the first edition of the piano score should precisely correspond to what was heard on the evening of the premiere. Even though Offenbach complained about the inability of piano scores to indicate precise instrumentation, he nevertheless followed their publication closely. Here his last intentions were taken into account and if the editor had proceeded too hastily with mounting the plates Offenbach often insisted that a supplement be added indicating any last-minute changes. This way the performance material reflects his intentions much closer than the manuscript.

Myths and legends

Among the most persistent myths is the one that Offenbach did not orchestrate his scores himself, that only about ten players performed them, that the singers of Offenbach’s music were largely talented actors with next to no vocal abilities, or that Offenbach’s instrumentation resembles that of circus music (with much brass and percussion). The fact is that Offenbach did orchestrate all of his scores himself, with the exception of two posthumous works: Belle Lurette (completed by his friend Léo Delibes, and Les Contes d’Hoffmann, completed by Auguste Bazille and Ernest Guiraud. If Offenbach did from time to time submit a few new instrumentations to Maurand (the director of the copying office at Bouffes-Parisiens) it simply concerned extending the orchestra size based on the original instrumentation.

Offenbach’s way of composing

While reading a new libretto Offenbach would often initially scribble numerous melodies into large notebooks that he fiercely held on to. Some barely legible sketches to La Haine were even written in his horse carriage, which was equipped with a writing desk. Notes on the text or on the music were frequently written straight into the manuscript of his librettist. Offenbach then wrote out the vocal part on music paper with a piano score underneath it. Occasionally he would enter specifications about instrumentation. Once an actual performance venue and time were confirmed Offenbach proceeded with the full orchestration of his score. To save time he used a system of signs that could easily be understood.

Singers or actors?

If Offenbach’s vocal parts were not demanding why then would Berthelier (a member of the ensemble of the Opéra-Comique) have been chosen to play one of the characters in the premiere of Les Deux Aveugles, why would Dupuis and Bouffard in Les Braconniers have been assigned their hair-raising passages, and why, most of all, would Camille Saint-Saëns have insisted on casting the famous Hortense Schneider for the title role of Dalila ? I suppose one has to remain modest when looking at an Offenbach score. It is essential to respect the score as much as possible, to attend to every detail and resist all inclinations to caricature its contents. If one stresses the slap-stick aspect too much one becomes banal.
Offenbach’s music is entirely the music of his century and should be performed with the same lightness as that of Auber and Adam, and equally with the same Romantic zest as that of Gounod or Bizet. This is about traditions of interpretation that must be respected. It would make no sense to strive to garner the arias of Orphée aux Enfers with Baroque ornamentation or to produce an "old" orchestra sound just because Offenbach quotes a phrase from Gluck or takes off on a theme that was well-known to composers from the 18th century.

Orchestra size

The minimum size of Offenbach’s first pit orchestra at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens was sixteen musicians. This was the case only for his very first works.
We are aware of this thanks to an article by Jules Lovy (in Le Ménstrel from November 4th, 1855). Furthermore, the autograph of Une nuit blanche (premiered on the occasion of the inauguration of the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens on July 5, 1855) provides exact information on the size of the orchestra: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, piston, trombone, timpani and percussion and a small string section comprised of seven players. The first works written for this ensemble are Entrez, Messieurs, Mesdames; Une nuit blanche; Les Deux Aveugles; Arlequin barbier; Le Rêve d’une nuit d’été; Pierrot Clown; Le Violoneux; Polichinelle dans le monde; Madame Papillon and Paimpol et Périnette. As can be gathered from the autographs Offenbach quickly expanded the orchestra for his successful Les Deux Aveugles and Le Violoneux to a reduced Mozart-size ensemble. Shortly after transferring with his theatre to the Passage Choiseul he had thirty musicians at his disposal. This number is indicated in the article by Lovy (mentioned above) and is confirmed by an administrative document from 1860 that contains the list of stands in Offenbach’s orchestra.

The Paris and Vienna versions

There are generally two distinctions to be observed in the orchestration of Offenbach’s stage works. The first formation consists of two flutes (the second one doubling on piccolo or even both on piccolo, as in the choir of hell in Orphée aux Enfers), one oboe, two clarinets, one bassoon, two French horns, two pistons, one trombone, timpani and percussion (played mostly by the same musician), and as many strings as allowed for by the size of the orchestra pit. This type of orchestration is valid for nearly all of Offenbach’s works written in France before 1874 as well as for a few works written after that year. The first version of Orphée aux Enfers (1858) belongs to that category. However, the composer preferred to use the full potential of different theatres and did not hesitate to change his orchestrations if an opportunity presented itself. So much can be concluded from reading a score of Orphée found in the copying office of the Bouffes-Parisiens, which adds two trombones. It is possible that they were added on the occasion of the famous repeat performances in 1862.

Offenbach extended his orchestration in more elaborate works for the Opéra-Comique, the ballets, and especially the "Féeries" (magical operas) as well as other opulent productions programmed after 1872 at the Théâtre de la Gaîté. In addition to a larger number of strings he added a second oboe and second bassoon, two additional French horns (even though Offenbach often used merely two horns, especially at the Théâtre de la Gaîté), two additional trombones and a second set of percussion. Occasionally a third flute was added (Fées du Rhin), an English horn (Robinson Crusoé), one or more harps (Fées du Rhin, Fantasio), an ophicleide (Le Papillon), orchestral chimes (Le Carnaval des Revues), or a wind machine (Le Voyage dans la Lune). The same holds true for the Viennese versions of most of his works. A persistent legend has carried the false notion that Offenbach had no control over the Viennese performances of his works and that his scores were arranged and adapted to suit each theatre by anonymous editors.

Leaving aside the instrumentations, that quite clearly bear the mark of Carl Binder, recent research has shown, that most of the Viennese scores were written by Offenbach himself. Such lavish set-ups were of particular pleasure to the master. Did he not once declare that he would only go to Vienna to listen to his music under the very best of circumstances...?

A rich instrumentation must not necessarily mean increased gravity. And it does not necessarily hold true that the interpretation of a work suffers from expansion of an orchestra by twenty musicians. It is finally up to the conductor to take advantage of this profit and to combine lightness and greatness in a lucky stroke.

© Jean-Christophe Keck. Any use outside of the tight borders outside of ownership law is prohibited without the consent of the author.


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Piano-vocal score (French)
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