Few people know it, but in fact the composer with the French-sounding name Jacques Offenbach is “ene kölsche Jung”. He was born on June 20, 1819 – at that time still as Jakob at the Grosse Griechenmarkt in Cologne. His father was a cantor in the Cologne synagogue congregation in Glockengasse. Jakob was the seventh of ten children and was – like many of his siblings – musically gifted. His first cello and violin lessons were given to him by his father. His first public appearance seems to have been November 25, 1830, when he played with his siblings in a trio at Neumarkt to raise money for music lessons. Just the years later, his father set out for Paris with two of his children to give them a better musical education. The Paris Conservatory was actually not open to foreigners at the time, but the father had convincing letters of recommendation in his luggage and was also quite persistent. In 1833 Jacob was admitted and studied cello with Olive-Charlier Vaslin.
With the start of his musical career in Paris, Jacob also changed his name to Jacques. In 1835 he began as a cellist at the Opéra Comique, and from 1837 he also took composition lessons with Fromental Halévy. He enjoyed increasing success both as a composer and as a cello virtuoso. Offenbach experienced his breakthrough as a composer, especially as a composer of operettas, beginning in 1855. On the occasion of the World’s Fair in Paris, he opened the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, where he premiered countless of his operettas. His oeuvre includes 75 compositions for violoncello and as many as 102 stage works. Musical success was followed by social recognition: after receiving French citizenship in 1860, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor a year later. His fame waned, however, when the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870 – the French shunned him because of his German heritage. He took his family to safety in Spain and made concert tours – very successful – to Great Britain and the United States. After his return, he concentrated on the composition of “Tales of Hoffmann”. However, he was only able to complete the vocal scores – he died in 1880 during rehearsals for the opera, which could only be premiered posthumously.
In recent years, the Kölner Akademie has also been intensively involved with Offenbach’s artistic work. Thus, recordings of “Le Violoneux” (“The Magic Violin”) and “Le 66” (“The Two Savoyards”) have been made and will be released in August. In 1855, “The Magic Violin” was written, a story about young Peter who is to go to war. His only chance to avert this fate from himself is to appoint a deputy, which he cannot afford. His friend Rose asks her guardian, the violinist Martin, for help. The latter, whom Peter believes to be a magician because of his violin skills, will try to put in a good word for him when he plays again at the castle for the Fräuleins’ wedding. In a quiet moment when Rose realizes how much her beloved’s fate depends on her guardian’s violin, she kisses it. When Peter sees this, he smashes the violin. But this ends up being a stroke of luck, because in it is found the will of Rose’s father, which makes her a wealthy woman. Just one year later, the one-act play “Le 66” was performed at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens. In it, Offenbach depicts conditions in the French Empire with much satire and wit. Only after a reworking could the operetta also be successfully performed in Vienna.