The Father of Musicals
Jacques Offenbach, "Barcarolle" from The Tales of Hoffman
Moonlight glittering on the canals of Venice—that image encapsulates the barcarole: songs sung by gondoliers as they pole patrons up and down the canals. The barcarole of Offenbach, from the second act of his opera The Tales of Hoffman, is considered the most beautiful, perhaps the perfect, barcarole. The melody is hauntingly beautiful. Though many productions cast a young man and young woman singing together, this love duet was originally intended for two sopranos. It seems that Paris, the city where Offenbach lived and composed, has always championed every matter of the heart.
Jacques Offenbach (20 June 1819 - 5 October 1880) was born 197 years ago today in Germany, the son of a synagogue cantor. He showed great musical promise as a child, and at the age of 14 he was accepted as a student at the Paris Conservatory. For most of the rest of his life, he lived in France. He achieved international acclaim as a cellist and conductor: but his dream was to write light, comic works for musical theatre (today sometimes called operettas, but which are, in fact, the equivalent of musicals). No one would stage them, so he rented a hall and staged them himself to quick acclaim. By doing this, he is considered the father of the musical.
Nietzsche's famous quote "moments of wanton perfection" was written in tribute to Offenbach, who, he said, achieved five—sometimes six—such moments per operetta/musical. The "Barcarole" alone contains at least that many perfect moments, including the shimmering opening that builds excitement and anticipation; the strumming of the harp just before the voices; the moments when the Gondolier and chorus join in; the wordless notes of the sopranos at the end; and the final, prayer-like finish from the chorus.
Here is a link to Dame Joan Sutherland and Huguette Tourangeau singing Offenbach's "Barcarole," with Richard Bonynge briefly as the gondolier; Paul Guigue conducts L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, with the Chorus Pro Arte Lausanne Du Brassus and the Radio Suisse Romande Chorus:
Critics, commenting when Offenbach died, thought that his music would soon be forgotten. How wrong they were.
The "Barcarole" has been transcribed for orchestra and for many different solo instruments, including the piano. I used to play an arrangement of the "Barcarole" on the piano; it is a piece I want to get back in my fingers.
No birthday of Offenbach should pass without mention of his "Can-Can." Does anyone not know this song? Ascetics in their caves must know it. It is from Offenbach's hugely popular operetta/musical Orpheus in the Underworld. Here is a link to an exuberant recording from the album Offenbach: Can-Can and Other Favorites; Cesare Cantieri conducts the London Festival Orchestra:
I photographed, "A Time to Dance," the flowers, above, at Temple Square in Salt Lake City (April 2006); the title of the photograph is from Ecclesiastes 3:4 (KJV): "A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance."