Les Contes d'Hoffmann : Work information

Jacques Offenbach ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
France Clidat (Piano), Arthur Rother (Conductor)

This work

Work name
Les Contes d'Hoffmann
Work number
1880-01-01 02:01:00

This recording

Forlane CI
Recording date
1948-01-01 00:00:00

Track listing

  • Malheruex Tu ne comprends donc pas - O Dieu de quelle ivresse 2:46 min


Based on an 1851 play in which E.T.A Hoffman is portrayed as a participant in his own stories, Offenbach's last opera Les Contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) was still in rehearsal when the composer died. Although mostly complete, Ernest Guiraud was brought in to finish the job, and several crucial changes were made before the first performance on 10th February 199. In recent years, efforts have been made to restore the opera to its original state.

Offenbach, acknowledged as a master of frivolous operas bouffes, regarded the work as his last chance to establish a reputation as the composer of serious opera, though there are many lighter moments. The opera unfortunately gained an 'unlucky' tag when it was associated with two opera house fires in the 1880s.

The plot shows the spiritual and moral decline of Hoffmann through three successive loves, framed by a prologue and epilogue. Hoffmann narrates the story while waiting for his latest love, Stella, who turns out to be a combination of all three. Popular extracts include the famous Barcarolle, Belle nuit, o nuit d'amour (Fair night, o night of love) heard in numerous instrumental arrangements, and Il etait une fois a la cour d'Eisenach (Once upon a time in the court of Eisenach). 

The Composers

Jacques Offenbach

Jacques Offenbach (20 June 1819, in Cologne – 5 October 1880, in Paris) was a German-born French composer and cellist of the Romantic era and one of the originators of the operetta form. Of German-Jewish descent, he was one of the most influential composers of popular music in Europe in the 19th century, and many of his works remain in the repertory.

Offenbach's numerous operettas, such as Orpheus in the Underworld, and La belle Hélène, were extremely popular in both France and the English-speaking world in the 1850s and 1860s. They combined political and cultural satire with witty grand opera parodies. His popularity in France waned in the 1870s after the fall of the Second Empire, and he fled France, but during the last years of his life, his popularity rebounded, and several of his operettas are still performed. While his name remains most closely associated with the French operetta and the Second Empire, it is Offenbach's one fully operatic masterpiece, Les contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann), composed at the end of his career, that has become the most familiar of Offenbach's works in major opera houses.

Offenbach's father, born Isaac Eberst in Offenbach am Main around 1780, changed his name to Offenbach when he settled down in Deutz in 1802. He was a man of many talents who worked as a bookbinder, translator, publisher, music teacher and composer and became a cantor some 30 years later. In 1816 the family moved to Cologne, where his son Jacob (later changed to Jacques) was born in 1819.

In 1833 his father took Jacob to Paris and managed to get him admitted as a cello student to the Paris Conservatoire. Financial difficulties forced Jacques, as he was known by then, to break off his studies at the end of 1834. After a few odd jobs he eventually found a position as a cellist in the orchestra of the Opéra Comique. He soon made a name for himself as a cello virtuoso, appearing with famous pianists like the young Anton Rubinstein, Liszt, Mendelssohn, and, very often, with Flotow with whom he performed jointly composed pieces. In 1844, he converted to Catholicism and married Herminie d'Alcain. He moved to Germany with his wife and daughter in 1848 (the couple eventually had four daughters) to escape revolutionary violence in France, but returned after a brief stay.

In 1850, he became conductor of the Théâtre Français, but the musical theatre establishment in Paris did not immediately accept his sometimes pointed songs and music. Therefore, in 1855, he rented for the Expo season a little theatre on the Champs-Élysées and named it the Bouffes Parisiens. In the following winter he moved the Bouffes to a larger and, above all, heatable theatre on rue Monsigny/Passage Choiseul. There he began a successful career devoted largely to composing operettas. In the early years, Offenbach's permit limited his productions to one-act works with only a few speaking or singing characters. Les deux aveugles, Ba-ta-clan (both premiering in 1855), and La bonne d'enfant were three of his popular works from this period. Only in 1858, after these restrictions had been lifted, it became possible for him to produce his first full-length work, Orpheus in the Underworld.

Offenbach wrote almost 100 operettas, some of which were wildly popular in his time, and his most popular works are still performed regularly today. The best of these works combined hilarious political and cultural satire with witty grand opera parodies. His best-known operettas in the English-speaking world are Orpheus in the Underworld (1858), La belle Hélène (1864), La vie parisienne (1866), The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein (1867), and La Périchole (1868). Les Brigands (1869) was very popular in the English-speaking world initially but was later forgotten.

Offenbach worked with the librettists Meilhac and Halévy more often than any other librettist or team and produced some of his most successful works with them. He said of his relationship with the team: Je suis sans doute le Père, chacun des deux autres est à la fois mon Fils et Plein d'Esprit (literally "No doubt I am the Father; each of the two others is at once my Son and Full of Verve"— esprit meaning both  Spirit and wit and Plein d'Esprit rhyming with Saint Esprit).