Orpheus in the London-world : Happy Birthday Offenbach

Yesterday saw the 200th anniversary of the birth of Jacques Offenbach. As regular readers will know, MusiCB3 has been celebrating Offenbach’s anniversary month with an exhibition in the Anderson Room, and with Susi’s blog post earlier this month. For this week’s ‘birthday’ post, I thought it might be interesting to look at what Offenbach-related music was arriving in the UL during his Parisian heyday. Most of my finds were from the Victorian sheet music collection, and had arrived under the legal deposit act. This gave my finds a rather London-y feel, and I started wondering about London equivalents to Offenbach’s own Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens – where was Offenbach fitting in in London?

Offenbach had petitioned for a license for the Bouffes-Parisiens theatre in Paris in 1855, in order to create a space dedicated to the performance of his ‘opera bouffe’. Offenbach also intended to create a distinct niche for this genre of comic operetta, and encourage composers to write for it – in 1856, a competition was held to write a work for the Bouffes-Parisien, which was jointly won by Bizet and Lecocq for their respective settings of Le Docteur Miracle

The Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens in Paris, 1867. Wikimedia Commons.

“This is a theatre where may be seen amusing operettas, and often very ludicrous comic operas. Offenbach was for a time its director, but the composer who has given pleasure to so many gained here more honour and glory than pecuniary recompense for his labours.”

So wrote Charles Dickens Jr (the novelist’s eldest son) of the Bouffes-Parisiens, in his Dictionary of Paris, published in 1882. As Dickens suggested, the Bouffes-Parisiens under Offenbach’s direction had been popular with audiences, but struggled financially, and in 1857 a season performing at the St James’s Theatre in London was organised for the company, in an attempt to swell the coffers. Whilst the season was successful, London didn’t take to Offenbach’s music in the same way that it would in later years.

Thirty years before Dickens’s Dictionary of Paris was published, his father had employed a young journalist named John Hollingshead to write for Household Words, and later All The Year Round. Hollingshead took up theatre management later in his career, eventually establishing the Gaiety Theatre as a venue for operetta, musical burlesques, and opéra bouffe. In his article “How Offenbach Conquered London” Andrew Lamb suggests that the growing popularity of Offenbach’s music in London was cemented by Hollingshead’s productions at the Gaiety, that it was here “that the operettas really found a regular home in English versions” [Lamb, Andrew. ‘How Offenbach Conquered London’, in Opera, November 1969].

It was around this time that more Offenbach started coming in to the UL via legal deposit, with English versions galore – one of the names appearing most often as the lyricist of an English version of an Offenbach song was H.B. Farnie.



The commodore : nautical opera in three acts (A1887.1048).

Images such as the one for the ‘Nautical opera’ above make it easy to imagine how important an influence Offenbach and his Parisian operetta had on what later came to seem like a very English tradition – the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. It was Hollingshead, during his time as director of the Gaiety (the aforementioned ‘home’ of Offenbach in English), who brought Sullivan and Gilbert together for their first collaboration, Thespis. Their second collaboration, Trial by Jury, was written as a companion piece to Offenbach’s La Périchole. Gilbert, like Farnie, tried his hand at adapting English language versions of Offenbach’s opera bouffes, translating Les Brigands from the original French libretto by Meilhac and Halévy. Echos of Les Brigands, with its crowd of thieves forever eluding capture by useless policemen, can be heard later in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.


Florella Polka : from Offenbach’s opera “The Brigands” (A1890.1199)

The Victorian sheet music has many more items of Offenbachian interest to offer, but this post has already become rather ramble-y, so they will have to make an appearance on MusiCB3 another time. For now, happy birthday Offenbach!




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