Offenbach, Dylan and the timeless lesson of perseverance

Jacques Offenbach, a French-German music composer who died 140 years ago, is back in vogue this year.

During his life he wrote almost 100 operettas — a form of musical theatre bridging the gap between the classic operas (Mozart) and modern musical theatre (Andrew Lloyd Webber).

Operetta were seen as popular, with no grand ambitions and just a few singers or actors, shorter than the epic operas, and designed expressly to entertain the public for a few francs. (There are claims that Mozart was the first to use the term “operetta” — literally, “little opera” — and it doesn’t look like he was using it as a term of endearment.)

Johann Strauss was another composer who worked a lot in the style, but Offenbach became the main player: he opened the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens in Paris in 1855, and produced operettas there for the next 20 years or so.

Music is serious business, so he had to apply for a license for his new musical theatre. The license came with strict conditions: he could stage only one-act comedies, with or without music, with fewer than five characters. He was compelled to stage works from other composers and satirical sketches were forbidden.

Why this rabbit-hole down 19th century French music history?

A couple of reasons.

  1. Bob Dylan’s new song “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” is based almost entirely on “Barcarolle” from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman 
  2. Last week I rewatched Life is Beautiful, or La Vita E Bella for the first time with my kids. It’s one of a small number of movies I saw twice in the cinema, and “Barcarolle” is a centrepiece: first in the theatre as Guido tries to win over Dora, and later in the concentration camp, when Guido plays the same tune over the loudspeakers as a coded message to his wife.

Offenbach died before The Tales of Hoffman was complete, four months before it was premiered in the theatre.

He is remembered now almost exclusively for this and especially “Barcarolle”. His greatest work came after decades of tireless work.

Dylan’s Offenbach tribute also comes at the end of his career. He will be 80 next year, has released 39 albums in 58 years (his new release may well be his last) and he has crafted a beautiful tribute to someone who paved the way long before his time.

We can all learn from all of that, I think.