Word, Image and Performance in France and Belgium, c. 1830–1910
Edited By Claire Moran
Part I Cultures of Performance in the Nineteenth Century
Laurence Senelick The Of fenbach Century In 1954, an American husband-and-wife team published a short biogra- phy of Jacques Of fenbach entitled Cancan and Barcarolle. That summed up and continues to sum up the general impression of the composer. The cancan, made familiar by the ballet suite Gaïté Parisienne and movie por- trayals of the Moulin Rouge in the 1890s, is an aural cliché, suggestive of French naughtiness. And the barcarolle is exploited as a lush and languor- ous background for romantic scenes in films and even commercials, the musical equivalent of melted chocolate. Cancan, French for gossip, is a misnomer for le chahut, a high-kicking frolic made popular in working-class Parisian dance-halls in the 1840s. In actuality, Of fenbach’s ‘cancan’ is a galop, a lively dance of Hungarian origin. He employed it in the grand finale of Orphée aux enfers (1858), in contrast to a staid minuet, as an exuberant bacchanal to mock the gods of Olympus and the neoclassical traditions of French culture. As for the barcarolle, technically a gondolier’s song, it bookends the Venice act of Of fenbach’s unfinished opera Les Contes de Hof fmann (1881). In context, its melodic dreaminess brackets a cynical intrigue of jealousy, betrayal and murder. The hackneyed recycling of these musical passages promotes the impression that Of fenbach is all champagne and puf f pastry. Similar cli- chés circulated in his lifetime. Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des idées reçues defines him as ‘Very Parisian, good form [bien porté]’.1...
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