Your RDA of Irony

Moulin Rogue

On this day–October 21–in 1858, Jacques Offenbach endeared himself to posterity, particularly cartoon animators and advertising agencies, by premiering this music.

Clique ici.

His Can Can music is one of the world’s most popular and exploited numbers. You have heard it accompany household cleansers and frantic Looney Tunes. And why not? His music is delightful and, more importantly, those studios and ad agencies don’t have to pay him a cent in royalties. When you have been dead for 128 years, you have very few legal rights. True, Offenbach would be a very rich man if he ever resurrected; but Offenbachs usually don’t. (Wrong theology.)

Offenbach would also be bewildered by the reason for his acclaim. He had never intentionally composed music for the Can Can. Tres ironique, n’est-ce pas? The music we most associate with the Can Can was actually written for the operetta “Orpheus in the Underworld.” The operetta is a comic retelling of the Orpheus myth that mirrored French society at the time. In this Gallic Olympus, Zeus is a likable rogue while Hera is respectable but humorless. (It was said that the Emperor Louis Napoleon was amused, but the Empress Eugenie was not.) At the operetta’s conclusion, the Gods merrily dance off to the Underworld to the musical accompaniment of a certain tune.

The Gods may have gone to Hell, and the Second Empire certainly did (courtesy of the Richard Wagner fan club), but Offenbach’s music stayed around. It became the melodies which we most associate with night life of Fin de Siecle Paris. There is no Can Can without Offenbach.

That would have been a problem for the collaborationist Vichy Government during World War II. While it would have had no qualms about transporting Offenbach himself to an unspecified location in Poland, his music was too popular to disappear. Furthermore, the German officers in Paris would expect to see the Can Can, and Vichy would hate to disappoint them. But the dance did require music.

So was the composer of the Can Can music suddenly anonymous or had Vichy belated discovered that Saint-Saens had written it? Offenbach probably wouldn’t have been surprised; he was familiar with French farce.

  1. Hal Gordon says:

    “Orpheus en l’Enfers” is normally translated, “Orpheus in the Underworld”, but it can also be rendered, “To Hell With Orpheus!”

    The Vichy government would not have had to transport Offenbach’s remains to Poland. It would have been much simpler to falsify his genealogy. The Nazis did just that with Johann Strauss, altering the records in St. Stephan’s Cathedral to conceal the fact that he had a Jewish ancestor — a grandmother, if memory serves.

  2. Dear Hal,

    Johan Strauss Sr. was completely Non-Aryan, although both his parents had converted to Holy Mother Church. However, the Nazis regarded Judaism as a matter of genes rather than dogma.

    As for Johan Strauss Jr., his third and favorite wife was Jewish.

    I wonder how the Nazis dealt with Mozart’s greatest librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. Was he made an honorary Aryan or did he disappear from the music sheets?


  1. There are no trackbacks for this post yet.

Leave a Reply