Like an Unfinished Puzzle, The Tales of Hoffmann Opera was Incomplete when Composer Offenbach Died

Although known as a composer of operettas – he wrote nearly 100 of them – Jacques Offenbach’s best known work is a full-scale opera, The Tales of Hoffmann. Built around the writings of German author E.T.A. Hoffmann, the opera has become one of opera’s premiere works.

Composer Jacques Offenbach photographed by Nadar in the 1860s (left), and a self portrait by author and artist E.T.A. Hoffmann (right).

Offenbach, though, never got a chance to hear it performed. The work was incomplete when Offenbach died in October 1880. When he died, Offenbach had completed the prologue and the first two acts in versions for piano. He also had orchestrated the prologue and first act.

How, then, did this interrupted work-in-progress become the full-length (prologue, three acts and epilogue) piece that Opera Tampa will present Feb. 11-13?

Appropriation, repurposing and some best-guess additions.

Composer Ernest Guiraud wrote the recitatives and connecting music. He had recently performed the same service for Bizet’s Carmen. The “Barcarolle,” the most famous piece of music from Hoffmann, was lifted from an earlier Offenbach work – a not unusual practice even for composers who don’t die before their work is finished.

“Reusing music is standard – Puccini did it, Rossini did it, everyone did it,” said Maestro Jorge Parodi, who will conduct Opera Tampa’s performances of The Tales of Hoffmann. “To reuse good ideas from something else, that’s a very normal thing to do.”

It turns out that composers dying and leaving unfinished works is, well, not normal exactly, but not unusual.

Mozart’s Requiem, Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique and Mahler’s 10th Symphony all were incomplete at the time of each composer’s death.

Besides Hoffmann, Parodi said, the most famous unfinished work is Puccini’s Turandot, which includes “Nessun Dorma” (the piece Aretha Franklin knocked outta the park at the 1998 Grammy® Awards).

So, if a work is completed after the composer’s death, how do we know that the version being presented is what the composer intended? In most cases, and certainly in the case of Hoffmann, we don’t.

“We cannot know what he wanted to use,” Parodi said. “We don’t know exactly what music he had in mind to finish it with. And the only thing we have for sure is (Jules Barbier’s) libretto.”

A scene from the original production of Hoffmann at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1881.

We know there is no lack of music for the opera.

“We know he wrote a lot of music for the piece,” Parodi said, noting that there have been two separate discoveries of music written by Offenbach for Hoffmann, but with no corresponding directions as to how Offenbach saw it being used.

“We don’t know exactly what music he had in mind to finish it with,” Parodi said. Given that and the fact that there is a great deal of unused Hoffmann music, could it be that Hoffmann will be reconfigured and re-staged for audiences of the future?

“In a way, the possibilities are endless,” said Parodi.

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