Making Jacques Offenbach your musical idol is an amusing thing. Not because it’s laughable but because the French composer had such a way with satirizing politics and confusing the general public that he remained the quintessential antihero of classical music for a time. His main vehicle for his ideas was the operetta, and boy did he ever have the flamboyant knack for laying absurdity bare within these works. “Orphée aux enfers”, “La belle Hélène”, “La vie parisienne”, “La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein” and “La Périchole” have all left their own indelible mark and his critics were not shy when sharing their lack of understanding. Looking at the various things Debussy had to say about him over the years, it’s difficult to tell if he truly admired Offenbach’s work or if he was just tolerating his eccentricities to strengthen people’s understanding of the oddball arts.
Although Offenbach’s operettas haven’t infiltrated classical music samplers for people who hate classical music, there are those who still carry a torch for him. For these people, the beauty of the music and the jokiness of the context will forever be intertwined. Clarinetist Gianluigi Trovesi, accordionist Gianni Coscia and author Umberto Eco are three people whose nostalgia of Offenbach runs deep. In Eco’s liner notes for Frère Jacques: Round about Offenbach, he recalls hearing a theme over the radio and remains obsessively convinced that it is a Jacques Offenbach piece that he would never encounter ever again. Of course, the story has more to it than that and I myself needed one hell of a professor-mandated study guide to read The Name of the Rose back in college (upon learning that Umberto Eco wrote the liner notes, I was reminded of Thomas Pynchon doing the same for Lotion).
But even if you know nothing about Jacques Offenbach or his many operettas, you will still enjoy Frère Jacques: Round About Offenbach, Trovesi and Coscia’s delicately executed tribute to the French composer who wanted to, above all, entertain. Given just the right non-production touch of one Manfred Eicher, there is hardly a wasted note. Trovesi and Coscia have played together before, and they have over a hundred years of musical experience combined. But their loving renditions of Offenbach’s miniatures rise above mere professionalism. True, these tracks were written with a visual component in mind. But Frère Jacques: Round about Offenbach is just so downright great that it could qualify as what the screenwriters for Fantasia would call “absolute music.”
As immaculate as this all may sound, just know that the tongue doesn’t leave the cheek entirely. For instance, the conclusion of the second track “Ah! que les hommes sont bêtes / Mon Dieu, mon Dieu” makes sure that the harmony never resolves. Trovesi’s clarinet ends the melody on the seventh note of the scale while Coscia plays the dominant chord underneath. I know people whose skin would crawl at the sound of such a tease. The likes of “Piff, paff, pouff / La Duchessa nei caraibi” and “Tangoffenbach” have that busy street corner playfulness of a grinder monkey getting into shenanigans. The transition of graceless waltz to hall town sleaze in “Sei Italiano? / No! je suis Brésilien” only reminds us how Offenbach likely treated people’s expectations like it was a plaything. And “Dedicated to Hélène and her little birds”...how exactly do I type that sound you make when you kiss your fingers then gently fling them forward?
With 19 tracks clocking in at 74 minutes, Frère Jacques: Round About Offenbach is one generous masterstroke. It also shines a soft spotlight on a man who did quite a few things that would almost make any other composer become forgotten. But thanks to Gianluigi Trovesi, Gianni Coscia and Manfred Eicher, the layperson has a place to come roost when becoming indoctrinated with this strange man’s works. I invite you to do so, and stay as long as you like.