Born in Guebwiller in Alsace in 1821, Jean-Baptiste Wekerlin (or Weckerlin – both spellings are found, and are equally correct) ‘decamped’ from home at age twenty-one, found his way to Paris, and gained admission to the Conservatoire, where he studied harmony with Elwart and counterpoint with Halévy.
Like so many young composers he hoped to make his name in the theatre, and made a modest start with an opéra-comique, L’Organiste dans l’embarras (37 performances – not the ‘more than 100’ so often claimed – at the Théâtre-Lyrique in 1853). Thereafter he found the conservative and clique-dominated Opéra and Opéra-Comique closing their doors against him, so that, somewhat ironically, his most applauded work was Die dreyfach Hochzitt im Bäsethal, written in Alsacien dialect and presented in Colmar in 1863. He also turned to writing salon operas for performance either privately or as the second half of a vocal recital. Of more than twenty such works, the most successful and certainly one of the most charming was La Laitière de Trianon, given at the first of Rossini’s ‘Saturday-night soirées’ in 1858. Known also as co-director of the Société de Sainte-Cécile (1850-1855) and as archivist of the Société des Compositeurs de Musique (from 1863), in 1869 he became assistant librarian and in 1876 librarian at the Paris Conservatoire.
Wekerlin’s compositions cover many genres: works for orchestra and for voices and orchestra (La mort de Roland, 1847; Les poëmes de la mer, 1860; Symphonie de la Forêt, 1874), oratorios and other sacred works (Samson, 1890), and over 300 songs. He was also a collector and editor of earlier French vocal music, his most widely-known collections being Echos du temps passé (1853-1855) and Bergerettes, Romances et Chansons du XVIII.e Siècle (1894).
Retiring from his post at the Conservatoire in 1909, he returned to Guebwiller, where he died in 1910.