You may know him largely for one carol and a popular ballet but, says Christopher Cook, there’s much more to the French composer, Adolphe Adam
Who is the composer Adolphe Adam?
If not a footnote to the history of early-19th-century French music, Adolphe Adam is often little more than a brief parenthesis. Yet this is the composer who bequeathed us Giselle, a definitive Romantic ballet which remains in the repertoire of any self-respecting classical dance company. Then there is Cantique de Noël, a much-loved carol which we sing as ‘O Holy Night’, and Le postillon de Lonjumeau, a comic opera that seems to be edging its way out of the wings again.
How unjust, you may think, to a composer who wrote over 50 operas, including Lambert Simnel and a Bonaparte one-acter Joséphine, or the Return from Wagram, as well as a clutch of other ballets including his final score, Le Corsaire, which continues to offer male dancers the chance to leap their hearts out. Adam was also at the heart of Parisian musical life for nearly a quarter of a century. His music is graceful and always fit for purpose, if sometimes too manicured for some tastes.
In one sense Adam is the quintessential French Romantic composer, yet when you look and listen closely you understand also that this is an artist who allows the tenor of his own confusing political times to seep into his work. Twice his career was interrupted by revolution: the so-called July Revolution of 1830, when after three days of violent protest Charles X, the last Bourbon king of France, was sent off on his travels; and then 18 years later, when Charles’s successor Louis Philippe was overthrown and another Napoleon took charge. On both occasions, Adam slipped across the Channel, staying for three years in the 1830s in London, where his brother-in-law François Laporte was musical director at Covent Garden. Inevitably, the issues that whirled through French politics in the first half of the 19th century – liberty, class and freedom; gender, too, perhaps – find their way into Adam’s work.
When and where was Adolphe Adam born?
Adolphe Adam was born in Paris on 24 July in 1803. His father, christened Ludwig, was from Alsace and settled in Paris where he changed his name to Louis. A composer too, he taught at the Paris Conservatoire.
When did Adolphe Adam enter the Paris Conservatoire?
At the age of 18, in 1821, Adolphe himself was admitted to the Conservatoire, where he studied organ and harmonium and played the triangle in the Conservatoire orchestra. More importantly for his career, he studied with the composer François-Adrien Boïeldieu, whose music Berlioz said had ‘a pleasing and tasteful Parisian elegance’.
When Adolphe failed to win the Prix de Rome, the greatest prize for any French music student, Adam père was unhappy about his son embarking on a musical career. Not to be discouraged, Adolphe began writing songs for Parisian theatres and playing in the orchestra at the Gymnasie Dramatique, later becoming its chorus master.
In 1825, he helped Boïeldieu prepare parts for La dame blanche, also making a piano reduction of the score. The opera was a triumph and Adam, scarcely out of his teens, was associated with a hit.
When did Adolphe Adam compose 'Le Chalet'?
Boïeldieu’s libretto, which fashionably stitched together bits and pieces from the novels of Sir Walter Scott, was written by Eugène Scribe, the foremost French theatre wordsmith of the age. Adam had collaborated with two of the most influential men within the closed world of Parisian opera, and in time Scribe would provide the words for Adam’s greatest early success – first performed at the Opéra-Comique in 1834, Le Chalet tells a tale of love and marriage with musical echoes of Rossini’s last masterpiece, William Tell.
It’s clear that Adam was re-imagining the traditions of the Opéra-Comique, in which musical numbers were interspersed with spoken dialogue. If Rossini and Donizetti still dominated the tradition of comic opera across town at the Théâtre-Italien, Adam was making a modest bid for a French style of comic opera. You might go further and argue that Le Chalet was a kind of godfather to operetta that, within 20 years, Offenbach would make his own.
What Adam also revealed in Le Chalet, which by 1873 had chalked up 1,000 performances at the Opéra-Comique, was an unerring sense of theatre. In his next major success, Le postillon de Lonjumeau, he extended that instinct through three acts, including a fearsomely difficult aria, ‘Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire’, for the hero Chapelou, with a top D that takes even the greatest tenor to the edge of beyond.
What is the story behind the opera 'Le Chalet'?
Chapelou, a coachman recently married to Madeleine, is lured away from the country to become an opera singer. His tempter is the Marquis de Corcy, who leads the Paris opera and has his lecherous eye on Madeleine. In the final act before the Marquis is defeated by a reunited husband and wife, there’s enough business for a Georges Feydeau-style farce, all deftly set to music before the happy couple vow from henceforth to live like decent village people.
If Le postillon de Lonjumeau satirises the the opera business, it also casts a critical eye on aristocratic privilege. What is explored are the pretensions of social class and, perhaps, a kind of equality between ordinary men and women. Is Adam so very far from the egalitarian instincts that drove liberal thought in 19th-century France? The composer himself remained silent about his politics, but not his art. ‘My only ambition,’ he wrote, ‘is to write music that is transparent, easy to understand and amusing to the public, and I shall not stop writing until the public tires of my work.’ This is an artist so sure of his gifts that he can wrap them up in irony.
When did Adolphe Adam compose 'Giselle'?
Listening to Giselle, or rather trying understand the ballet that Adam actually composed, you quickly get the measure of those gifts and his compositional skills. You can see the perspiration behind inspiration. We think of Giselle as a danced story about a young country girl driven to her death by the callous behaviour of her aristocratic lover, Albrecht. The dance is the story. But it was a very different work that audiences came to see at the Salle Le Peletier in June 1841, with the incomparable Carlotta Grisi as the heroine of this new ballet-pantomime. Almost a half of the two-act piece consisted of mime and action scenes that conveyed the story to the audience – some 54 minutes – while just an hour was devoted to dancing.
The poet Théophile Gautier was one of the two men who created the scenario for Giselle, which borrows the Wilis – those souls of abandoned women who dance faithless men to their deaths – from the German poet Heine with a nod towards Victor Hugo. Gautier was an old hand at devising such scenarios: ‘In France the choice of subject is very important.
The French are not artistic enough in the true sense of the term to be satisfied with the plastic content of poetry, painting, music and the dance. They also require a clear cut meaning, a theme, a logical dramatic development, a moral, a clearly defined meaning.’
Adam rises magnificently to the challenge of providing that meaning in Giselle. We know the Wilis and their Queen Myrthe are an international band of wronged women because Adam gives them hints of national dances. We know that the story is set on the East bank of the Rhine because when Giselle leads her friends in a dance in Act I it is a waltz – the Giselle Waltz. Adam himself is reported as having said that this waltz had ‘all the German colour indicated by the locality’.
In action passages, Adam’s music mimics speech patterns so that we almost feel the characters are talking to each other – for instance, when Albrecht’s fiancé Bathilde gives Giselle a necklace. And the use of simple leitmotifs reminds us who the characters are and what they have already said and done. How revealing that Richard Wagner, the master of the leitmotif, was in the audience for Giselle when it was premiered in Paris in 1841.
As a result of Giselle we named Adolphe Adam as one of the greatest ballet composers ever
When did Adolphe Adam compose 'O Holy Night'?
While Adam’s name may not be that familiar today, his contribution to the Christmas musical tradition most certainly is. Initially composed to help celebrate the renovation of the church organ in Roquemaure, near Avignon, Adam’s Cantique de Noël was first performed by the opera singer Emily Laurey in 1847 – its famous English words, ‘O holy night’, were written by the Boston minister John Sullivan Dwight eight years later. Today, his delightful carol is a global favourite, sung with equal enthusiasm by church choirs and pop stars alike (including, in 1994, Mariah Carey, no less). At Christmas, at least, Adolphe Adam is anything but a footnote.
Why did Adolphe Adam nearly go bankrupt?
In 1847, Adam invested heavily in founding a new opera house in Paris, the Opéra-National. The venture proved a disaster – with the French capital beset by the revolution that brought the end of Louis Philippe’s reign, the venue was forced to close, leaving Adam’s finances in tatters.
To make ends meet, he turned briefly to music journalism and, from 1849, took on the role of professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire. Eventually his debts were repaid, but he continued to compose prolifically right until the end of his life. His successful Byron-inspired ballet Le Corsaire premiered in January 1856, while on 29 April of the same year, Les Pantins de Violette also had its first performance.
When did Adolphe Adam die?
Four days after the first performance of his comic opera Les Pantins de Violette, Adolphe Adam died in his sleep at the comparatively young age of 53 in Paris. He is buried in the city’s Monmartre Cemetery.