Adolphe Adam 1803 - 1856

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A short profile of a prolific French composer

Of an inquisitive disposition (some might say nosy) and fascinated by trivia I often get carried away by ancillary information contained on sheet music at rehearsal, including the listings on the back page under the heading “you may also like” or “from the same publisher”. Older items with exotic names such as Boosey and Hawkes, Roberton and Curwen and price marking 71/2d seem to have a particular fascination in quieter moments of reflection when other sections are being ‘put through their paces’. Recent subjects of my flights of fancy have been the composer Adolphe Adam and poet J S Stallybrass and further research proved surprising and rather interesting. Adolphe Charles Adam was a music critic and prolific composer of classical, choral and light music, credited with more than seventy operas, operettas and comic operas, fifteen full length ballets as well as various other works of choral and light music. Adam also taught at the Paris conservatoire for a period of time and is thought to have been influential in the education of Delibes and other contemporary composers. Perhaps today his best known work is his ballet Giselle, what is perhaps less well known is he was also the composer of the beautiful Christmas carol O Holy Night translated from the French Cantique de Noël by John Sullivan Dwight to become one of the nations favourites. Further evidence of his musical skills are found in his choral works which include his 1848 composition Les Enfants de Paris, probably inspired by the French revolution of that year and known to male voice choirs in the English speaking world as The Comrades Song of Hope or Comrades in Arms with words by J S Stallybrass (of Martyrs of the Arena fame) and George Linley respectively, depending on which version you prefer. Adolphe Adam was born in Paris, to Jean-Louis Adam a professor at the Paris Conservatoire and accomplished pianist, composer and teacher, his mother a physician’s daughter. His parents were against him following a career in music but Adolphe had other ideas and studied in secret with musician friends and finally entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1821 where he studied organ and harmonium. He was soon writing songs for the theatre and later played in the orchestra before becoming the chorus master at the Gymnasia Dramatique, whilst still living mainly on his earnings from playing the organ and arranging music for others. In the late 1840s Adam had severe financial difficulties after a failed investment in a new opera house which resulted in him returning to journalism and teaching at the Conservatoire. He died in 1856 he was buried in the cemetery in Montmartre.

Palfreyman May 2017

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