Adolphe Adam

Portrait of Adolphe Adam

Adolphe Adam was a French composer, teacher and music critic. He is best known today for his ballet Giselle. He was born on 24th July 1803 in Paris, France and died there on 3rd May 1856 aged 52.

Major Works

“Giselle” (1841)
“Le Corsaire” (1856)
“Minuit, Chrétiens!” (Midnight, Christians – known in English as “O Holy Night”) (1844)

Biography Timeline

Adolphe Charles Adam was born on the 24th July 1803 in Paris. He was the elder son of two boys of a successful pianist and composer Jean Louis Adam although his father did not want him to earn a living through music. His mother Élisa, (née Coste) was the third wife whom his father met when he taught her music lessons at the Paris Conservatoire. Adam was educated at a boarding school, the Hix Institute located in the Champs-Elysees.

1815: The final fall of Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire badly affected his father’s income and his son has to be sent to a less expensive and less prodigious school to save money.

1820: Adam enrols at the Paris Conservatoire where he studies organ, counterpoint and general composition.

1823: He contributes songs to the Paris Vaudeville theatres and teaches pupils to earn money.

1824: He becomes the timpanist at the new Theatre du Gymnase in Paris and earns a proper salary for the first time releasing him from teaching. He continues to write for Vaudeville and enters the Prix de Rome competition for composition. He gains an honourable mention but doesn’t win.

1825: Adam wins second prize at the Prix de Rome. The opera “La Dame Blanche” by Boieldieu is first performed at the Opera Comique in December.

1826: Adam’s piano transcriptions of themes from the “La Dame Blanche” are published and earn him enough money to tour the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland. Whilst in Geneva he meets the librettist Eugene Scribe with whom he was to work later on other works for the stage. 

1827: Scribe provides the text for Adam’s first opera, “Le Mal du pays, ou La Batelière de Brientz” (Homesickness, or the Bargewoman of Brientz), which consists of an overture and eleven arias. It is first performed at the Theatre du Gymnase on 28th December.

1829: In February Adam’s second one-act opera, “Pierre et Catherine” is performed at the Opera-Comique It was a huge success and runs for 80 performances. Later that year he marries Sara Lescot, a chorus girl from the Vaudeville. His first full length operas are also given their premieres. “Le jeune propriétaire et le vieux fermier” at the Theatre des Nouveautes and “Danilowa” at the Opéra-Comique. 

1830: The July Revolution in Paris interrupts all cultural life in the Capital and that together with an outbreak of cholera means that Adam leaves the city for England. He moves to London where his brother in law, Pierre Laporte, is the manager of the Kings Theatre in the Haymarket.

1832: The Adam’s only child, Léopold-Adrien, is born (who was sadly later to commit suicide in 1851). Laporte takes out a lease on the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and in October puts on “His First Campaign” by James Planche. This was a lively play about the Duke of Marlborough with music by Adam. It was well received but in November a similar piece called “The Dark Diamond” was a failure and Adam returns home in December.

1833: In February he returns briefly to London when his ballet “Faust” is performed at the King’s Theatre. 

1834: One of Adam’s most popular works “Le Chalet”, based on Johann von Goethe’sJery und Bätely”, is performed at the Opera-Comique. 

1835: Adam and his wife Sara separate.

1836: In May Adam is appointed as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. His ballet “La Fille du Danube” is his first piece performed at the Paris Opera in September closely followed by “Le Postillon de Lonjumeau”.

1837: “Le Postillon de Lonjumeau” is performed in London.

1838: He begins composing music for “Les Mohicans” and a ballet for the Opéra as well as another four operas for the Opéra-Comique.

1839: In September he leaves Paris for St Petersburg in Russia.

1840: His ballet for “L’Écumeur de Mer” (The Pirate) is performed to the imperial court in February as well as two of his operas. He leaves Russia at the end of March and returns home via Berlin in Germany where he writes “Die Hamadryaden” (The Tree Nymphs). “Le Postillon de Lonjumeau” is also performed in New York.

1841: Perhaps his most famous ballet of all “Giselle”, based on Heinrich Heine’s version of the story is premiered at the Opéra on 28th June. 

1844: Adam completes his first Grand Opera “Richard en Palestine” but it is not a success. He is elected to membership of the Academie des Beaux-Arts. The Christmas Carol “Minuit Chretiens” (Midnight Christians or, as known in English Oh Holy Night) is first performed.

1845: Alexandre Basset becomes the new director of the Opera Comique and falls out with Adam refusing to let him perform there ever again.

1847: A theatre in the Boulevard du Temple in Paris becomes available and Adam and the actor Achille Mirecour take it over. They rename it the Opera-National, however the cost of refurbishing it is colossal and Adam takes out loans to finance it. It opens in November.

1848: Audiences for the new theatre are poor and the 1848 revolution provides the last straw as theatres are closed during the new regime. The theatre closes for good on 28th March leaving Adam ruined. He uses royalties from previous works to pay off his debts and tries his hand at journalism to make ends meet. He writes articles and reviews for Le Constitutionnel. He also returns to taking on students, the most famous of which is Leo Delibes. When the Opera-Comique reopens it has a new director and Adam is allowed to return.

1850: “Giralda, ou La Nouvelle Psyche” is first performed at the Opéra-Comique in July.

1851: His wife Sara dies and Adam marries the singer Chérie-Louise Couraud whom he was to stay with for the rest of his life.

1852: Adam writes “Si J’Etais Roi” for the Théâtre-Lyrique which is first performed in September. He also creates six new works which allows him to clear all his debts. 

1856: Adam produces one of his finest ballets, “Le Corsaire”, based on a poem by Lord Byron, which is first performed at the Opera in January. His final work, “Les Pantins de Violette” (Violette’s Puppets) is given at the Theatre des Bouffes-Parisiens on 29th April.

Adolphe Charles Adam died in his sleep sleep on the 3rd May 1856 and was buried in the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.