Adolphe Charles Adam (July 24, 1803–May 3, 1856) was a prolific French composer of operas and ballets, best known today for his ballets Giselle (1841) and Le corsaire (1856, his last work), his operas Le postillon de Lonjumeau (1836), Le toréador (1849) and Si j’étais roi (1852), and his nativity carol Minuit, chrétiens! (1844), later set to different English lyrics and widely sung as “O Holy Night” (1847); a noted teacher who taught Leo Delibes and other influential composers; and music critic.  Adolphe Adam was born July 24, 1803, in Paris, France, to Jean-Louis Adam (1758–1848), who was a prominent Alsatian composer, as well as a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. His mother was the daughter of a physician. As a child, Adolphe Adam preferred to improvise music on his own rather than study music seriously and occasionally truanted with writer Eugène Sue.  Jean-Louis Adam was a pianist and teacher but was firmly set against the idea of his son following in his footsteps. Adam was determined, however, and studied and composed secretly under the tutelage of his older friend Ferdinand Hérold, a popular composer of the day.

When Adam was 17, his father relented, and he was permitted to study at the Paris Conservatoire—but only after he promised that he would learn music only as an amusement, not as a career. He entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1821, where he studied organ and harmonium under the celebrated opera composer François-Adrien Boieldieu.  Adolphe also studied under his father, Henry Lemoine, Benoist, and Reicha.  In addition, he played the timpani in the orchestra of the Conservatoire.  However, he did not win the Prix de Rome in 1824, received only an honorable mention, and though he won second place the following year, his father did not encourage him to pursue a music career.  By age 20, he was writing songs for Paris vaudeville houses and playing in the orchestra at the Gymnasie Dramatique, where he later became chorus master. Adam wrote numerous works during his lifetime for the Gymnasie and Opera Comique, many of which achieved great success. Like many other French composers, he made a living largely by playing the organ. In 1825, he helped Boieldieu prepare parts for his opera La dame blanche and made a piano reduction of the score. Adam was able to travel through Europe with the money he made, and he met Eugène Scribe, with whom he later collaborated, in Geneva. By 1830, he had completed twenty-eight works for the theatre.

Aside from Paris, Adam’s works were performed in London, St. Petersburg and Berlin. After quarreling with the new director of the Opéra Comique in 1844, Adam invested his money and borrowed heavily to open a fourth opera house in Paris, the Théâtre National (Opéra-National). It opened in 1847, but closed because of the Revolution of 1848, leaving Adam with massive debts.  The Théâtre National later was resurrected under the name of Théâtre Lyrique at the Boulevard du Temple. His efforts to extricate himself from these debts include a brief turn to journalism.  Meanwhile, after a change of Director at the Opera Comique, Adam was able to return to his spiritual home and in July od 1850 one of his best works, ‘Giralda’, was produced there.   From 1849 to his death in Paris at the age of 52 on May 3, 1856, he taught composition at the Paris Conservatoire.  His last work, ‘Les Pantins de Violette’ received its premiere four days before he died.  Adam is buried in Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.  He is probably best remembered for the ballet Giselle, ou Les Wilis (1841). He wrote some 12 ballets and more than 50 operas, including Le postillon de Lonjumeau (1836) and Si j’étais roi (1852).

The following works by Adolphe Adam are contained in my collection:

Giselle (1841): Excerpts.

Si J’etais Roi (If I Were King, 1852): Overture.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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