Ambroise Thomas: French composer (1811 - 1896) | Biography
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Ambroise Thomas
French composer

Ambroise Thomas

Ambroise Thomas
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro French composer
A.K.A. Charles Louis Ambroise Thomas
Was Educator Musician Composer Musicologist Music educator
From France
Field Academia Music
Gender male
Birth 5 August 1811, Metz
Death 12 February 1896, Paris (aged 84 years)
Mother: Jeanne Marie Williaume
Father: Jean-Baptiste-Martin Thomas
The details (from wikipedia)


Charles Louis Ambroise Thomas (5 August 1811 – 12 February 1896) was a French composer, best known for his operas Mignon (1866) and Hamlet (1868, after Shakespeare) and as Director of the Conservatoire de Paris from 1871 till his death.


"There is good music, there is bad music, and then there is Ambroise Thomas." - Emmanuel Chabrier

Early life and studies

Portrait of Ambroise Thomas in 1834 by Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin

Thomas's parents were music teachers. By the age of 10, he was already an experienced pianist and violinist. In 1828, he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied with Jean-François Le Sueur (who also taught Berlioz) while at the same time taking piano lessons privately from the famous virtuoso Frédéric Kalkbrenner. In 1832, his cantata Hermann et Ketty won the Conservatory's prestigious composition prize, the Grand Prix de Rome, which allowed him to travel to and study in that city for three years. He took with him a love for Mozart and Beethoven; but once in Rome, he became an ardent admirer of the Italian cantilena and melodic tradition. It was during his Italian sojourn that he wrote all of his chamber music: namely, a piano trio, a string quintet and a string quartet.


The first opera Thomas composed, La double échelle (1837), was produced at the Opéra Comique and subsequently received 247 performances. Le caïd (1849), did still better, and achieved over 400 performances. For the next quarter of a century Thomas's productivity was incessant, and several of his operas (he wrote 24 altogether) enjoyed a considerable, if ephemeral, popularity. The questionable quality of their libretti hampers them, but a few have been revived now and then as historic curiosities or recorded as vehicles for bel canto singers, such as Le songe d'une nuit d'été (1850; not based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, but rather an English fantasy with Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare himself, and Shakespeare's fictional character Falstaff) or Psyché (1857). The overture to Raymond (1851) has also been given the occasional modern performance.

To his theatrical successes, Thomas added administrative achievements. In 1856 he acquired a professorship at the Conservatoire, where he taught, among others, Jules Massenet, one of the few French composers of the younger generation whose music interested him. See: List of music students by teacher: T to Z#Ambroise Thomas. He succeeded Auber as director of the Conservatoire in 1871. Baffled by the musical unconventionality of César Franck, Gabriel Fauré, and certain other Conservatoire colleagues, he nevertheless was rather well liked as a man, even by those who found his output old-fashioned.


Thomas circa 1880, taken by Antoine Samuel Adam-Salomon.

With Mignon (premiered at the Opéra Comique in 1866), Thomas achieved his first great acclaim outside, as well as within, France. Goethe's celebrated Wilhelm Meister had provided inspiration for a highly sentimentalized libretto; Marie Galli-Marié (1840–1905), it was said [1], "had modelled her conception of the part upon the well-known picture by Ary Scheffer". Mignon was a success all over Europe, to audiences who had embraced Charles Gounod's indirectly Goethe-inspired Faust (1859); and in Paris Mignon received more than a thousand performances by 1894, thereby becoming one of the most successful operas in French history. [2] It is still heard sometimes today, more often in the form of extracts for concert use, or in recordings, than in complete stagings. One of its arias, "Connais-tu le pays", was for generations among the most famous operatic excerpts by any composer.

Thomas turned to Shakespeare again for his Hamlet (Paris Opera, 1868), with a libretto by the seasoned team of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. This opera has a strong, dramatic libretto, although it closes with a traditional (and, surprising for Hamlet) happy ending. It enjoyed a long vogue, and like Mignon it continues to have a certain following; during 2010 it was heard at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

His last opera, Françoise de Rimini (Paris Opéra, 1882) based on a passage from Dante's Inferno, failed to stay in the repertoire. Seven years later La tempête, a ballet (and yet another treatment of a Shakespeare play, this time The Tempest), was produced at the Opéra, again with little effect. He died in 1896. Massenet had hopes of succeeding him in the job of Conservatoire director, abandoning this plan only when told by the government that the post would no longer carry lifelong tenure. The man who got the job was not Massenet but, rather, organist-composer Théodore Dubois. Thomas was the first musician to ever be awarded the Grand-Croix de la Légion d'honneur (which he received in May 1894).


Ambroise Thomas, about 1865


See: List of operas by Ambroise Thomas.


  • La gipsy, second act ballet at the Opéra de Paris, 1839
  • Betty, chor. Joseph Mazilier, Opéra de Paris, 1846
  • La tempête, chor. Joseph Hansen (The Tempest, based on Shakespeare), Opéra de Paris, 26 June 1889

Other works

  • String Quartet in E major, Op.1

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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