Thomas, Charles Louis Ambroise

1811-1896

 

French operatic composer, who for about twenty-five years was director of the Paris Conservatory, and held a unique position in the ranks of dramatic writers owing to his own peculiar characteristics. A man of retiring and gentle disposition, exceedingly refined and sensitive, he was greatly influenced by the prevailing modes of musical expression, and in his work reflected the tendencies of popular opinion. He was an excellent musician but as a composer was lacking in originality and force. He was born at Metz; the son of a musician, and when only about four years old began to lay the foundation for future musical study; when he was seven taking up violin and piano and showing pronounced ability for the latter instrument. In 1828 he entered the Paris Conservatory, where he studied counterpoint with Barbereau, harmony with Dourlen, piano with Kalkbrenner and Zimmermann, and composition with Lesueur. He took first piano prize in 1829, harmony prize in 1830. and Grand Prize of Rome in 1832 for his cantata, Hermann et Ketty. For three years he was in Italy studying diligently at Bologna, Florence, Naples, Trieste, Venice and Rome, and during this time writing a trio for piano, violin and violoncello; a quartet for strings; a quintet for strings; a fantasia for piano and orchestra; a fantasia on Scotch melodies for piano; two nocturnes for piano; six caprices in the form of waltzes; a rondo for four hands for piano; three motets with organ; a requiem with orchestra, and six Italian songs. These, together with his prize cantata, Hermann et Ketty, were all engraved and printed on his return to Paris.

 

Stopping for a time in Vienna on his way back from Italy he arrived in Paris in 1836 and immediately set to work on composition. The following year he produced his first composition at the Opera Comique. It was La Double fichelle, a one-act piece which brought him success. At this time it was the ambition of every composer to have his works performed at the Academy. Thomas entered the lists in 1839 with a two-act ballet written in collaboration with Benoist, entitled La Gipsy. He composed Le Comte de Carmagnola in 1841, Le Guerillero in 1843, and the two-act ballet, Betty, in 1846. With Betty the first period of his work ends, and we see him pass from the influence of Rossini, whose conventions were considered essential during the early years of Thomas* career, and of Auber who at that time was high in popular favor.

 

During the disturbance of 1848 Thomas served in the National Guards, and after a period of retirement from dramatic work which lasted five years, he produced Le Caid, a three-act comic opera which on its appearance in 1849 was an immediate success and is still in  the repertory of the Opera Comique in Paris. This marks the beginning of his second period and was followed in 1850 by the three-act, Le Songe d'une Nuit d'fite, followed in 1851 by Raymond, of which only the overture has survived; by La Tonelli in 1853; La Cour de Celimene in 1855; Psyche, 1857; Le Carnaval de Venise and Le Roman d'Elvire. Of the works of this period Le Cai'd, Psyche and Raymond only, brought their author success and the others quickly sunk into oblivion. After the composition of Le Roman d'Elvire, Thomas rested for almost six years, during which time by constant study and thought he greatly enlarged his powers. Mignon, the result of this time of quiet growth, first appeared in 1866 and obtained immediate popularity. Written around the story of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, it is full of poetic beauty and charm and contains some songs, such as  Connais-tu le pays, and Adieu Mignon, and the duet between Mignon, and the harpist, which are deservedly popular. It is well known in Austria and Germany, as well as in France and is now in the opera repertory of almost every country. Two years after Mignon, Thomas produced Hamlet, for which the libretto was also arranged by Carre and Barbier. To the French public the liberties taken with Shakespeare's masterpiece were not disturbing and the opera was well received. It treats the Danish story from a quite different point  of view, making Ophelia the principal character and her death scene the important scene in the opera. It is said that the opera was written especially for the Swedish soprano, Christine Nilsson, who was admirably suited to the part of Ophelia. An artistic and clever touch of local color is given by the use of Scandinavian motifs in Ophelia's songs. To the Anglo-Saxon mind, Thomas' use of a rhythmical drinkingsong in lieu of the striking lines of advice to the players holds something of irrelevance and cheapness, which savors of comic opera. Except for the poetical death scene of Ophelia and the pretty ballet music, the opera contains little of permanent interest. The success of Mignon and Hamlet was such that when Auber died in 1871, Thomas was considered the musician best fitted to be his successor as director of the Conservatory where he had taught composition since 1852. He entered upon his new duties on July 6, 1871. In this position he worked conscientiously and had little time to give to composition. The opera, Frangoise de Rimini and Gille et Gillotin, and the ballet, La Tempete, are the only large compositions of this time. As director of the Conservatory he proved exceedingly efficient, improving the methods for teaching and founding a series of lectures on the history of music. Another innovation was the organization of compulsory vocal classes for the purpose of improving sight-reading, and the founding of an orchestral class. He himself wrote the exercises for the examinations. He continued his work at the Conservatory until shortly before his death on Feb. 12, 1896.