Composer Information: Ambroise Thomas

(Charles Louis) Ambroise Thomas (Metz August 5, 1811 - Paris, February 12, 1896) was a French opera composer, best-known for his operas 'Mignon' (1866) and his Shakespearean 'Hamlet' (1868).

Early life and studies

His parents were music teachers and prepared him to become a musician. By age 10 he was already an excellent pianist and violinist. In 1828, he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied with Jean-François Le Sueur while at the same time continuing his piano studies privately with the famous virtuoso pianist 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 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--a piano trio, a string quintet and a string quartet, all of which reflect his new style of writing.


His first opera, La Double Echelle (1837), was produced at the Opéra Comique and was a success, receiving 247 performances before it left the stage. Le Caïd (1849), his first undisputed triumph, glittered with Rossini-inspired score and achieved over 400 performances before the turn of the century. For the next quarter of a century Thomas's productivity was incessant, and most of his operatic works belonging to this period enjoyed a great, if ephemeral, popularity. They are hampered by their libretti, but a few of them are occasionally revived as historic curiosities or recorded as vehicles for bel canto singers: Le Songe d'une nuit d'été (1850; loosely adapted from Shakespeare), Psyché (1857). Some of his overtures appear on concert programs: the overture to Raymond (1851), for instance, receives the occasional revival.

To his theatrical successes, Thomas added administrative achievements. In 1856 he acquired a professorship at the Conservatoire, where he taught, among others, Massenet, one of the few French composers of the younger generation whose music interested him. He succeeded Auber as director of the Conservatoire in 1871, retaining his post until his death. Baffled by the musical unconventionalities of César Franck and certain other Conservatoire colleagues, he nevertheless was rather well liked as a man, even by those who found his output old-fashioned.


With Mignon (premiered at the Opéra Comique in 1866), Thomas achieved his first great acclaim outside, as well as within, France. Goethe's tale 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" (illustration). Mignon was a success all over Europe, to audiences that had embraced Charles Gounod's indirectly Goethe-inspired sentimental 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 turns up now and then even now, more often in the form of extracts for concert 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 stong, dramatic libretto although it closes with a traditional (and somewhat surprising) happy ending. It enjoyed a long vogue, and like Mignon it continues to have a certain following.

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), was produced at the Opéra, again with very little effect.

Back to list of composers