Adolphe Charles Adam (24 July 1803 – 3 May 1856) was a French composer and music critic. A prolific composer of operas and ballets, he is 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 Christmas carol Minuit, chrétiens! (1844), later set to different English lyrics and widely sung as “O Holy Night” (1847). Adam was a noted teacher, who taught Delibes and other influential composers.
Adolphe Adam was born in Paris, to Jean-Louis Adam (1758–1848), who was a prominent Alsatian composer, as well 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 who was also something of a dunce in early years. Jean-Louis Adam was a pianist and teacher but was firmly set against the idea of his son’s 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. Adam also played the timpani in the orchestra of the Conservatoire; however, he did not win the Prix de Rome and his father did not encourage him to pursue a music career, as he won second prize.
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. 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.
Adam is probably best remembered for the ballet Giselle (1841). He wrote several other ballets and 39 operas, including Le postillon de Lonjumeau (1836) and Si j’étais roi (1852).
After quarreling with the director of the Opéra, 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 (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. From 1849 to his death in Paris, he taught composition at the Paris Conservatoire.
His Christmas carol “Cantique de Noël”, translated to English as “O Holy Night”, is an international favorite, and has been widely recorded. “Cantique de Noel” is based on a poem written by Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure. Adam subsequently crafted a melody for the poem that was translated into English by John Sullivan Dwight (1813 – 1893), a Boston music teacher and music journalist, as well as co-founder of The Harvard Music Society.
Adam is buried in Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.
Si jétais roi – Overture