Life and career
Thomas was born in Metz, the youngest of four children of Martin Thomas (1770–1823) and his wife, Jeanne, née Willaume (1780–1866), both music teachers. By the age of ten he was already an experienced pianist and violinist. When he was twelve his father died, and Ambroise's elder brother Charles moved to Paris, where he played the cello in the Opéra orchestra. In 1828, aged 17, Ambroise joined him in Paris, where he was admitted as a student by the Conservatoire de Paris. He studied the piano with Pierre Zimmerman and harmony and counterpoint with Victor Dourlen. He won premiers prix in these subjects in 1829 and 1830. He went on to study the piano with Friedrich Kalkbrenner, and composition with Jean-François Lesueur and Auguste Barbereau.
In 1832, at his second attempt, Thomas won France's premier music prize, the Grand Prix de Rome, with his cantata Hermann et Ketty. The prize brought him three years' study at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome. During his time there he became friendly with the painter Ingres, the head of the academy, with whom he shared an admiration for both Mozart and Beethoven; he also met Berlioz, who encouraged him and wrote about him favourably. During his Italian sojourn he wrote chamber music – a piano trio, a string quintet and a string quartet – and a set of six songs, Souvenirs d'Italie. After leaving Rome, Thomas stayed briefly in Germany, before returning to Paris in 1835, when he began writing for the stage.
The first opera Thomas composed was La double échelle (The Double Ladder, 1837), a one-act comedy, praised by Berlioz for its "extreme vivacity and wit". It was produced at the Opéra-Comique, received 247 performances, and in the next few years was given in Brussels, New Orleans, Berlin, Vienna and London.
His first full-length opera, Le perruquier de la Régence (The Regency Wigmaker, 1838) was followed in the next decade by six more, none of which made any permanent impression. During this period he also composed a ballet (La Gipsy, 1839). His first completely successful three-act opera was Le caïd (The Qaid, 1849), described by the musicologist Elizabeth Forbes as "a mixture of Il barbiere di Siviglia and L'italiana in Algeri"; it remained in the French operatic repertoire thoughout the nineteenth century, and achieved more than four hundred performances over the next fifty years.
Thomas' next work for the Opéra-Comique, Le songe d'une nuit d'été (The Summer Night's Dream, 1850), was also a popular success. The text, by Joseph-Bernard Rosier and Adolphe de Leuven, owes nothing to A Midsummer Night's Dream: Shakespeare appears as one of the characters, along with Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare's Falstaff, the governor of "Richemont", where the action takes place. The premiere in Paris was followed by productions in many European and American theatres. The work, described by The Musical Times as "a little masterpiece", was frequently revived, but fell out of the repertory after the composer's death.[n 1] Later in 1850 Thomas' next opera, Raymond, was premiered. It has not survived in the operatic repertoire, but the overture became a popular orchestral showpiece. In 1851, following the death of the composer Gaspare Spontini, Thomas was elected to succeed him as a member of the Académie des Beaux Arts.[n 2]
In 1856 Thomas was appointed professor of composition at the Conservatoire, under the directorship of Daniel Auber. He remained on the staff, as professor and subsequently director, until his death forty years later. Over these years his students included the composers Jules Massenet, Gaston Serpette, and, late in Thomas' career, George Enescu; future academics included Théodore Dubois and Charles Lenepveu; and conductors who were Thomas' students included Edouard Colonne and Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht.[n 3]
During the 1850s Thomas continued to compose, writing five operas, none of which made much impression. After a fallow spell in the early 1860s he wrote Mignon, the work by which his name became most widely known. The libretto was by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, based on Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Forbes writes that, unusually, Thomas had the advantage of a well-judged and theatrically effective libretto, and that although in the novel Mignon dies, the happy ending works well in the opera. (A happy ending was then compulsory at the Opéra-Comique: it was another nine years before Carmen defied the convention there, ending with the death of the main character.) The strong original cast featured, in the title role, Célestine Galli-Marié, a celebrated singer who later created the part of Carmen in Bizet's opera.
Thomas was similarly fortunate in his cast for his next success, Hamlet (1868), which starred Jean-Baptiste Faure as Hamlet and Christine Nilsson as Ophelia. The opera was distantly based on Shakespeare by way of a French adaptation by Alexandre Dumas, père, and Paul Meurice, further adapted as a libretto by Carré and Barbier. Although the adaptation was seen as a travesty of the play, with a ballet-divertissement (obligatory at the Opéra) and a happy ending, with Hamlet acclaimed as king, the work was successful not only in Paris but in London. Despite disparaging reviews of the libretto from English-speaking critics at the time and subsequently,[n 4] the work has remained an occasional part of the operatic repertoire; later singers of Ophelia included Emma Calvé, Emma Albani, Nellie Melba and Mary Garden, and among the Hamlets have been Victor Maurel, Titta Ruffo, Mattia Battistini and more recently Sherrill Milnes, Thomas Allen and Thomas Hampson. Although Thomas had by now a reputation for musical conservatism, the score of Hamlet was innovative in one respect: its incorporation of saxophones into the instrumentation.
Later in Thomas' life his academic career largely overtook his activities as a composer, and after Hamlet, he composed only one more opera: Françoise de Rimini (1882), which was well received but did not enter the regular operatic repertoire.
On the outbeak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 Thomas, though aged nearly sixty, volunteered to serve in the Garde Nationale. The following year Auber died and Thomas was appointed his successor as director of the Conservatoire. He was so widely seen as Auber's heir apparent that the minister of education, Jules Simon, said in his letter offering Thomas the post, "You are so obviously fitted for the office that if I did not nominate you I should seem to be signing your dismissal from a post already yours." As director Thomas ran an intransigently conservative regime. The music of Auber, Halévy and especially Meyerbeer was regarded as the correct model for students, and early French music such as that of Rameau and modern music, including that of Wagner were kept rigorously out of the curriculum. Thomas strove to keep progressive musicians from being appointed to the faculty of the Conservatoire – unsuccessfully in the case of César Franck, who was appointed against Thomas' wishes in 1872, but successfully as regards Gabriel Fauré whose appointment to the Conservatoire was delayed until after Thomas' death.
Thomas was, on the other hand, innovative in the running of the Conservatoire: he increased the number of classes, improved the conditions of the faculty, and expanded the curriculum to include solfège, sight-reading and compulsory orchestral practice. The faculty under Thomas included, at various times the composers Franck, Théodore Dubois, Jules Massenet and Ernest Guiraud, and the singers Pauline Viardot and Romain Bussine.
In 1889 the Opéra staged Thomas' ballet La tempête (another treatment of a Shakespeare play – The Tempest), but it made little impression. In 1894, after the 1,000th performance of Mignon at the Opéra-Comique, the octogenarian composer was embraced on the stage by Verdi, his junior by two years, before President Carnot decorated Thomas with the ribbon of the Grand-Croix de la Légion d'honneur.
Thomas died in his flat in the Conservatoire in 1896, aged 84, of congestion of the lungs. He was survived by his widow, Elvire, née Remaury (1827–1910), whom he married in 1878. He was succeeded as director of the Conservatoire by Dubois.