Francois-Andre Philidor (1726-1795) was not only ahighly talented member of France's royal musical establishment, he was also a chess master of unmatched skill. To this day, he is remembered equally for his comic opera (opera comique) compositions, as well as his many contributions to modern chess.
For almost 50 years, Philidor was the unofficial chess champion of the world. He gained his reputation by winning match after match in Parisian cafes, beating famous philosophers of the time such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Francois Voltaire. He dazzled Europe with his amazing ability to play chess blindfolded, and was the author of the influential first book on the subject, L'analyze des Echecs (Analysis of Chess), in which he described strategies and analyzed games. Despite his success and genius in this area, Philidor always claimed music as his primary pursuit. He composed over 20 operas in his lifetime, the most famous of which include: Le Sorcier (1764), Tom Jones (1765), Ernelinde (1766), and Carmen Saeculare (1779). His works were mostly farcical operas, but they also embraced a number of motets (sacred music compositions) and a few lyric tragedies. Philidor divided his time between the cities of Paris and London. He died in England at the age of 69, exiled from his homeland.
On September 7, 1726, the composer who came to be known as "Philidor" was born in Dreux, France to 79 year old Andre Danican and his youthful third wife. The father, best known as the organizer of the Philidor Collection, a compilation of famous musical pieces, was a recently retired bassoon player of King Louis XIV. His wife is said to have been greatly unsophisticated. The boy, Francois-Andre Danican, was last to inherit the title "Philidor" that had been passed down in his family for generations since the reign of King Louis XIII in the early 1600's. The king had dubbed an ancestor, Michel Danican, as first in the line of a beloved dynasty of musicians that got their names from a favored Italian player named "Filidori."
At the age of six, only two years after his father's death, young Philidor was admitted as a page of the Royal Chapel at Versailles. Due to his musical talent and appealingly good disposition, he entered four years earlier than the proscribed rules allowed, and was put under the strict tutelage of the great composer and Teacher of the Pages, Andre Campra. In 1737, Philidor, at the tender age of 11, was granted permission to play his first piece before King Louis XV. The king was delighted with the performance, and rewarded the precocious musician with a few coins. The boy continued dedicating himself to his studies, and produced four more motets in the years leading up to 1740 when, at the age of 14, his voice changed and he had to leave the Royal Chapel choir.
During his years at the Royal Chapel, Philidor's education extended far beyond music. It was there that he first played the game that was destined to transform the rest of his life. Every morning at the chapel, the King of France heard music with Mass. There were often long waits for the monarch's arrival, during which time it was common practice for the King's 80 musicians to entertain themselves at chess tables near the sanctuary. According to George Allen's description in The Life of Philidor, "It was in such sacred proximities, from musicians waiting to accompany with voice and instrument the Holy Sacrifice, that Philidor learned chess." He was ten years old when he played his first game with a musician, many years his senior. As the story goes, Philidor shyly offered to fill in for an absent partner. The man's amusement at being matched with such a young boy quickly turned to rage and astonishment when he discovered that he was being beaten. Philidor narrowly escaped a fist fight, and was greeted the next morning by a line of men, each wanting to play a match with the small prodigy.
At the age of fourteen when his boyish voice changed, Philidor left the royal chapel with the reputation of the best chess player in the band. He took to the cafes of Paris, where he stunned everyone with his mastery of the game. Philidor supported himself by teaching, performing, and copying music. So it was in 1741 that Philidor found himself in the famous Cafe de la Regence, winning matches against the great intellectuals Voltaire and Rousseau. This was also the place where he met the reigning chess champion of France who was soon to become his teacher, M. de Kermur, Sire de Legal. Legal was 40 at the time, and unbeatable. It was Legal that had first challenged Philidor to play a blindfolded game—something the master himself could not do. Philidor had no problem winning games without seeing the board thanks to the nights he spent in bed calculating moves in the dark. When he discovered how easily this mode of playing came to him, Philidor took on two opponents simultaneously. One such feat in 1744, created a huge sensation and resulted in Philidor's inclusion in the Encyclopedie. It was one of the principal works of the Age of Enlightenment, edited by the famous French philosopher, Denis Diderot.
As a result of neglect, Philidor lost music students during this exciting time as a chess celebrity in Paris, but music was never far from his thoughts. In 1745, he was given the opportunity to travel to Rotterdam, Holland and assist in presenting concerts. He agreed to go, eager to pursue his musical career, but was hard pressed when the concerts were suddenly cancelled. He found himself stranded and penniless, but stayed in the Netherlands. Philidor supported himself teaching and playing Polish checkers and chess, especially with English army officers at the Hague (the official home of the Dutch government), until he continued on to London in 1747.
The young chess hero was well-received in England and, not surprisingly, he soon found himself in the company of the most celebrated chess players in the nation. Sir Abraham Janssen and Philip Stamma were excellent matches for the French composer, but he was still able to beat both of them in games at Slaughter's coffeehouse in London. Stamma was challenged to an extraordinary ten game match in which draws were counted as victories for his opponent. Even with these rules, Philidor won eight games, lost one, and drew one. From then on, he was considered the unofficial champion of the world.
In 1748, Philidor returned to Holland, where he wrote his legendary treatise on chess. L'analyze contained fictional games that showed how to stage a strategic battle on the board. It was in this classic text that Philidor made his legendary statement, "Pawns are the soul of chess." By this he meant to highlight the significance of a supported, mobile fleet of pawns as the essential factor in executing a successful attack. Before the book was published, Philidor went searching for subscribers to cover the printing costs. The British general, Duke of Cumberland, subscribed to 50 copies, while Lord Sandwich (the famous British politician) bought 10, and the English army officers committed to purchase 119 copies. Needless to say, Philidor's book was an immediate success, regarded as a work of genius. The author moved back to London in 1749 when 433 copies went to print. Promptly thereafter, the book was translated into English and German, and Philidor was invited to many of the courts of Europe to play chess in front of royalty. He was also asked by the French Ambassador, the Duke of Mirepoix, to his weekly chess dinners.
After nine years of being away from France, at the age 28, Philidor returned to Paris. There, he dedicated himself to building his reputation in the two areas in which he possessed the greatest skill. In 1755, Philidor finally won a chess match with his former master, Legal, at their old haunt, the Cafe de la Regence—an honor which he alone could claim. Nevertheless, his profession as a musician was still primary in his mind, and he set about establishing himself thus. His taste and style had been greatly influenced and improved by his travels, but he encountered mixed luck as a composer. A motet he submitted for consideration for a post at the Royal Chapel was judged "too Italian." As a result, the rebuffed Philidor found himself abandoning sacred music and moving in the direction of his true vocation as the first composer of the opera comique. It was a form of opera inspired by the farcical characters of the Italian commedia dell'arte, where spoken dialogue was intermingled with self-contained musical interludes. Philidor's first opera of this kind, Blaise le Savetier, received much attention when it was produced in 1759. After this, Philidor continued churning out operas, sometimes at the rate of two per year. His work achieved a great deal of success and praise for the virtues of its harmony, originality, and melodic invention.
On February 13, 1760, at the age of 34, Philidor married Angelique-Henriette-Elisabeth Richer, an excellent musician and the daughter of a respectable composer. Theirs was a happy marriage that resulted in the birth of seven children. Familial life did not slow Philidor's accomplishments. In 1764 he composed the popular Le Sorcier, for which he was the first French composer to be applauded in person after the premiere. Then, in 1766, he wrote his first tragedy, the wildly successful Ernelinde, which was performed for eight nights in a row and was lavished with praise by the King himself.
In 1772, when Philidor was 46, he was drawn back again to England. This time, he frequented the Salopian Coffeehouse. In 1774 the Parsloe's Chess Club was formed in London. Its membership was limited to 100 prominent patrons, who paid annual dues that enabled Philidor to spend a season at the Club each year as a part-time resident master. He gave lessons there for 20 years. His blindfolded games (in which he apparently played up to four opponents at once) were made advertised spectacles attended by distinguished members of the Club. The second edition of Philidor's treatise on chess was published in 1777, and was dedicated "to the illustrious and honourable Members of the Club." Philidor's impact as a chess master was so far-reaching that Dr. Benjamin Franklin, the American inventor, scientist, and diplomat (who also happened to be an avid chess fan), visited him at the Cafe de la Regence in 1781. Franklin went with the express purpose of getting Philidor to autograph a copy of L'Analyze. After the eminent American had left, the owner of the Cafe exclaimed, "Francois, you just autographed your book for the American Ambassador!" Philidor glanced up from the game he was playing and said, "That's funny, I never knew that he was a chess player." Throughout these years, Philidor never abandoned his musical calling, and he composed his last work in 1790.
Philidor maintained this lifestyle, commuting from Paris to London until the year 1792. At 65 years of age, he left France for the last time, never to return. He was a supporter of the French Revolution, but his trip to England gave the new French government reason to consider him a traitor. In the beginning of the year 1795, after the bloody Reign of Terror (in which thousands deemed as French "counterrevolutionaries" were executed) had ended, Philidor appealed to the new French government to grant him leave to return home. Unfortunately, he had been placed on the dreaded list of emigres who were condemned as supporters of France's enemies and invaders. Thus, Philidor was forced to spend his remaining years away from the country of his birth. He died in London on August 24, 1795. His obituary read, "For the last two months, Philidor had been kept alive merely by art, and the kind attentions of an old and worthy friend. On Monday last, Mr. Philidor the celebrated chess player, made his last move, into the other world."
Allen, George, The Life of Philidor, Da Capo Press, 1971.
The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Macmillan Reference Limited, 1997.
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"Francois Andre Philidor," A and E Network Biography, http://www.biography.com (February 2, 2001).
"The Morals of Chess," http://www.twinfeats.com (February 1, 2001).
"Francois-Andre Danican Philidor," http://www.geocities.com(January 22, 2001).