The Kennedy Center

Ambroise Thomas


A leading composer of 19th century France, Ambroise Thomas was born in Paris in 1811 and is probably best known for his operas Mignon and Hamlet. Born into a musical family, Thomas was an accomplished pianist and violinist by age 10. In 1828 he entered the Paris Conservatory, where he became known as a pianist of sensitivity and virtuosity, and won the Prix de Rome for his cantata Hermann et Ketty. He later studied in Italy and Germany before returning to Paris in 1835.

Between 1837 and 1843 he had eight operas performed as well as a full-length ballet, La gipsy. Among his successful operas was Le Caid, an intrigue of two couples in Algeria reflecting colonial power in an exotic playground for the émigré French.

Thomas took a professorship at the Paris Conservatory in 1856, but stopped composing after the failure of Le roman d'Elvire in 1860. With new inspiration, he re-emerged in 1866 with Mignon, performed more than 1,000 times at the Opera-Comique as well as around the world. The heroine was an abandoned daughter who travels with a group of gypsies exploiting her talents. The character is complex, as was the music used to portray her.
Following Mignon Thomas offered an 1868 adaptation of Hamlet, hailed as a masterpiece. The score contained the first use of a saxophone in an opera. Highly innovative, Thomas expanded the orchestra using the recently developed brass instruments and combining these with conventional instruments.

In 1870 he volunteered for service in the Franco-Prussian War, afterwards becoming director of the Paris Conservatory, where he remained until his death in 1896. Although an innovative music educator, Thomas came to show resentment toward a new generation of composers.

In 1894 he had become the first composer to be awarded the Grand Croix of the Legion of Honor.

Ambroise Thomas


  • Hamlet