Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Philidor, François André Danican

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PHILIDOR, FRANÇOIS ANDRÉ DANICAN (1726–1795), chess-player and composer, was the youngest son of André Danican, a musician, and member of the Grande Écurie, the chambre and the chapelle of Louis XIV, by his second wife, Elisabeth Leroy. The family had long been connected with the French court in the capacity of musicians. When his great-grandfather, Michel Danican, a native of Dauphiné and a celebrated oboist, first appeared at court, Louis XIII exclaimed, ‘I have found another Filidori,’ this being the name of a Sienese hautboy-player who had caused a sensation at the French court by his brilliant performance. The royal compliment procured for the family the agnomen ‘Philidor.’

François André was born at Dreux on 7 Sept. 1726. At the age of six he entered the Chapelle du Roy at Versailles, and learned harmony of André Campra. About eighty musicians were constantly in waiting at the chapelle, and, cards not being allowed in the sanctuary, they had a long table inlaid with a number of chessboards. Philidor learnt the game by watching his elders, and various anecdotes are told of the amazement caused by his prowess when he was first admitted to play. Scarcely less precocious as a musician, at the age of eleven he composed a motet, which was performed in the chapelle. When his voice broke he left the chapelle, at the age of fourteen, and went to Paris, with a view to supporting himself, like Rousseau, by giving lessons and copying music. But he seems to have neglected his pupils for the chess cafés, in particular the Café de la Régence, where fortune guided him to the board of M. de Kermuy, Sire de Légal, the best player in France. From Légal he derived the by no means new idea of playing without seeing the board, and his feat of playing two games in this manner simultaneously was commemorated by Diderot in his article ‘Échecs’ in the ‘Encyclopédie’ as an extraordinary example of strength of memory and imagination. About the same period (1744–5) Philidor assisted Rousseau to put into shape the latter's opera ‘Les Muses Galantes.’

In the autumn of 1745, owing to the pressure of creditors, Philidor made a tour in Holland. At Amsterdam he supported himself by exhibition games at chess and at Polish draughts. At The Hague he met some Englishmen, at whose invitation he came to England in the latter part of 1747. The principal chess club in England at this time held its meetings at Old Slaughter's Coffee-house in St. Martin's Lane. The best English player, who was the strongest player Philidor met, with the exception of his old tutor, M. de Legal, was Sir Abraham Janssen. During his stay in London he played a match of ten games with Philip Stamma, a native of Aleppo, and author of ‘Les Stratagèmes du jeu d'Echecs,’ giving him the move, allowing the drawn games to be held as won by Stamma, and betting five to four on each game. The Syrian won one game, and one was drawn. In the following year Philidor returned to Holland, where he composed his ‘Analyse du jeu des Echecs.’ While at Aix-la-Chapelle he was advised by Lord Sandwich to visit Eyndhoven, a village between Bois-le-Duc and Maestricht, where the British army was encamped. Philidor there played chess with the Duke of Cumberland, who subscribed for a number of copies of the work, and procured many other subscribers. In consequence, the book was originally published in London, in 1749, 8vo, under the title ‘L'Analyse des Echecs: contenant une nouvelle méthode pour apprendre … ce noble jeu.’ An English translation appeared in 1750, London, 8vo, and an enlarged French edition in 1777. Since that date it has been translated into most European languages, and frequently re-edited. The best edition is that of George Walker [q. v.], London, 1832, 12mo. The book, which marks an epoch in the history of the game, was the most perfect exponent of a school of chess which, in opposition to the Italian school of the eighteenth century, directed the attention of students principally to the middle game, and to the building up of a strong central position with the help of the pawns. Philidor's exposition is mainly characterised by the value attached to the pawns, which he called ‘the soul of the game,’ and by the able demonstration of the possibility of giving mate with a rook and bishop against a rook. Here, however, Philidor has required some correction from later writers. He thought the mate of rook and bishop against rook could always be forced; whereas this is true in special positions only. The argument is conducted by means of games, with illustrative notes.

The greater part of the seven years following 1747 was spent by Philidor in England, although in 1751, by the king of Prussia's invitation, he visited Potsdam, where the interest aroused by his presence is recorded by Euler, the famous mathematician. In 1753 Philidor undertook to set to music Congreve's ‘Ode to St. Cecilia's Day,’ and his composition was performed at the Haymarket on 31 Jan. 1754. Handel heard it, and highly commended the choruses, though he said that the style of the airs left room for improvement. Recalled by Diderot and other friends to Paris in November 1754, Philidor devoted himself almost exclusively to musical composition.

In 1772 he revisited England, where a new chess club had been established at the Salopian Coffee-house, and where Count Brühl was now the leading amateur. The formation of another new chess club in St. James's Street, in 1774, gave a fresh impetus to the game in England. One of the club's first steps was to provide an annual subscription as an inducement to Philidor to spend each season (February–June) in London. In 1775 he came to London in accordance with this arrangement, and to the new chess club he dedicated the new edition of his ‘Analyse,’ to which every member, including Gibbon and C. J. Fox, subscribed. He frequently advertised in the London papers that he would repeat the tour de force of playing two or three games at once blindfold.

Meanwhile Philidor did not neglect musical production. In 1779, in conjunction with Guiseppe Baretti [q. v.], he set to music Horace's ‘Carmen Seculare,’ which was performed on three nights at the Freemasons' Hall with success, and in 1789 he produced an English ‘Ode,’ followed by a ‘Te Deum,’ to celebrate the recovery of George III.

Philidor sympathised with the French revolutionary movement of 1789, but after the September massacres in 1792 he came back to London, and was a frequent guest at the table of Count Brühl. Although, at the conclusion of the reign of terror, anxious to return to his family in Paris, he was unable to get his name erased from the list of suspected émigrés. He died at No. 10 Little Ryder Street, London, on 24 Aug. 1795.

As a chess-player Philidor stood, in his own day, absolutely alone. A number of his games are preserved in Walker's valuable ‘Selection of Games at Chess played by Philidor and his Contemporaries’ (London, 1835; it is also included in his larger work ‘Chess Studies,’ 1844, reprinted 1893). His genius is commemorated among chess-players by ‘Philidor's Defence.’ As a musician, Philidor, in the words of Fétis, possessed more ‘musical science’ than any of his French contemporaries. His harmony is more varied than that of Duni, Monsigny, and Grétry, although the latter two easily surpassed him in melodic grace and dramatic instinct. He was the first to introduce on the stage the ‘air descriptif’ (‘Le Maréchal’) and the unaccompanied quartet (‘Tom Jones’), and to form a duet of two independent and apparently incongruous melodies. His use of the chorus and instrumentation was superior to that of any other French composer, and his compositions were treated as models, and given out as subjects of study in the Conservatoire at Paris as late as 1841 (cf. Gustave Chouquet in Grove's Dict. of Musicians).

Philidor married, at St. Sulpice, Paris, on 13 Feb. 1760, Angélique Henriette Elisabeth Richer, sister of the famous singer, and left one daughter and four sons, one of whom, André, survived until 1845. An anonymous portrait in the museum at Versailles was engraved for vol. iii. of the chess periodical, ‘Le Palamède,’ and there is another engraving made by Samuel Watts for Kenny's edition of the ‘Analysis’ (1819). A bust, executed in terra-cotta by Pajon, was presented by the city of Paris to Madame Philidor in 1768; while a portrait by Robineau is stated to have been purchased by the London Chess Club.

[George Allen's Life of Philidor (1863), with a supplementary essay on Philidor as Chess-author and Chess-player, by Tassilo von Heydebrand und der Lasa, constitutes the most valuable authority. An appreciative estimate by Gustave Chouquet is in Grove's Dictionary of Musicians. The most valuable of the contemporary sources are the life in La Borde's Essai sur la Musique, Paris, 1760; Anecdotes of Mr. Philidor, communicated by himself [by Richard Twiss] in ‘Chess,’ 1789, vol. ii.; ‘Closure of the Account of Mr. Philidor’ in Twiss's Miscellanies, 1805, ii. 105–114, the article, ‘Philidor peint par lui-même,’ in Palamède, vii. 2–16, and the ‘Lettres de Philidor’ in Palamède, 1847, passim. The most complete lists of his compositions are given in Fétis and in Champlin's Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians. See also preface to the ‘Analysis,’ ed. George Walker, 1832; Tomlinson's Chess Player's Annual, 1856, p. 160; Brainne's Hommes Illustres de l'Orléanais, i. 75; Piot's Particularités inédites concernant les œuvres musicales de Gossec et de Philidor; Clément's Musiciens Célèbres, p. 101; La France Musicale, December 1867, February 1868; Castil-Blaze's De l'Opéra, i. 17; Chalmers's Biographical Dictionary; Burney's Hist. of Music; Memoir in Rees's Cyclopædia; L'Intermédiaire des Chercheurs et Curieux, xix. 679, 731, xx. 23, 79, xxiii. 36, 146, 177, xxiv. 52; there is an allusion to Philidor in Balzac's Maison du Chat qui pelote. The writer is indebted to the Rev. W. Wayte for a revision of the article.]

T. S.