Francois-Andre Danican Philidor was born on September 7, 1726 in Dreux, France. He belonged to a family which had been connected for three generations with the band of the Chapel-Royal in Versailles. The first of the family, whose surname was Danican (Michel Danican, who died in 1659), succeeded an Italian wood-wind player named Filidori. The oboe (hautbois) was invented by Michel Danican and Jean Hotteterre in 1650. The family adopted that name after Louis XIII (1601-1643) had playfully used it in praise of his playing. Filidori had preceded Danican in that section of wood-wind players of the Versailles orchestra.
Francois-Andre Danican Philidor’s father, Andre Danican (1647-1730), was the keeper of the music for the royal family in France. He was known as Philidor l’aine (Philidor the Elder). He was a member of the Grande Edurie military band (played the oboe and crumhorn) and later performed at the Royal Chapel Court. He was an official musician of the court of King Louis XIV (1638-1643).
Andre was 79 when Francois-Andre was born. Francois-Andre was the 20th child of Andre and the first son of his third wife, Elizabeth Le Roy. Andre married her when he was 72 and she was 19. Andre died at the age of 83.
Andre’s oldest son, Anne Danican Philidor (1681-1728), created the “Concert Spirituel,” or Paris concert series.
In 1731 at the age of six, Francois-Andre entered the choir of the Chapel-Royal in Versailles. As a pageboy in the royal chapel, he studied music with Andre Campra (1660-1744). Philidor’s father had died earlier and was living on a royal pension. The young Philidor was recognized as a musical prodigy among the 80 musicians.
In 1736 at the age of 10, Francois-Andre was exposed to chess by the musicians who played chess during spells of inactivity. Cards were forbidden to pass the time, so chess was played. He learned the game by watching the band members play. He later visited the Cafe de la Regence in Paris and spent much of his time playing chess there.
In 1737, at the age of 11, his first music composition, a religious piece, was played before King Louis XV. He left the Chapel Royal choir in 1740 when his voice changed. In 1740 he went to Paris where he earned a living by copying music and giving music lessons.
In 1741 Philidor was being instructed by M. de Kermur, Sire de Legal (1702-1792), the leading French chess player. Legal initially gave Philidor rook odds. For the next three years Legal taught Philidor until Philidor was too strong for his teacher.
Around 1743, Phildor started playing blindfold chess. Philidor told his teacher, Legal, that he calculated moves, and even whole games, at night in bed. Philidor’s first opponent while playing blindfolded was the Abbe Chenard, which Philidor won.
In 1744, Philidor played two chess games blindfolded simultaneously in public in Paris. This was the first time blindfold play against two opponents was recorded. This performance was chronicled in the article on chess by the French scholar Chevalier Louis de Jaucourt (1704-1779) for the great Encyclopedie of Diderot and D’Alembert in 1751. Philidor also played chess with Voltaire (1694-1778) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), both persistent but weak chess players. He also played Benjamin Franklin.
In December, 1745, Philidor went to Rotterdam to assist in presenting concerts with Geminiani and Lanza. The musical tour involved a 13-year old girl who played the harpsichord. However, she died during the concert tour. Later, the concerts were cancelled because of the girl’s death and he was stranded in the Netherlands with no money. He supported himself by teaching and playing chess and Polish draughts (10 by 10 checker board), especially to English army officers at The Hague. The English officers suggested that Philidor could make a living playing chess in England.
In 1747, Philidor went to London and started playing chess at Slaughter’s coffee-house. There, he beat Phillip Stamma (1705-1755) and Sir Abraham Janssen (1720-1795), two of England’s top chess players, in chess matches.
Philidor challanged Stamma to a 10-game match and he stipulated that Stamma was to have White in all games and that draws were counted victories for Stamma. Philidor won 8 games, lost 1, and drew 1. He also beat Janssen with 4 wins and 1 loss. From that time on, Philidor was the unofficial champion of the world.
In 1748 Philidor, age 22, returned to Holland and wrote (i>>L’analyse du jeu des Eschecs (Analysis of the Game of Chess). Philidor went out to find subscribers for the book before it was published to pay for publishing costs. Lord Sandwich subscribed to 10 copies. The Duke of Cumberland subscribed to 50 copies. The English army officers subscribed to 119 copies. The moves were written out as full sentences.
In 1749, 433 copies of his Analyse du jeu des Echecs were published in London. Two more reprints occurred in 1749 and an English version followed in 1750. A third edition was printed in 1790. The book was the first chess book translated into Russian (1824) and was one of the favorite books of Thomas Jefferson. The book analyzed 4 games and 10 variations of games. Philidor favored the Bishop’s Opening and frowned upon the King’s Knight Opening as weak. The book has gone through more than 70 editions, 4 in the first year.
Philidor’s chess books was the first chess book that organized the openings, that explained the middlegame, the overall strategy of chess, and the importance of pawn formation. In his book he made the observation that ‘Les pions sont l’ame du jeu’ (the pawns are the life of the game). This phrase has become “the pawns are the soul of chess.” His book was also the first to examine the R+B vs. R endgame. It also had some analysis of 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6, the Philidor’s Defense.
By 1750 Philidor was considered the strongest player in France, England, and the Netherlands. The French Ambassadaor, the Duke of Mirepoix, invited Philidor for his weekly chess dinners.
In 1751 Philidor left England for Prussia, playing before King Frederick (Frederick the Great) at Potsdam. He then visited Berlin where he played 3 blindfold games simultaneously, winning them all. He then returned to England.
In November 1754, Philidor returned to France after being gone for 9 years. He started composing music again. He did not return to England until 1772. He applied unsuccessfully for the post of court composer at Versailles. A rumor had started that nobody could be a chess master and compose good music, so his church music was not really his own. His church music was not accepted by the French royalty because Philidor added an Italian influence to it, so he turned to comedy opera.
In 1755 he beat Legal in a chess match at the Cafe de la Regence.
On February 13, 1760, at age 33, he married Angelique Richer (1736-1809). He had 5 sons and 2 daughters with her.
In 1761 he composed the opera Le Marechal ferrant.
In 1764 he composed the opera Le Sorcier.
In 1765 he composed the opera Tom Jones for the theater based on Fielding’s novel. It was his 11th opera that he had composed since 1759.
In 1771 and 1773 he made brief trips to London to play at the Salopian coffee house, Charing Cross, and the St. James Chess Club. He returned for seasonal chess lectures in 1775 and 1792.
In 1774, the Parsloe’s chess club on St. James Street, was formed in London, with a distinguished membership limited to 100. A fund was raided to enable Philidor to spend from February to June at the club. Philidor visited the club as resident master for 20 years. He gave lessons for a crown each.
In 1777 he published a second edition of his book under the patronage of the London Chess Club at Parsloe’s. There were 283 subscribers, including Lord Sandwich. Philidor added 6 other games to the original 4 games that he analyzed. In this book he described the rule for castling as we know it now. However, there was a footnote: “The old way of castling in several countries, and which still subsists in some, was to leave to the player’s disposal, all the interval the King and the Rook, inclusively, to place there these two pieces.” So, as recently as 1777, you could put the King and Rook anywhere you wanted on the back rank. The book was dedicated to the Duke of Cumberland.
In 1779 he produced his major choral work, the Carmen saeculare, while in London. In 1780 he composed Persee.
On May 27, 1782, Philidor played 2 games blindfolded simultaneously at the Parsloe’s, drawing one (to Count Bruhl) and losing one (to Mr. Bowdler).
On May 9, 1783 Philidor played 3 blindfold games simultaneously, winning 2 and drawing one. In 9 blindfold performances, Philidor won 10, drew 4, and lost 6. In 1783 a new chess club was established in Paris under the patronage of Louis XVIII with Philidor invited to teach and play chess.
In 1785 he composed Themistocle.
In 1790, Philidor published a third edition of his book, dedicating it to his friend and patron, Count Bruhl (1736-1809). The book is described as a “new edition, improved and greatly enlarged.” It was printed for Peter Elmsly, bookseller in the Strand in London. Following the preface, there is a list of 66 subscribers.
In December 1792, at age 65, he left France for England, never to return. His music was banned from France after the French Revolution (1789-1799) for political reasons. Philidor’s name was on the Revolutionary banishment list, established by the Convention nationale, due to his family’s attachment to the royal family. He had to leave his wife and children behind.
Philidor wanted to return to France, but he was considered an emigre and would have been arrested or executed.
Philidor’s last blindfold performance was on June 20, 1795 at the London chess club. He played 2 games blindfolded and a third game with sight of the board. One of his opponents was George Atwood (1746-1807), the mathematician and churchman.
On Monday, August 31, 1795, at age 68, he died in London. The newspaper obituary read, “On Monday last, Mr. Philidor, the celebrated chess player, made his last move, into the other world.” He is buried at St James Church in London.
Only 68 games from his last years have been recorded, either played blindfolded or at odds. Philidor was in his 60s when the games were recorded.
Philidor wrote over 21 operas during his musical career.
In 1835 George Walker published A Selection of Games at Chess: Actually Played by Philidor and his Contemporaries. It contains 47 of Philidor’s games. It is based on the note-taking of George Atwood.
In 1858, George Allen published The Life of Philidor, Musician and Chess-Player, in Philadelphia.
His bust is carved into the Opera House in Paris, where it can still be seen along with his family coat of arms, which has a chessboard in it.
Jean-Jaques Rousseau’s Confessions mentions Philidor with reference to music and chess.
By Bill Wall