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DAVID, Félicien (1810-1876)

Orphaned at the age of five, Félicien David trained at the choir school of Saint-Sauveur Cathedral, Aix-en-Provence, before entering the Paris Conservatoire in 1830. There, he attended the classes of Millault (harmony), Fétis (counterpoint) and Benoist (organ), while also studying privately with Reber. After meeting the painter Pol Justus in 1831, he left the Conservatoire (without obtaining any prizes) to join the Saint-Simonians, becoming their official composer. When the community was disbanded by government order in 1832, David left France with a group of friends to preach the Saint-Simonian gospel in the East, a journey that took them to Constantinople, Smyrna, Jaffa, Jerusalem, and finally Egypt. From that time dates his pronounced taste for exoticism, as illustrated in his Mélodies orientales, 22 piano pieces published in 1836, shortly after his return to Paris. Although he did not succeed in finding a niche for himself in the musical milieu of the capital, David composed at that time 24 short string quintets (Les Saisons), 4 symphonies, and 2 nonets for brass. Le Désert, described as an ‘ode symphonie’ and premièred on 8 December 1844 at the Théâtre-Italien, marked the turning-point in his career. This descriptive work, which aroused a passion for oriental subjects that was to last throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, was an immediate success. In 1851 David began to write for the stage; within fifteen years he produced La Perle du Brésil (1851), Herculanum (1859), Lalla-Roukh (1862), La Captive (completed in 1864) and Le Saphir (1865). He was showered with honours in the last years of his life. In 1869 he succeeded Berlioz both as librarian of the Conservatoire and as a member of the Institut de France.