Emile Paladilhe

  • Born: 3 June 1844, Montpellier, France
  • Died: 6 January 1926, Paris, France

Émile Paladilhe (1844–1926) was the youngest ever recipient of the coveted Prix de Rome.

Born in Montpellier on 3 June 1844, his first musical training came from his father, Dr Alcide Paladilhe, a keen amateur flautist, and a Spanish abbé, Sebastien Boixet, who played the cathedral organs.

At the age of nine, Paladilhe went to study at the Conservatoire de Paris, with a bursary from his home town.  Marmontel taught him piano, Benoist organ, and Halévy composition.  He was one of Halévy’s favourite students; the composer of La Juive noted in him an extraordinarily precocious musical talent.

As a boy, Paladilhe apparently knew Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier by heart.  In 1856, at the age of 12, he received the second piano prize, and the first accessit for fugue.  The next year, he was awarded the first piano prize, and accessit in organ; and in 1859, he took the first accessit in organ, and an honorable mention for the concours de Rome.  Finally, in 1860, at the tender age of 16, he was awarded the prix de Rome with the cantata Ivan IV, as well as the second organ prize.

While the jury was deliberating, Paladilhe walked in the Institut’s great courtyard.  The judgement over, Berlioz passed through, on his way home.  Paladilhe stopped him:

“Is it over, monsieur? … who obtained the prize?”

“What’s that to you, kid?” (said the composer of Les Troyens, doing his best Jimmy Cagney impression)

“But, sir, it interests me a lot!”

“Well, since it interests you so much, it’s Paladilhe who has the first prize!”

“Really, sir? – but I’m Paladilhe.”

“What, it’s you, toddler?”

And Berlioz, picking him up from the ground, kissed him on both cheeks, and predicted a great career.

Paladilhe’s career had, in fact, already started.  While studying, he performed as a piano virtuoso with enormous success, composed piano pieces, romances, and even opera.

He was 14 years old when, in one of his concerts, he performed the music of a one-act opera, Le Chevalier Bernard; 15 when he produced, in the same conditions, La Reine Mathilde, an opera in three acts.

Auber, director of the Institut, personally recommended him to Heugel; his first three piano pieces were published, under the title Premières Pensées.

As a pianist, the little prodigy astonished audiences by the perfection of his technique, the charm of his playing, and his marvellous memory.

Almost still a child, all the laurels of the Conservatoire have already crowned his brow…  What we have heard from Paladilhe’s dramatic essays promises a melodist.  He writes very well, and his works testify that he knew how to profit from the high teaching of Halévy.  Until we can proclaim him a great composer, we can state that his talent as a pianist is most remarkable.  Out of the school of Marmontel, he has the purity, the elegance, the brio, the poetic charm.  A trio of Mendelssohn performed with MM. Rignault and Chaîne, a romance without words by the same master, a pretty Polonaise by Marmontel, a Chopin nocturne, a Bach fugue, and a lovely Stephen Hellen tarantella showed how successfully the young virtuoso approached all styles.  He performed three pieces of his own composition.  All contain charming things; the rondo scherzo, above all, is a happy inspiration; he performed them with great clarity and taste, simply, without thumping, and yet with all the energy and power of sound that one can have at fifteen.

While at the Villa Médicis, he became a close friend of Gounod.  The Mandolinata, “delicate and melodious souvenir of his stay there” (Journal officiel de la république française),was on everybody’s lips throughout Europe.

The young virtuoso seemed to give sure promises for his future – but his operatic career didn’t properly start until 1872, twelve years after his return from Rome.

He wrote a series of graceful but unsuccessful operas, with badly constructed, uninteresting libretti (Albert Dayrolles, Annales politiques et littéraires).

Le passant (opéra-comique in 1act, 1872) was a failure, despite an attractive score ; Félix Clément (Dictionnaire des opéras) thought the libretto was to blame, lacking any of the elements proper to a libretto.  Arthur Pougin (Le Ménestrel) considered its music more the work of a dreamer than a real stage musician.

L’amour africain (opéra-comique in 2 acts,1875), based on a Prosper Mérimée play, was considered too violent and noisy, and had almost no success.

Suzanne (opéra-comique in 3 acts, 1878) was liked more than Paladilhe’s earlier efforts: Clément called it a charming work, suffering from a too improbable plot.  Despite a delightful first act, Pougin wrote, it wasn’t successful.

The historical opéra-comique Diana (3 acts, 1885) did not inspire the composer; it was found too cold and heavy, Clément wrote, and left the public indifferent.

Between times, Paladilhe published compositions, collections of 20 mélodies and Six melodies écossaises, full, Pougin wrote, of charm, grace, and freshness.  These include the exquisite Psyché.

All that time, he had his eye on Patrie!.  It was a critical and popular success – but his last performed opera.

Two later works – Vanina (composed 1890) and Dalila (composed 1896) – never reached the stage. 

From 1890, Paladilhe devoted himself to church music.  He composed motets; two masses, one for Pentecost, and one on St François d’Assise. (Not by Messiaen.)

Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (1892), an oratorio in four parts, was composed on a poem by Louis Gallet, at the request of the Bishop of Montpellier.

He died at his work desk, while writing a Tu es Petrus, a cappella, on 6 June 1926.

“Paladilhe is not one of those we meet frequently,” Dayrolles wrote. “He lives quietly in his apartment on the rue Mansard, and rarely goes into society or first performances.

“His photograph itself is visible in no shop window.  We would look in vain for him among the people who compose the Tout-Paris of each day. He lives at home, and is fully absorbed in the study and practice of his art.  He even abandoned his piano, which he once used to cultivate so successfully. His nature is balanced and thoughtful. He is modest, and avoids opportunities to talk about himself.  Nevertheless, it must have been sweet for him to hear his name in all the newspapers, attached to his cherished Patrie, which he coddled so long, and which all Paris was in a hurry to see this week…!”


  1. Le passant (1872)
  2. L’amour africain (1875)
  3. Suzanne (1876)
  4. Diana (1885)
  5. Patrie! (1886)
  6. Vanina (composed 1890, never performed)
  7. Dalila (composed 1896, never performed)