Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Edmond Dédé (1827-1903) Creole African American Composer, Violinist & Conductor

Edmond Dédé (1827-1903)

Edmond Dédé a Creole was born on November 20, 1827, in New Orleans and died in 1903, in Paris. He was a free-born Creole musician and composer. He moved to Europe to study in Paris in 1857 and settled in France. His compositions include Quasimodo Symphony, Le Palmier Overture, Le Sermente de L'Arabe and Patriotisme. He served for 27 years as the conductor of the orchestra at the Théatre l'Alcazar in Paris.

Battle on Santo Domingo, a painting by January Suchodolski depicting a struggle between Polish troops in French service and the Haitian rebels

Dédé's parents had arrived in New Orleans from the French West Indies around 1809, after the Haitian Revolution. His father was a militia unit bandmaster. As a boy, Dédé first learned the clarinet, but soon switched to the violin, on which he was considered a child prodigy. He would later go on to perform compositions of his own as well as those by Rodolphe Kreutzer, a favored composer of his. Dédé's teachers in his youth included violinists Constantin Debergue a local free black violinist and director of the local Philharmonic Society founded by free Creoles of color sometime in the late antebellum period and Italian-born Ludovico Gabici, who was the director of the St. Charles Theater Orchestra. He was taught music theory by Eugène Prévost French-born winner of the 1831 Prix de Rome and conductor of the orchestra at the Théâtre d'Orléans in the French Quarter and New York-born free black musician Charles Richard Lambert, the father of Sidney and Charles Lucien Lambert.

Rodolphe Kreutzer

Dédé's instruction from Ludovico Gabici ended when white hostility towards musicians of color forced him to flee to Mexico. He continued his studies there. When he eventually returned to the US around 1852, he worked as a cigar maker, saving money to be able to travel to Europe. In 1852 Dédé's melody Mon pauvre coeur appeared. It is the oldest surviving piece of sheet music by a New Orleans Creole of color. He supplemented his income from music with what today would be characterized as his day job: he was a cigar maker, as were a number of other local musicians.

The Paris Conservatoire

He went first to Belgium, then Paris, where he managed to obtain an ultimately successful audition at the Paris Conservatoire in 1857. He studied at the Conservatoire with Jean Delphin Alard and Jacques-François Halevy.

His other instructor was noted French violinist and teacher Jean Delphin Alard.

In 1864 Dédéhe married a white Frenchwoman, Sylvie Leflet, and settled in Bordeaux. They had one son, Eugene Arcade Dédé. He became a classical music composer as well.

The Theatre l'Alcazar in Paris

Edmond Dédé served for 27 years as the conductor of the orchestra at the Theatre l'Alcazar in Paris. He also conducted light music performances at the Folies Bordelaises.

Folies Bordelaises

Folies Bordelaises

Samuel Snaer, Jr. (1835–1900), an African-American conductor and musician, conducted the first performance in New Orleans of Dédé's Quasimodo Symphony. It was premiered on the night of May 10, 1865 in the New Orleans Theater to a large audience of prominent free people of color of New Orleans and Northern whites. Dédé was not present at this performance. Patrons and music critics alike regarded the concert a great success.

After settling in Bordeaux in 1864, Dédé returned to New Orleans only once, in 1893, to give a performance. During his journey to the United States, Dédé lost his precious Cremona violin. Forced to use a different instrument, Dédé still performed to accolades. Dédé introduced two new songs in New Orleans, one of which, Patriotisme, he regarded as his farewell to New Orleans, for in it he laments his destiny to live far away because of "implacable prejudice" at home. The song is a setting of a poem of the same name, written by the African American historian Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes (1849-1928).

The Societé des Jeunes Amis hall a wood-framed 19th century black Creole fraternal headquarter building

Grateful for receiving honorary membership in the Société des Jeunes-Amis, a leading local social group composed mostly of Creoles of color of antebellum free background, but weary of the increasing inconveniences and indignities of racial segregation, Dédé returned to France and became a full member of the Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers in 1894.

Edmond Dédé died in 1903 in Paris. Many of his compositions have been preserved at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris and were not rediscovered until the 1980's.


  1. Wow! What an amazing story! It breaks my heart to know that there were so many black musicians who never had an opportunity to play the music they heard in their heads...too poor and disenfranchised to own an instrument.

  2. Seems he had a great instrument that most professional violinists would love to own, myself included. Thank goodness for parts of Europe less bigoted than the US and most other countries.