43. Philidor, chess player in Paris
The most important figure in the history of chess has been André Philidor. I conclude this on the basis of the many references to his person and his work in the Index Richard Eales closed his 1985 book “Chess. The History of a Game” with. And Harold Murray opened chapter XIV, entitled Philidor and the Modenese masters, of his “History of Chess” (1913) with the words: “There is no name in the annals of chess which is more widely known than that of André (baptized François-André) Danican Philidor”. There is even a biography, written by George Allen in 1863, “Life of Philidor”.
The two English chess historians and the American biographer describe Philidor as the strongest chess player of his time. He was, however, also a strong draughts player, said Allen. Murray and Eales mention this in passing.
To complete the current image of Philidor, I shall need a fair number of chapters; this is the first one. I don’t strictly confine myself to Philidor as a person but also enter into the character of the era sketched by the two chess historians I mentioned and other ones. By the way, completion here and there implies a correction of or a doubt on a general assumption.
My texts are rewritings and completion of my contributions about Philidor to the magazine “Caissa” edited by the German historian and chess player Mario Ziegler, which unfortunately could not stick it out financially.
Philidor’s family names
They look chicly, the two family names of François-André Danican Philidor, Dreux September 7. 1726 – London August 31, 1795. It’s like this.
One of the oboes of the Royal Chapel, still in king Louis XIV’s time, was called Filidori. One of successors was an ancestor of Philidor. This oboist bore one family name: Danican. On some day he played so compellingly that the king paid him a compliment: “You are playing like Filidori”. Since this moment, a proud Danican called himself Danican Philidor. His sons and daughters adorned their selves with the double name, and so did his grandchildren. One of them was Philidor’s father. He used to be member of the Chapel, but when Philidor was born he had amounted to the librarian of the company [Eales 1985:113, relying on George Allen].
A first nice story, I retell it with pleasure. The problem is that no scholar has ever discovered a musician named Filidori, see http://billwall.phpwebhosting.com/articles/Philidor.htm.
Up to the second story, how Philidor learned to play chess.
Where did Philidor learn chess?
Here too Philidor’s biographer is the source. However, he wrote his book in 1863, more than half a century after Philidor’s death in 1795. Therefore, a critical approach seems reasonable.
As a boy Philidor was admitted to the choir of the Chapel where his father had a function. He had about twenty brothers and sisters. Were they singers in the choir too? Or did Philidor possess an angel’s voice? He sang until 1740 [Murray 1913:861]. His voice was breaking, I suppose.
Members of the Chapel taught the boy chess. Allen [1863:6]: “In these days the kings of France went to a daily mass. It was graced with music, every morning eighty musicians sat ready. The king could keep them waiting, and how did the gentlemen chase away boredom? Playing cards were not admitted, but chess was: six boards were available, inlaid in a long table”. A new nice story.
Chess at the French court
According to Eales [1985:102] nothing is known about chess at the French court. However, see Dirk van der Cruysse [1975:46], who quotes a passage of Louis de Rouvroy, duke of Saint-Simon. In his “Mémoires” (edited in 1829) he chronicled what he had seen at the court during the last years of Louis XIV, who reigned from 1643 to his death in 1715, and his successor Philippe d’Orléans, regent until 1723 pending the appointment of a new king. Together with the duke of Ghevreuse, Saint-Simon paid an unexpected visit to the duke of la Rochefoucauld. “The passage deserves a quote”, said Cruysse. “Entering there we found to our surprise, and to our shame, I add, the duke alone in his room playing chess with his lackey in livery sitting over him. The duke of Ghevreuse was speechless, and so was I. The duke of la Rochefoucauld caught site of us and kept silence too, confused (…) He stuttered, at a loss with the situation, tried to find excuses for the tableau: the lackey played the game very well, he said, and also that a chess player played against whoever opponent. As soon as we were outdoors we told each other, the duke of Ghevreuse and I, how we thought about such a so rare meeting”.
A similar embarrassing situation is also known about the count of Richelieu, Cruysse says in his footnote no. 168. Richelieu was nabbed when he just wanted to start a game at tables with one of his servants. This was in the Bastille, where Richelieu was confined for a while.
On Friday February 17, 1700, André Philidor Sr performed a masque he wrote for the king in the small castle of Marly, where Louis retired to escape from the demanding obligations of the Versailles court. It was a homage to the king, who checkmates al his enemies. In nine short parts several dressed up people, accompanied by music, represented among others a chess board, a chess king and a chess queen.
Françoise d’Aubigné, marquise de Maintenon, was king Louis XIV’s wife. In 1686 she had a house built in Saint Cyr for the education of young daughters of impoverished nobility. As these games contributed to the mental development of the girls, they were allowed to play chess and draughts [Mourik & Stoep 2019:96 with picture]. Obviously, these were familiar games for the queen.
Draughts at the French court
One of the court painters, we don’t know his name, immortalized three of Louis XIV’s grandsons, posing in their Sunday clothes with a 10×10 draughtboard, about 1693. The young duke of Anjou, the later Philip V of Spain, cannot leave the pieces. See for a reproduction Mourik & Stoep [2019:89]. On June 15, 1755, Lazare Duveaux, a furniture maker who had his clients among the French well-to-do, delivered a 10×10 draughtboard in a leather case with pieces of rosewood to the marquise de Pompadour [Kruijswijk 1966:120]. Madame lived in the castle in Versailles.
The American magazine “Boy’s Own” was an encyclopedia for the youth. Only for boys of course, since girls are going to take care for the children. The edition of March 6, 1875, has an article on queen Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), “a keen players of draughts”, the magazine assured its readers. This Austrian archduchess was married with king Louis XVI. A lot has been written about her short life, her last day, the final passage to the guillotine at the Place de la Concorde, the zinging fall of the knife. It could naturally be true that this unhappy woman was fond of draughts, but what then was the source of the American information?
An earlier draughts player of royal blood was Louis II de Bourbon (1632-1686), Prince of Condé and bearer of a series of other titles. He was related to king Louis XIII. As a Dutchman I look back at him with resentment, as he attacked the Netherlands in 1762 with the intention to add parts of our country to the French territory. In the lessons of history at the high school I learned that 1672 was for my country a year of disaster. The French on the contrary consider this aggressor as a military genius.
The Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris keeps a broadsheet, probably from the period 1650-1670, with the title “Le Jev de Dames, que Monsieur le Prince de Condé a ioüé avec Monsieur Guitault” (The game of draughts which Monsieur the Prince of Condé has played with Monsieur Guitault) [journal Dam Eldorado 1979:27,30]. Two remarks: for the writer it is evident that a prince plays draughts, and every Frenchman knows the game.
Obviously, the writer gets his own back with the prince because of one or more affairs with women, as the words dame and damer he repeatedly uses are suggestive: dame meant singleton in draughts but also woman of rank, and damer meant promote a piece but also get off with a woman. King Louis XIV rewarded this Condé with the official title of “The great Condé” and gave him a big diamond, the pink Condé.
His son Henri-Jules de Bourbon had a chess school (about 1680); the Condé Museum in Chantilly keeps, says Murray [1913:839] three manuscripts with openings which were prepared for this use.
The iconography of draughts by Van Mourik and Stoep (2019) contains reproductions of paintings from several European countries where male and female members of a noble family posed with a draughtboard and its pieces: draughts was a status symbol. For this reason, I cannot say with 100% certainty that the young princes, Madame de Pompadour and other residents of Versailles played draughts, the draughtboard could be an instrument to confirm their status. At other paintings, however, the painter captured members of the higher circles actively playing the game. Because of this it seems a plausible assumption that the French court did play draughts and chess.
Back to Allen’s table with inlaid chess boards. The musicians did not live in an air bubble, so they must have played both chess and draughts. But OK, the story about six chess boards could be true.
The higher intellects
I just write: “The story about six chess boards could be true”, or Allen himself undermines his reliability, in my eyes at least. Who ordered an artisan to make a table with six inlaid chessboards? The higher intellects of the Chapel, Allen supposed. Here Allen is sticking feathers up his butt, as he is a chess player himself! The American is in the good company of the Dutchman Petrus Lievens Kersteman, who in his translation (1786) of Philidor’s book is praising chess to the sky, in comparison draughts is only a children’s game. Unanswered question: what was the reason for Kersteman’s opinon? In our time, the view that chess is a game which demands uncommon gifts has grown into a sociological prejudice. In Mourik & Stoep [2019:31] I describe the underlying process, but I shall bring up this subject on this site too.
The misconception is from all ages. One of the contributors to the “Encyclopédie”, the series of books where 18th c. France laid down its cultural and intellectual achievements, was Chevalier de Jaucourt. He felt tempted to a rough comment. “Some people, struck by the fact that chance plays no part in [chess], and that skill alone is victorious, regard chess players as endowed with superior abilities, but if this reasoning is right, why do we see so many ordinary men, and near imbeciles, who excel at it just as some of the most gifted, of all kinds, have not been able to achieve mediocrity?” [Eales 1985:107]. Denis Diderot, the chief editor of the “Encyclopédie”, shared this opinion [Eales 1985:107].
Under the protection of the strongest chess player of Paris, de Légal, Philidor became a strong chess player [Eales 1985:113]. In 1742 chess playing Paris recognized him as a chess master. He was only a boy, only sixteen years old. Harry Golombek: “Légal was M. de Kermur, Sire de Légal, Philidor’s teacher and the best player in France until the coming of Philidor (…) When he first met Philidor, who was then very young, he could give him the odds of a Rook, but by 1743, when Philidor was seventeen, he could not afford to give him any odds at all; in 1745 he was decisively beaten by him in a match” [1976:115].
Not only chess players embraced Philidor, tout Paris did. Singing in the choir, Philidor discovered his talent for composing: in 1743 a motet of his was performed. The visitors of the concert were wildly enthusiastic: a French composer was born, he would conquer the world. Some years later, king Louis XV granted him a yearly allowance [Petzold 1986:195]. But although he continued composing all his life, the expectations turned out to be false. Today he is a forgotten composer, it is difficult to find a contemporary performance of a Philidor composition.