300 in Black
Celebrating the Impact of Blacks New Orleanians
Violinist and composer, Edmond Dédé, was born in New Orleans on Nov. 20, 1829, after his parents, who were free people of color, migrated from the French West Indies. Dédé’s parents had arrived in New Orleans around 1809 after the Haitian Revolution, where 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 prodigy. Dédé’s father recognized his son’s talents and considered the racism he would face in America as a musician of color and sent his son to Mexico to study music in 1848.
When he eventually returned to New Orleans around 1852, he worked as a cigar maker, saving money to be able to travel to Europe. With talent and confidence at his fingertips, Dédé composed what became the oldest surviving piece of sheet music by a New Orleans Creole of color, “Mon pauvre Coeur”.
Dédé’s teachers, while he was in New Orleans, included violinists Constantin Debergue and Italian-born, Ludovico Gabici, who was the director of the St. Charles Theater Orchestra in New Orleans. He was taught music theory by Eugène Prévost and New York-born, Black musician, Charles-Richard Lambert, the father of Sidney and Charles Lucien Lambert.
Dédé immediately became known as the master of the violin. In 1865, he composed his most famous piece ‘Quasimodo Symphony’ which was first performed by an African-American conductor and musician Samuel Snaer Jr. on May 10, 1865, in the New Orleans Theater.
With success in New Orleans, Dédé finally traveled to Europe. He first went to Belgium, then Paris, France, where he managed to deliver a successful audition for the Paris Conservatoire in 1857. He studied at the Conservatoire with Jean Delphin Alard and Fromental Halevy. This audition secured his admission to the Paris Conservatoire de Musique (Paris Conservatory of Music).
Upon completion of his musical studies, Dédé settled in Bordeaux, France. He married a French woman, Sylvie Leflet, in 1864. Their son, Eugene Arcade Dédé, also became a composer of classical music. In France, Dédé quickly gained popularity as the well-dressed and talented violinist. For 27 years, Dédé became the conductor of the Orchestra of L’Alcazar in France.
After 40 years in Europe, Dédé returned to New Orleans where he received a warm welcome. Unfortunately, Dédé lost his treasured Cremona violin at sea when shipwrecked, but his performances on another instrument were praised by critics and audiences alike. Dédé then bade his farewell to his city with his song ‘Patriotisme’ in which he sang how he laments his destiny to live far away because of “implacable prejudice” in his homeland.
He remained in the United States until 1894 and spent some time traveling to cities around the country in concert. He then returned to France in the same year to take up a full membership at the Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers. In 1903, Dédé died at age 77 in Paris.
Edmond Dédé has inspired Black musicians centuries after his last stroke on his violin. Many of his compositions have been preserved at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (National Library) in France.