Cherubini, MARIA LUIGI CARLO ZENOBIO SALVATORE, composer, b. in Florence, September 14, 1760; d. at Paris, March 15, 1842. His instruction in music began at the early age of six, his father being a musician, and at thirteen he had composed a Te Deum, a Credo, a Miserere, a Mass, and a Dixit. When he was eighteen he attracted the attention of the Grand Duke, afterwards the Emperor Leopold II of Germany, who allowed him a pension. This enabled Cherubini to study counterpoint and the Roman School under Giuseppe Sarti (1729-1802) in Bologna. Sarti advised his pupil to abandon the Neapolitan School, and take Palestrina and his contemporaries as his models. It was part of Sarti’s plan of instruction to have his pupils copy the scores of the masters of the Roman schools, a practice which Cherubini kept up throughout his life and enforced when he became director of the Paris Conservatoire, for he held that, while text books are good, analysis is better. While still under the influence of his master he wrote music to liturgical texts, but soon yielded to the trend of the time by turning his attention to the operatic stage. In 1780 his first opera, “Quinto Fabio”, was produced at Alessandria. This was followed by six other operas brought out in various Italian cities. In 1784 Cherubini was invited to visit London, where he composed and had represented two operas, “La Finta Principessa” and “Giulio Sabino”, works which brought him the appointment of composer to the Court. The year 1786-87 he spent in Paris, returning to Italy for the winter of 1787-88. He then definitely took up his abode in Paris, at that time the scene of the operatic war between Gluck and Piccini, the former representing the principle that music should be the expression of dramatic truth, and the latter the prevailing notion of the Italian school, that music is mainly an external ornamental addition to the dramatic situation, an opportunity of display for vocal virtuosi.
From 1788 to 1805 were trying years for Cherubim. All through this period of political change and unrest he underwent many hardships and humiliations and labored for recognition and an artistic existence in Paris without permanent success. His operas, “Demophon”, “Lodoiska”, “Elisa”, “Medee”, “L’hotellerie portugaise”, “La Punition”, “Emma” (La prisonniere), “Les deux journees”, “Epicure”, “Anacreon”, written during this time, had to be performed in the small Theatre de la Foire Saint-Germain (where he directed the performances from 1789-1792) because the grand opera house was closed to him.
When the Conservatoire was organized in 1795, Cherubini was appointed one of the inspectors. This was about the only distinction conferred upon him during all the years he labored in Paris. His high ideals, his independent disposition, but above all the pure, lofty character of his music, were responsible for his failure to become popular with his contemporaries, and especially with Napoleon I. In 1805 Cherubim received an invitation from Vienna to write an opera and to direct it in person. “Faniska” was produced the following year and received the enthusiastic approbation of the musical world in general, and in particular, of Haydn and Beethoven. The latter especially admired Cherubini, considering him to be the greatest dramatic composer of his time. Napoleon, holding his court at Schonbrunn during Cherubini’s visit to Vienna, pressed him into service and commanded him to take charge of his court concerts. In spite of this, Cherubini could not win the approval of the emperor. The latter preferred the lighter Italian style of Paisiello and Zingarelli, who wrote music to which, in the words of Cherubini, Napoleon might listen without ceasing to think about affairs of state. It was hoped that the opera “Pygmalion”, which he brought out after he returned to Paris, would secure for the composer the favor and protection of the head of the State, but in vain.
Disappointed and discouraged by lack of recognition, Cherubini produced scarcely anything in the two years which followed. He was broken-hearted and in ill health. He accepted an invitation from the Prince de Chimay to visit him and recuperate, and then devoted most of his time to drawing and the study of botany. The dedication of a church in the village of Chimay was the circumstance which changed his career. He was requested to write a mass for this occasion, and the great Mass in F was the result. For thirty years he had written for the stage and had failed to find popular favor. His art was too lofty for general appreciation. Although he did not now entirely forsake the dramatic form (five more operas came from his hand after the Mass in F) he was more and more drawn again toward the field of church music, which he had not cultivated for eighteen years. Cherubini’s great inventiveness and powers of expression were now at their height. His previous activity and experience had developed and matured him both morally and artistically, fitting him for the creation of works he has left us. In a material sense also there was soon to be a change for the better. In 1815 the London Philharmonic Society commissioned him to write a symphony, an overture, and a composition for chorus and orchestra, the performance of which he went especially to London to conduct. This increased his fame abroad. After the accession of Louis XVIII to the throne, Cherubini’s fortunes rose rapidly. He was successively appointed Royal Superintendent of Music and Director of the Conservatoire. He was now at the head of music in France. For the first time in his career he enjoyed the favor and approval of those in power and the recognition of the people in general. His greatest works were written during this period, and as the head of the Conservatoire he influenced the growing generation of musicians, and was an effective barrier against the incipient school of impressionism headed by young Berlioz. Cherubini remained active until 1841, when he resigned his various official positions. Remarkable for organic unity of style, elevation of form, truth of expression and ingenious orchestration as are Cherubini’s dramatic works, he became truly himself in his creations for liturgical texts. The sublimity of conception, vividness, and sustained power displayed in his Mass in F, in the Mass in A written for the coronation of Charles X, his two requiems (especially the one in D minor for three men’s voices and orchestra, which he wrote for his own funeral), place these works among the greatest in all musical literature. Pathetic tenderness alternates with epical grandeur and brilliancy. They are masterworks of religious music but are not available for liturgical purposes. The immoderate length of most of them and their violently dramatic character at times exclude them from use during Divine service. Moreover, he takes liberties with the sacred text. Cherubini’s masses, like Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”, are frequently performed in Germany and elsewhere on festival occasions when large vocal and instrumental bodies unite for the interpretation of the loftiest musical productions of the human mind. Cherubini left some 450 works, about 100 of which have appeared in print. Among them are 11 masses, 2 requiems, motets, litanies, cantatas, and 25 operas.