A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Cherubini, Luigi

CHERUBINI, Maria Luigi Carlo Zenobi Salvatore, born in Florence, Sept. 14, 1760, son of a musician at the Pergola theatre. His musical faculty was evident from the first. 'I began,' says he, in the Preface to his autograph Catalogue, 'to learn music at six, and composition at nine. The first from my father, the second from Bartolomeo and Alessandro Felici, and after their death from Bizzarri and J. Castrucci.' His first work was a Mass and Credo in D, for four voices and accompaniment, and by the time he was sixteen he had composed 3 Masses, 2 Dixits, a Magnificat, a Miserere, and a Te Deum, besides an Oratorio, 3 Cantatas, and other smaller works. In 1777 or 8 the Grand Duke, afterwards the Emperor Leopold II, granted him an allowance that he might study under Sarti at Bologna. Thither Cherubini went, and there he remained for four years, thoroughly acquiring the old Italian contrapuntal style, and gaining that proficiency in polyphonic writing in which no composer since his time has equalled him, unless it be Mendelssohn. The compositions given in the Catalogue[1] under 1778 and 9 are all Antiphons written on Canti fermi, à la Palestrina. With the early part of 1780, however, this stops. His first opera, 'Quinto Fabio,' was written during that summer and produced at Alessandria, and for the next fourteen years operas and dramatic music seem to have engaged almost his entire attention:—1782, 'Armida' (Florence), 'Adriano in Siria' (Leghorn'), 'Il Messenzio' (Florence); 1783, 'Il Quinto Fabio' (Rome), 'Lo sposo di tre' (Venice); 1784, 'L'Idalide' (Florence), 'L'Alessandro nell' Indie' (Mantua). These operas must have made his name known all over Italy. In 1784 he was invited to London, and wrote 'La Finta Principessa' (1785), and 'Giulio Sabino' (1786), for the King's Theatre, but without success. He also made large additions to Paisiello's 'Marchese Tulipano,' and other operas then on the stage in London. He was much noticed by the Prince of Wales, and held the post of Composer to the King for one year. In July 1786 he left London for Paris, where he seems to have remained for the whole of the next year, very much fêted and liked. In the winter of 1787–8 he brought out his eleventh opera at Turin, 'Ifigenia in Aulide.' He then returned to Paris, which from that time became his home. His first opera in Paris was 'Demophon,' to Marmontel's libretto, Dec. 5, 1788. In this opera he broke loose from the light and trivial vein of the Neapolitan school, and laid the foundation of the grand style which he himself afterwards so fully developed. Meanwhile he was fully employed. Léonard, Marie Antoinette's coiffeur, had obtained permission to found an Italian Opera, and Cherubini received the entire musical direction of it. During the years 1789–92, he conducted the so-called 'Bouffons' at the Theatre de la Foire St. Germain, in operas of Anfossi, Paisiello, Cimarosa, and other Italians, besides writing a great number of separate pieces in the same style for insertion into these works. At the same time he was eagerly pushing on in the path opened by 'Demophon.' On the 18th of July, 1791, he brought out 'Lodoïska,' a decided step in advance. The effect produced by his new style, with its unusual harmonic combinations and instrumental effects, was both startling and brilliant, and took the composers of the day completely by surprise. 'Lodoïska' was followed by a series of operas in which he advanced still further. 'Koukourgi' (1793) remained in MS. to be afterwards adapted to 'Ali Baba' [App. p.585 adds date of production July 22, 1833]; but 'Elisa' (Dec. 13, 1794), 'Medée' (March 13, 97), 'L' Hôtellerie Portugaise' (July 25, 98), 'Les deux Journées' (Jan. 16, 1800), known in Germany as 'Der Wasserträger,' as well as a number of small one-act works, such as 'Anacréon' (1803), and 'Achille à Scyros,' both ballet-operas and both masterpieces, show how unceasing was his activity, and how much he must have pleased the opera-goers. But though successful with the public, his pecuniary position was anything but satisfactory. When the 'Conservatoire de Musique' was. founded in 1795, he was appointed one of the three 'Inspecteurs des Études,' an appointment by no means commensurate with his genius and artistic position, chiefly no doubt because of Napoleon's dislike to him, a dislike which the Emperor took no pains to conceal. Cherubini's nature, at all times grave, not to say gloomy, became visibly depressed under these circumstances, and he began to lose all pleasure in his profession. In 1795 he married Madlle. Cecile Tourette, a step not likely to diminish his anxieties. He therefore willingly accepted an offer to write an opera for the Imperial Theatre at Vienna, where he arrived early in July 1805. Here he made acquaintance with Beethoven, whose deafness was not then so great as to be an obstacle to conversation, and the two were often together. Beethoven esteemed Cherubini above all the then living writers for the stage, and his vocal music was much influenced by him. What Cherubini thought of Beethoven's music is not so clear. He was present at the first performances of 'Fidelio,' but beyond his remarks that no one could tell what key the overture was in, and that Beethoven had not sufficiently studied writing for the voice, nothing is known. 'Il était toujours brusque,' was his one answer to enquiries as to Beethoven's personal characteristics. (See Schindler's 'Beethoven,' i. 118, also p. 184 of this Dictionary.)

The 'Wasserträger' was performed shortly after Cherubini's arrival, and 'Faniska' produced Feb. 25, 1806. But it was a poor time for operas in Vienna. The war between Austria and France broke out immediately after his arrival; Vienna was taken on Nov. 13, and Cherubini was soon called upon to organise and conduct Napoleon's soirées at Schönbrunn. But his main object at Vienna was frustrated, and he returned to France. His mind became so much embittered as to affect his health. Whilst living in retirement at the château of the Prince de Chimay, his friends entreated him to write some sacred music for the consecration of a church there; for a long time he refused, but at last set to work secretly, and surprised them with the Mass in F for three voices and orchestra (1809). With this work a new epoch opens. It is true that both in 1809 and 1810 we find one-act operas ('Pimmalione,' Nov. 30, 1809, 'Le Crescendo,' Sept. 1, 1810), that in 1813 he wrote the 'Abencérages,' and even so late as 1833 'Ali Baba,' but the fact remains that after 1809 sacred music was Cherubini's main occupation. Besides a number of smaller sacred pieces for one, two, three, or more voices, with orchestra, organ, or quartet, the Catalogue for the years 1816–25 contains the 'Messe Solennelle' in C (March 14, 1816), a 'Gloria' in B♭, a 'Credo' in D, the 'Messe des Morts' (Requiem) in C (all 1817); the 'Messe Solennelle' in E (1818); that in G, and a 'Kyrie' (both 1819); that in B♭ (Nov. 1821); a 'Kyrie' in C minor (Sept. 13, 1823); the Coronation Mass for 3 voices (April 29, 1825); and lastly the 'Requiem' in D for men's voices (Sept. 24, 1836).

[App. p.585 adds that "in 1815 he came to England and conducted his 'Anacreon' overture and two MS. compositions at the Philharmonic concert on March 13."]

During the hundred days Napoleon made him Chevalier of the Legion of Honour; and shortly after, under Louis XVIII, he was elected member of the 'Institut,' and in 1816 was appointed jointly with Lesueur 'musician and superintendant of the King's Chapel,' with a salary of 3,000 francs. Thus almost at once did honour, position, and income, all fall upon him. In 1822 he became Director of the Conservatoire, and the energy which he threw into his new work is shown by the 'Solféges pour l'examen de l'École,' which fill the Catalogue during the next few years, and by the 'Cours de Contrepoint et de la Fugue,' which was published in 1835. Nor are these years barren in instrumental works. In 1815 the Philharmonic Society, then recently formed, offered him the sum of £200 for a symphony, an overture, and a vocal piece, and at their invitation he paid a second visit to London. He arrived in March; the Symphony (in D) was finished on April 24, and played on the 1st of May. It was afterwards (in 1829) scored as a quartet. The Overture was performed at the concert of the 3rd of April, and another MS. overture on May 29. In addition to these the Catalogue shows a Funeral March for full orchestra (March 1820); a march for 'Faniska' (May 15, 1831); six string quartets, viz. in E♭ (1814), in C, from the Symphony, with a new Adagio (1829), in D (July 31, 1834), in E (Feb. 12, 1835), in F (June 28, 1836), in A minor (July 22, 1837); and a string quintet in E minor (Oct. 28, 1837). Cherubini died on the 15th of May, 1842 [App. p.585 "March"], highly honoured and esteemed. In addition to the works above mentioned he wrote several operas in conjunction with other composers, such as 'Blanche de Provence' in 1821, to celebrate the baptism of the Due de Bordeaux, with Boiëldieu, Paer, Berton, and Kreutzer; also a great number of canons for two, three, or more voices. The catalogue contains in all 305 numbers, some of them very voluminous, besides a supplementary list of thirty works omitted by Cherubini, as well as eighteen volumes (some of them of more than 400 pages) of music by various Italian writers, copied out by the great composer himself, a practice which he admits to have learned from his old master Sarti.

Cherubini's artistic career may be divided into three periods. The first, 1760–1791, when he was writing motets and masses à la Palestrina, and operas in the light Neapolitan vein, or may be called his Italian period. The second Operatic period opens with 'Lodoïska,' though the beginning of the change is apparent in 'Demophon' (1788) in the form of the concerted pieces, in the entrances of the chorus, and the expressive treatment of the orchestra. 'Lodoïska' however shows an advance both in inspiration and expression. 'Medée' and 'Les deux Journées' form the climax of the operatic period. In the former the sternness of the characters, the mythological background, and above all the passion of Medea herself, must have seized his imagination, and inspired him with those poignant, almost overpowering accents of grief, jealousy, and hatred in which 'Medée' abounds. But it is impossible not to feel that the interest rests mainly in Medea, that there is a monotony in the sentiment, and that the soliloquies are tedious; in a word that in spite of all its force and truth the opera will never command the wide appreciation which the music as music deserves. The 'Deux Journées' forms a strong contrast to 'Medée,' and is a brilliant example of Cherubini's versatility. Here the sphere of action is purely human, simple, even plebeian, and it is impossible not to admire the art with which Cherubini has laid aside his severe style and adapted himself to the minor forms of the arietta and couplet, which are in keeping with the idyllic situations. The finales and other large movements are more concise, and therefore more within the range of the general public, and there is an ease about the melodies, and a warmth of feeling, not to be found elsewhere in Cherubini. This period closes with the 'Abencérages' in 1813, for 'Ali Baba,' though completed in 1833, was largely founded on 'Koukourgi' (1793). The third period, that of his sacred compositions, dates properly speaking from his appointment to the Chapelle Royale in 1816, though it may be said to have begun with the Mass in F (1809), which is important as being the first sacred work of his mature life, though it is inferior to that in A, and especially to the Requiem in D minor. The three-part writing in the Mass in F seems scarcely in keeping with the broad outlines of the work, and the fugues are dry and formal. That in A, also for three voices, is concise, vocal, and eminently melodious. The Requiem in C minor is at once his greatest and most famous work. The Credo for eight voices a capella is an astonishing instance of command of counterpoint, and shows how thoroughly he had mastered the style of Palestrina, and how perfectly he could adapt it to his own individual thoughts. Technique apart, it ranks below his other great sacred works. It is probable that Cherubini intended it to be considered as a study, for only two numbers were published during his life-time, viz. the concluding fugue 'Et vitam,' and an elaborately developed 'Ricerca' in eight parts with one chief subject and three counter-subjects, in which all imaginable devices in counterpoint are employed.

In estimating Cherubini's rank as a musician, it must be remembered that though he lived so long in Paris, and did so much for the development of French opera, he cannot be classed among French composers. His pure idealism, which resisted the faintest concession to beauty of sound as such, and subjugated the whole apparatus of musical representation to the idea; the serious, not to say dry, character of his melody, his epic calmness—never overpowered by circumstances, and even in the most passionate moments never exceeding the bounds of artistic moderation—these characteristics were hardly likely to make him popular with the French, especially during the excitement of the Revolution. His dramatic style was attractive from the novelty of the combinations, the truth of the dramatic expression, the rich harmony, the peculiar modulations and brilliant instrumentation, much of which he had in common with Gluck. But his influence on French opera was only temporary. No sooner did Boieldieu appear with his sweet pathetic melodies and delicate harmonies, and Auber with his piquant elegant style, than the severer muse of Cherubini, dwelling in a realm of purer thought, dropped its hold on the public. His closest tie with the French school arose from the external accident of his connection with the Conservatoire, where he had the formation of all the important French composers of the first half of the century. It was in Germany that his works have met with the most enduring appreciation. His church music, 'Medée,' and the 'Deux Journées,' still keep their hold on the German public. One of the first things Mendelssohn did after he felt himself safe in the saddle at Düsseldorf was to revive the latter opera, and to introduce the mass in C in the church. Six months later he brought forward one of the Requiems, and when he had to conduct the Cologne Festival in 1835 it is to Cherubini's MS. works that he turns for something new and good. A reference to the Index of the Leipzig Allgem. musikalische Zeitung will show how widely and frequently his works are performed in Germany. In England, too, the operas just named have been revived within the last few years, and the opera-overtures are stock pieces at all the best concerts. Cherubini forms the link between classic idealism and modern romanticism. His power of making the longest and most elaborate movements clear is very remarkable, especially when combined with the extraordinary facility of his part-writing; while his sense of form was almost as perfect as Mozart's, though he cannot compare with Mozart in the intensity of his melodic expression, or in the individuality with which Mozart stamped his characters. In the technique of composition, and in his artistic conception and interpretation, he shows a certain affinity to Beethoven, more especially in his Masses. His greatest gift was perhaps the power of exciting emotion. His style had a breadth and vigour free from mannerism and national peculiarities. It was in his sacred music that he was most free to his individuality, because he could combine the best points in his operas with masterly counterpoint. When we consider the then deplorable state of church music, it is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the change he wrought.

The latest and most complete work on Cherubini is the biography of Mr. Edward Bellasis, 'Cherubini: Memorials illustrative of his Life,' London, 1874; the preface to which contains a list of the principal authorities, including Cherubini's own Catalogue, of which the title has been already given in full. For personal traits and anecdotes—and in the case of Cherubini these are more than usually interesting and characteristic—the reader should consult the article in Fétis's 'Biographie universelle' and Berlioz's 'Memoirs,' also an article by Hiller, which appeared in 'Macmillan's Magazine,' July 1875, and afterwards in his 'Musikalisches und Persönliches,' 1876. His portrait by Ingres is in the gallery of the Luxembourg, Paris. He left one son and two daughters, the younger of whom was married to Hippolyte Rossellini of Florence.

[ A. M. ]

  1. The Catalogue referred to here and elsewhere in this article was compiled by Cherubini himself, with an interesting Preface, and published after his death by Bottée de Toulmon, under the title of 'Notice des manuscrits autographes de la musique composée par feu M. L. C. Z. S. Cherubini. etc.. etc., Paris, chez les principaux Editeurs de musique.' 1843. It has been reprinted by Mr. Bellasis in his 'Memorials.'