His stay at Vienna is memorable for his intercourse with Beethoven, who had a profound admiration for him which he could neither realize nor reciprocate. It is too much to expect that the mighty genius of Beethoven, which broke through all rules in vindication of the principles underlying them, would be comprehensible to a mind like Cherubini’s, in which, while the creative faculties were finely developed, the critical faculty was atrophied and its place supplied by a mere disciplinary code inadequate even as a basis for the analysis of his own works. On the other hand, it would be impossible to exaggerate the influence Les Deux Journées had on the lighter parts of Beethoven’s Fidelio. Cherubini’s librettist was also the author of the libretto from which Fidelio was adapted, and Cherubini’s score was a constant object of Beethoven’s study, not only before the production of the first version of Fidelio, as Leonore, but also throughout Beethoven’s life. Cherubini’s record of his impressions of Beethoven as a man is contained in the single phrase, “Il était toujours brusque,” which at least shows a fine freedom from self-consciousness on the part of the man whose only remark on being told of the death of Brod, the famous oboist, was, “Ah, he hadn’t much tone” (“Ah, petit son”). Of the overture to Leonore Cherubini only remarked that he could not tell what key it was in, and of Beethoven’s later style he observed, “It makes me sneeze.” Beethoven’s brusqueness, notorious as it was, did not prevent him from assuring Cherubini that he considered him the greatest composer of the age and that he loved him and honoured him. In 1806 Haydn had just sent out his pathetic “visiting card” announcing that he was past work; Weber was still sowing wild oats, and Schubert was only nine years old. We need not, then, be surprised at Beethoven’s judgment. And though we must regret that Cherubini’s disposition prevented him from understanding Beethoven, it would be by no means true to say that he was uninfluenced at least by the sheer grandeur of the scale which Beethoven had by that time established as the permanent standard for musical art. Grandeur of proportion was, in fact, eminently characteristic of both composers, and the colossal structure of such a movement as the duet Perfides ennemis in Médée is almost inconceivable without the example of Beethoven’s C minor trio, op. 1, No. 3, published two years before it; while the cavatina Eterno iddio in Faniska is not only worthy of Beethoven but surprisingly like him in style.
After Cherubini’s disappointing visit to Vienna he divided his time between teaching at the conservatoire and cutting up playing-cards into figures and landscapes, which he framed and placed round the walls of his study. Not until 1809 was he aroused from this morbid indolence. He was staying in retirement at the country seat of the prince de Chimay, and his friends begged him to write some music for the consecration of a church there. After persistent refusals he suddenly surprised them with a mass in F for three-part chorus and orchestra. With this work the period of his great church music may be said to begin; although it was by no means the end of his career as an opera writer, which, in fact, lasted as late as his seventy-third year. This third period is also marked by some not unimportant instrumental compositions. An early event in the annals of the Philharmonic Society was his invitation to London in 1815 to produce a symphony, an overture and a vocal piece. The symphony (in D) was afterwards arranged with a new slow movement as the string quartet in C (1829), a fact which, taken in connexion with the large scale of the work, illustrates Cherubini’s deficient sense of style in chamber music. Nevertheless all the six string quartets written between 1814 and 1837 are interesting works performed with success at the present day, though the last three, discovered in 1889, are less satisfactory than the earlier ones. The requiem in C minor (1817) caused Beethoven to declare that if he himself ever wrote a requiem Cherubini’s would be his model.
At the eleventh hour Cherubini received recognition from Napoleon, who, during the Hundred Days, made him chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Then, with the restoration of the Bourbons, the very fact that Cherubini had not been persona grata with Napoleon brought him honour and emoluments. He was appointed, jointly with Lesueur, as composer and conductor to the Chapel Royal, and in 1822 he obtained the permanent directorship of the conservatoire. This brought him into contact, for the most part unfriendly, with all the most talented musicians of the younger generation. It is improbable that Berlioz would have been an easy subject for the wisest and kindest of spiritual guides; but no influence, repellent or attractive, could have been more disastrous for that passionate, quick-witted and yet eminently puzzle-headed mixture of Philistine and genius, than the crabbed old martinet whose regulations forbade the students access to Gluck’s scores in the library, and whose only theory of art (as distinguished from his practice) is accurately formulated in the following passage from Berlioz’s Grande Traité de l’instrumentation et d’orchestration: “It was no use for the modern composer to say, ‘But do just listen! See how smoothly this is introduced, how well motived, how deftly connected with the context, and how splendid it sounds!’ He was answered, ‘That is not the point. This modulation is forbidden; therefore it must not be made.’” The lack of really educative teaching, and the actual injustice for which Cherubini’s disciplinary methods were answerable, did much to weaken Berlioz’s at best ill-balanced artistic sense, and it is highly probable that, but for the kindliness and comparative wisdom of his composition master, Lesueur, he would have broken down from sheer lack of any influence which could command the respect of an excitable youth starving in the pursuit of a fine art against the violent opposition of his family. Only when Mendelssohn, at the age of seventeen, visited Paris in 1825, did Cherubini startle every one by praising a young composer to his face.
In 1833 Cherubini produced his last work for the stage, Ali Baba, adapted (with new and noisy features which excited Mendelssohn’s astonished disgust) from a manuscript opera, Koukourgi, written forty years earlier. It is thus, perhaps, not a fair illustration of the vigour of his old age; but the requiem in D minor (for male voices), written in 1836, is one of his greatest works, and, though not actually his last composition, is a worthy close to the long career of an artist of high ideals who, while neither by birth nor temperament a Frenchman, must yet be counted with a still greater foreigner, Gluck, as the glory of French classical music. In this he has no parallel except his friend and contemporary, Méhul, to whom he dedicated Médée, and who dedicated to him the beautiful Ossianic one-act opera Uthal. The direct results of his teaching at the conservatoire were the steady, though not as yet unhealthy, decline of French opera into a lighter style, under the amiable and modest Boieldieu and the irresponsible and witty Auber; for, as we have seen, Cherubini was quite incapable of making his ideals intelligible by any means more personal than his music; and the crude grammatical rules which he mistook for the eternal principles of his own and of all music had not the smallest use as a safeguard against vulgarity and pretentiousness.
Lest the passage above quoted from Berlioz should be suspected of bias or irrelevance, we cite a few phrases from Cherubini’s Treatise on Counterpoint and Fugue, of which, though the letter-press is by his favourite pupil, Halévy, the musical examples and doctrine are beyond suspicion his own. Concerning the 16th-century idiom, incorrectly but generally known as the “changing note” (an idiom which to any musical scholar is as natural as “attraction of the relative” is to a Greek scholar), Cherubini remarks, “No tradition gives us any reason why the classics thus faultily deviated from the rule.” Again, he discusses the use of “suspensions” in a series of chords which without them would contain consecutive fifths, and after making all the observations necessary for the rational conclusion that the question whether the fifths are successfully disguised or not depends upon the beauty and force of the suspensions, he merely remarks that “The opinion of the classics appears to me erroneous, notwithstanding that custom has sanctioned it, for, on the principle that the discord is a mere suspension of the chord, it should not affect the nature of the chord. But since