1902 Encyclopedia > Luigi Cherubini

Luigi Cherubini
(full name: Maria Luigi Carlo Zenobio Salvatore Cherubini)
Italian-born composer


MARIA LUIGI ZENOBIO CARLO SALVATORE CHERUBINI (1760-1842), one of the greatest musical composers of modern times, was born at Florence, 14th September 1760. His father was accompanyist (maestro al cembalo) at the Pergola theatre, and himself guided the first musical education of his son, whose talent began to evince itself at a very early period. " I commenced learning music," Cherubini says of himself, "at six years, composition at nine; the former I was taught by my father, the latter by Bartholomew Felici and his son Alexander." Italian music at that time was at a low ebb. The popular composers of opera seria chiefly aimed at inventing pleasing tunes and Jioriture for the vocal display of the singers; the dignity and grandeur of the old Italian school were all but lost. To imbue himself with these great traditions of the past was the chief aim of young Cherubini's ambition, and for that purpose he went in 1777 to Bologna, where for four years he studied under Joseph Sarti, a well-known composer and theorist of the time, and himself the pupil of the celebrated Padre Martini, one of the greatest contrapuntists Italy has produced. It was in this school that Cherubini laid the foundation of that deep knowledge of his art which gives to all his works the impress of perfect mastership. It was also under Sarti's guidance that he made his first attempts at dramatic composition. They were preceded, however, by a mass written at the age of thirteen, and various other sacred compositions. Sarti was the composer of numerous operas, amongst which Le Nozze di Bonina may be mentioned as the most successful one. It now became Cherubini's task to supply the music for the minor characters in his master's dramatic works, an excellent way of gaining versatility of style and resource, turned to full account by the young composer. His first independent work was called Quinto Fabio, an opera seria, in three acts, first performed in 1780, and soon followed by Armida (1782), Adriano in Siria (same year), and several other works of a similar kind. At this time of his life his artistic individuality was forming gradually; but as yet he had not emerged from the purely imitative stage of production. Absolute artistic value these juvenile works do not possess, but they tended to prepare Cherubini for greater things, and in the meantime secured him a dignified position amongst contemporary composers. Inl784 hewas asked to writetwoworks forthe Italian opera in London, one of which, Lafinta principessa, was favourably received, while the other, Giulio Sabino, was "murdered" by the critics, to use the emphatic expression of a contemporary witness. In 1786 he left London, whither he had gone to be present at the production of his operas, and went to Paris. After a short stay in Italy he took up his permanent residence in the latter city.

Cherubini may be cited as a striking instance of the amalgamating power inherent in the French type of national culture; Spontini, Meyerbeer, and to some extent Gluck, submitted to the same spell. With the last-mentioned master Cherubini shares the grand declamatory pathos, the classic dignity which characterizes the Augustan age of French tragedy. A work like Cherubini's M'edee is imbued with the same elevation of pathos which in Corneille's greatest tragedies makes us forget the stilted affectations of his heroes and heroines. The first opera composed by Cherubini in France is called Demophoon, words by Marmontel. Its merits were appreciated by connoisseurs, but it was not a popular success. This, however, was achieved in the most brilliant manner by Cherubini's next opera, Lodoiska (1791), which opens the series of great dramatic works belonging to the composer's second period. The representative production of this period is Médée, already alluded to. The main characteristics of the composer's style have also been briefly touched upon. From a mere musical point of view a bold though always strictly logical sequence of harmonies, a rich vein of melodious developments, and great brilliancy and originality of instrumental effects ought to be added.

By the production of Médée (1797) the composer's reputation was firmly established. All Paris was in rapturous admiration of his genius, with one exception— Napoleon Bonaparte. The young victorious general aspired to musical amateurship, and loved to speak authoritatively on that as on most other subjects. But it was not in Cherubini's character to bow to any man, however great, in matters artistic. Cherubini's repeated remonstrances against Napoleon's exaggerated enthusiasm for Paesiello, Zmgarelli, and other ephemeral composers culminated in the blunt repartee,—" Citoyen-général, I perceive that you love only that music which does not prevent you from thinking of your politics." The emperor remembered the affront offered to the citizen-general, and the appointment of Imperial chapelmaster was given to Lesueur, in spite of the Italian composer's superior merits. But Cherubini does not seem to have suffered much under this disappointment. Two works replete with serenest joy owe their origin to the period alluded to—Anacreon (1803) and Les deux Journées (1804). The last-mentioned work is Cherubini's masterpiece of comic opera. In it we admire the grace and true gaieté de cœur, which have made the comic opera of France deservedly famous amongst civilized nations. The libretto of Les deux Journées, although clever and piquant, does not offer many opportunities for musical expansion, the action, as is usual in French comic opera, being to a great extent carried on in spoken dialogue. But Cherubini has succeeded in delineating with a few graphic touches the import of his characters and situations. A peasant chorus in the third act, a Savoyard's song, and the couplets of Micheli the jovial water-carrier, are insurpassable specimens of their genre, equal in melodious beauty and grace to anything that French composers have produced in these forms of art. Cherubini, indeed, ranks with the greatest masters of the French school,—with Gretry, Dalayrac, Auber, and Boieldieu, all of whom he infinitely surpasses as far as musical workmanship is concerned.

In 1805 Cherubini went to Vienna, in compliance with an invitation to compose an opera for the imperial theatre of that city. Here his chances of success were once more thwarted by his great antagonist Napoleon, who entered Vienna at the head of the victorious French army, and for a time interrupted all artistic enterprise. The personal meeting of emperor and composer was again of anything but a friendly kind. Soon after the performance of his new work Faniska (1806) at Vienna, Cherubini returned to Paris, and *or a long time kept an unbroken silence. His chief occupation was his lessons at the Conservatoire, besides which he filled up great part of the day by cutting the hearts and diamonds of ordinary playing cards into all kinds of fantastic figures and landscapes. The results of his extraordinary ingenuity, carefully framed, covered the walls of his study. An accidental circumstance at last roused him from this morbid indolence. He was staying at a country seat of the Prince de Chimay, where a new church was to be inaugurated. Timidly was an appeal made to him for a religious composition to be performed on the occasion, and in compliance with this request he wrote in a few weeks his .great Mass in F. Thus at a time of life when most artists rest on their laurels he entered a new field of creative labour—that of sacred music. Of the works of Cherubini's third and perhaps his greatest period only the most important can be mentioned here. They are the Missa Solemnis in D, the coronation mass written for the consecration of Charles X., and the two requiems in C and D, the latter for male voices. Besides these he wrote numerous smaller compositions for the service of the Chapel Royal, most of which are still unpublished. The most striking feature of Cherubini's sacred compositions is their solemn grandeur of conception, combined with an unequalled mastership of artistic treatment.

The Restoration of the Bourbons drew Cherubini from his long seclusion. The royal family were eager to show their favour to the opponent of Napoleon Bonaparte. Cherubini was created composer and conductor to the Chapel Royal, and in 1821 obtained the permanent directorship of the Conservatoire. His days were prolonged beyond the ordinary age of men, and after having witnessed and partly celebrated numberless revolutions in his adopted country, the more than septuagenarian retained sufficient vigour of mind to write one of his most charming operas when Louis Philippe was king in France. It is called Alt Baba, and was first performed in 1833. To the list of his dramatic compositions ought also to be added another important opera, Les Abencerrages, written in 1813, but treated with undeserved neglect by the public. He also wrote several pieces of chamber music, amongst which six quartets for strings, and one quintet and six sonatas for the pianoforte may be mentioned. A great number of his compositions, moreover, remained in manuscript at his death, March 15, 1842. Cherubini's external bearing was frequently harsh and arrogant ; his prejudice against Beethoven, both personally and artistically, is a deplorable instance of his onesidedness. But his more intimate friends found him kind and faithful. His love of order was carried to excess. All his music was carefully labelled and distributed in pigeon-holes, and even his pocket-handkerchiefs were numbered for consecutive use. To this extreme carefulness we owe a complete catalogue of his own compositions from 1773-1841, edited by M. Bottée de Toulmon, under the title of Notice des Manuscrite, autographes de la musique composée par M. L. Z. G. S. Cherubini. We also possess by him a valuable Cours de contrepoint et de fague, the letterpress of which is written by his pupil the well-known composer Halévy. An English biography—Cherubini, Memorials illustrative of his Life (Lond. 1874)—has been written by Mr E. Bellasis. An interesting article containing personal reminiscences of Cherubini by the German composer Ferdinand Hiller appeared in Macmillan's Magazine in 1875. (F. H. )

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