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Luigi Cherubini

Luigi CherubiniAKA Maria Luigi Carlo Zenobio Salvatore Cherubini

Born: 14-Sep-1760
Birthplace: Florence, Italy
Died: 15-Mar-1842
Location of death: Paris, France
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Cimetière du Père Lachaise, Paris, France

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Composer

Nationality: France
Executive summary: The Water Carrier

Italian musical composer, was born at Florence on the 14th of September 1760, and died on the 15th of March 1842 in Paris. His father was accompanist (Maestro al Cembalo) at the Pergola theatre. Cherubini himself, in the preface of his autograph catalogue of his own works, states, "I began to learn music at six and composition at nine, the former from my father, the latter from Bartolomeo and Alessandro Felici, and, after their death, from Bizzarri and J. Castrucci." By the time he was sixteen he had composed a great deal of church music, and in 1777 he went to Bologna, where for four years he studied under Giuseppe Sarti. This deservedly famous master well earned the gratitude which afterwards impelled Cherubini to place one of his double choruses by the side of his own El Vitam Venturi as the crown of his Treatise on Counterpoint and Fugue, though the juxtaposition is disastrous for Sarti. But besides grounding Cherubini in the church music for which he had early shown so special a bent, Sarti also trained him in dramatic composition; sometimes, like the great masters of painting, entrusting his pupil with minor parts of his own works. From 1780 onwards for the next fourteen years dramatic music occupied Cherubini almost entirely. His first complete opera, Quinto Fabio, was produced in 1780, and was followed in 1782 by Armida, Adriano in Syria, and other works. Between 1782 and 1784 the successful production of five operas in four different towns must have secured Cherubini a dignified position amongst his Italian contemporaries; and in 1784 he was invited to London to produce two works for the Italian opera there, one of which, La Finta Principessa, was favorably received, while the other, Giulio Sabino, was, according to a contemporary witness, "murdered" by the critics.

In 1786 he left London for Paris, which became his home after a visit to Turin in 1787-88 on the occasion of the production there of his Ifigenia in Aulide. With Cherubini, as with some other composers first trained in a school where the singer reigned supreme, the influence of the French dramatic sensibility proved decisive, and his first French opera, Démophon (1788), though not a popular success, already marks a departure from the Italian style, which Cherubini still cultivated in the pieces he introduced into the works of Anfossi, Giovanni Paisiello and Domenico Cimarosa, produced by him as director of the Italian opera in Paris (established in 1789). As in Paris Gluck realized his highest ambitions, and even Rossini awoke to a final effort of something like dramatic life in Guillaume Tell, so in Paris Cherubini became a great composer. If his melodic invention had been as warm as Gluck's, his immensely superior technique in every branch of the art would have made him one of the greatest composers that ever lived. But his personal character shows in quaint exaggeration the same asceticism that in less sour and more negative form deprives even his finest music of the glow of that lofty inspiration that fears nothing.

With Lodoiska (1791) the series of Cherubini's masterpieces begins, and by the production of Médée (1797) his reputation was firmly established. The success of this sombre classical tragedy, which shows Cherubini's genius in its full power, is an honor to the Paris public. If Cherubini had known how to combine his high ideals with an urbane tolerance of the opinions of persons of inferior taste, the severity of his music would not have prevented his attaining the height of prosperity. But Napoleon Bonaparte irritated him by an enthusiasm for the kind of Italian music against which his whole career, from the time he became Sarti's pupil, was a protest. When Cherubini said to Napoleon, "Citoyen Général, I perceive that you love only that music which does not prevent you thinking of your politics", he may perhaps have been as firmly convinced of his own conciliatory manner as he was when many years afterwards he "spared the feelings" of a musical candidate by "delicately" telling him that he had "a beautiful voice and great musical intelligence, but was too ugly for a public singer." Napoleon seems to have disliked opposition in music as in other matters, and the academic offices held by Cherubini under him were for many years far below his deserts. But though Napoleon saw no reason to conceal his dislike of Cherubini, his appointment of Lesueur in 1804 as his chapelmaster must not be taken as an evidence of his hostility. Lesueur was not a great genius, but, although recommended for the post by the retiring chapelmaster, Paesiello (one of Napoleons Italian favorites), he was a very meritorious and earnest Frenchman whom the appointment saved from starvation. Cherubini's creative genius was never more brilliant than at this period, as the wonderful two-act ballet, Anacreon, shows; but his temper and spirits were not improved by a series of disappointments which culminated in the collapse of his prospects of congenial success at Vienna, where he went in 1805 in compliance with an invitation to compose an opera for the Imperial theater. Here he produced, under the title of Der Wasserträger, the great work which, on its first production on the 7th of January 1801 as Les Deux Journées, had thrilled Paris with the accents of a humanity restored to health and peace. It was by this time an established favorite in Austria. On the 25th of February Cherubini produced Faniska, but the war between Austria and France had broken out immediately after his arrival, and public interest in artistic matters was checked by the bombardment and capitulation of Vienna. Though the meeting between Cherubini and the victorious Napoleon was not very friendly, he was called upon to direct the music at Napoleon's soirées at Schönbrunn. But this had not been his object in coming to Vienna, and he soon returned to a retired and gloomy life in Paris.

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 Beethovens 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 honored 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 connection 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 Honor. Then, with the restoration of the Bourbons, the very fact that Cherubini had not been persona grata with Napoleon brought him honor 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 Trait 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 vigor 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 letterpress is by his favorite 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 ahould not affect the nature of the chord. But since the classics have pronounced judgment we must of course submit." In the whole treatise not one example is given from Palestrina or any other master who handled as a living language what are now the forms of contrapuntal discipline. As a dead language Cherubini brought counterpoint up to date by abandoning the church modes; but in true severity of principle, as in educational stimulus, his treatise shows a deplorable falling off from the standard set a hundred years before in Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum with its delightful dialogues between master and pupil and its continual appeal to artistic experience. Whatever may have been Cherubini's success in imparting facility and certainty to his light-hearted pupils who established 19th-century French opera as a refuge from the terrors of serious art, there can be no doubt that his career as a teacher did more harm than good. In it the punishment drill of an incompetent schoolmaster was invested with the authority of a great composer, and by it the false antithesis between the "classical" and the "romantic" was erected into a barrier which many critics still find an insuperable obstacle to the understanding of the classical spirit. And yet as a composer Cherubini was no pseudo-classic but a really great artist, whose purity of style, except at rare moments, just failed to express the ideals he never lost sight of, because in his love of those ideals there was too much fear.

His principal works are summarized by Fétis as thirty-two operas, twenty-nine church compositions, four cantatas and several instrumental pieces, besides the treatise on counterpoint and fugue.

Good modern full scores of the two Requiems and of Les Deux Journées (the latter unfortunately without the dialogue, which, however, is accessible in its fairly good German translation in the Reclam Bibliothek), and also of ten opera overtures, are current in the Peters edition. Vocal scores of some of the other operas are not difficult to get. The great Credo is in the Peters edition, but is becoming scarce. The string quartets are in Payne's Miniature Scores. It is very desirable that the operas, from Démophon onwards, should be republished in full score.

Wife: Anne Cécile Tourette (m. 1794, three children)

    Administrator: Paris Conservatoire (1822-)

Author of books:
Cours de Contrepoint et de Fugue (1835, music theory)



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