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Luigi Cherubini was one of most important figures in French musical life in the first half of the nineteenth century. His legacy rests on his copious output of operas, church music, and, to a lesser degree, chamber music. Beethoven considered him to be one the best composers of the day.
Cherubini was born in Florence, Italy. There is some disparity with his birth date. The composer, in the biographical preface to his autograph catalogue, gave the date of 8 September 1760, but baptismal records of St. John the Baptist Church replace the date with 14th of the same month.
From a young age, Cherubini showed prodigious talent for music. At age 6 he began studying with his father, Bartolomeo Cherubini, themaestro al cembalo at the Theatro della Pergola in Florence. By age 9 he was studying composition with Bartolmeo Felici and his son Alessandro. After the elder Felici’s death, Cherubini studied with two other Florentine musicians, Bizzari and Castrucci.
The young composer took quickly to his craft, and by the age of 18 he had completed thirty-six works, most of which was church music. One of these pieces was a cantata,La pubblica felicità, which was performed at Florence Cathedral in honour of the Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany, who would later become Emperor Leopold II.
In 1778, Leopold offered Cherubini a grant, which enabled the young composer to further his study with Giuseppe Sarti, a leading composer of Neapolitan opera whose operas were popular in Italy and abroad. Cherubini spent three years studying with Sarti in Bologna and Milan and contributed arias to the elder master’s operas.
Cherubini made his operatic debut with Il Quinto Fabio, a three-act work first staged at Alessandria in 1779. He returned to Florence in 1781 whereupon he wrote two operas,Armida abbandonata and Adriano in Sira. Of those, Armida was a great success when it premiered on 25 January 1782.
With such successes behind him, Cherubini left Italy in 1784 and, with encouragement from Lord Cowper, an English patron of the arts residing in Florence, travelled to London. There, he was commissioned to write new operas for the Theatre Royal. Two works,La finta principessa of 1785 and Il Giulio Sabinoof 1786, won Cherubini the favour of the English public.
Left: portrait of Cherubini by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
Cherubini also ventured to Paris accompanied by his friend, the violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti, who introduced the composer to Marie Antoinette. Cherubini was commissioned to write an opera based on a French libretto. The result wasDémophon, which was premiered in Paris in 1788. The piece was a failure due, as scholars argue, to the inept setting of the French language. Yet Cherubini, in this work, was already experimenting with dramatic writing for the orchestra, a technique that would define his later style.
While in Paris, Cherubini and Viotti formed a company devoted to Italian opera, staging works by Anfossi, Cimaroas, and Paisiello. But during the years of the French Revolution, foreign-style companies such as this one were suspect. Viotti fled to England in 1792 and Cherubini retired to Normandy, where he began a correspondence with Cécile Tourette, the daughter of a musician in the royal chapel.
Cherubini returned to Paris in 1793, and due to his insecure financial position as well as the tumultuous political situation of the time, he married Cécile. He had made other adjustments to French life as well. As early as 1790, Cherubini adopted the French version of his name, calling himself Louis Cherubini on documents.
In 1795, the Institut National de Musique in Paris was renamed the Conservatoire by government decree. Cherubini was appointed one of the five inspectors, which included Gossec, Grétry, Le Seur, and Méhul. The composer’s place within civic society was an uneasy one as the middle years of his professional life involved mutual antipathy between himself and Napoleon, who found Cherubini’s music to be too complicated.
Yet Cherubini continued to compose opera. His place in the history of the art form rests on five works:Médee, Lodoïska, Eliza, Les deux journées, and Faniska. All involve spoken dialogue of the opera comique style and unfold in a dramatic type known as rescue opera, a genre popular during the years of the French Revolution.
Cherubini’s success spread beyond the borders of Paris and his music received performances in Vienna. In 1802, the city presented a full season of the composer’s works. The composer journeyed to the Austrian capital in 1805 and was received enthusiastically by the court as well as by leading musical figures, including Haydn and Beethoven.
While Cherubini remained in Vienna working on Faniska, Napoleon entered the city with his army. The French leader, in an unusual gesture of cordiality, invited Cherubini to return to France.
Yet when the composer returned to his adopted city, he felt that his career in music was over, and he began suffering from depression, a condition that would affect him for the rest of his life. He began to study botany and painting.
The years of the restored Bourbon monarchy indeed brought a change in musical tastes, and Cherubini’s operas fell out of popular favour. But the composer was once again drawn to church music, and between the years 1811 and 1836 he composed seven masses and two requiems.
His most visible appointment came in 1822, when he became director of the Paris Conservatoire. He is remembered for his rigorous attention to the details of administration as well as for broader lines of policy, which helped shape the Conservatoire into the elite institution it is today. He produced a didactic work in 1835, theCours de contrepoint et de fugue, for use in the school. This treatise drew upon the writings of Fux, Marpurg, and Martini, and guided students through the five species of counterpoint and culminated in the composition of complete fugues.
Though his compositional activities declined during this time. Cherubini produced a masterwork of church music, the Requiem in D minor for men’s voices and orchestra.
Among his instrumental works, Cherubini’s six string quartets stand as finest Italian examples of a genre that would be perfected by Beethoven. Each of these works is cast in a four-movement structure, with sturdily built outer movements and the composer’s characteristic sense of contrapuntal texture.
Cherubini died in 1842 at the age of 81. He is buried in Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and his grave rests only a few yards from another, more famous French immigrant, Frederic Chopin.
Performances of Cherubini’s music grew faint as the nineteenth century progressed, and by century’s end, he was remembered almost exclusively for his treatise on counterpoint. But with the recent resurgence of interest in his music among scholars, a new appreciation for this composer’s music may yet emerge among listeners.