Maria Luigi Carlo Zenobio Salvatore Cherubini (September 8 or 14, 1760–March 15, 1842) was an Italian composer of mainly operas and sacred music who spent most of his working life in France and was regarded by Beethoven Cherubini as the greatest of his contemporaries. Cherubini was born at Florence, Italy, in 1760, the tenth of the twelve children of the theatre harpsichordist. There is uncertainty about his exact date of birth. Although September 14 is sometimes stated, evidence from baptismal records and Cherubini himself suggests the 8th is correct. His instruction in music began at the age of six with his father, Bartolomeo, maestro al cembalo (“Master of the harpsichord,” or in other words, ensemble leader from the harpsichord) at the Teatro della Pergola. Considered a child prodigy, Cherubini studied counterpoint and dramatic style at an early age. By the time he was thirteen, he had composed several religious works. As a child he had further instruction from leading Florentine composers and had an early composition, a Mass and Credo, performed in 1773. He continued in adolescence to write further church music and a smaller number of secular dramatic works. In 1778, after the performance of his cantata La pubblica felicità (Public Happiness) in honor of the Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany, the future Emperor Leopold II, he was awarded a scholarship by the Grand Duke, providing the means of further music study in Bologna and Milan.
Thus, from 1778 to 1781 Cherubini studied with the well known opera composer Giuseppe Sarti, a former pupil of Padre Martini in Bologna, and from 1779 in Milan, where his teacher was maestro di cappella at the Cathedral and distinguished at the Teatro della Scala. His first opera, Il Quinto Fabio, composed during his apprenticeship, brought the chance to compose operas for Florence and other Italian cities. Cherubini’s early opera serie used libretti by Apostolo Zeno, Metastasio Pietro Trapassi, and others that adhered closely to standard dramatic conventions. His music was strongly influenced by Niccolò Jommelli, Tommaso Traetta, and Antonio Sacchini, who were the leading composers of the day. The first of his two comic works, Lo sposo di tre e marito di nessuna, premiered at a Venetian theater in November of 1783. Feeling constrained by Italian traditions and eager to experiment, Cherubini traveled to London in 1784 and 1785 where he produced two opere serie and an opera buffa for the King’s Theatre. In 1785, he made an excursion to Paris with his friend the violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti, who presented him to Marie Antoinette and Parisian society. Cherubini received an important commission to write Démophoon to a French libretto by Jean-François Marmontel that would be his first tragédie en musique and in 1786 settled in France. Except for a brief return trip to London and to Turin for an opera seria commissioned by King Victor Amadeus III, Cherubini spent the rest of his life in France where he was initiated into Grand Orient de France “Saint-Jean de Palestine” Masonic Lodge.
Performances of Démophon were favorably received at the Grand Opéra in 1788. With Viotti’s help, the Théâtre de Monsieur in the Tuileries appointed Cherubini as its director in 1789. Cherubini adopted the French version of his name, Marie-Louis-Charles-Zénobi-Salvador Cherubini; this appears in all extant documents that show his full name after 1790. After a period of retirement to the countryside, Cherubini returned to Paris in 1793 finding employment as an inspector at the new Institut National de Musique, the future Conservatoire. That year, after a move to the rue Feydeau and the fall of the monarchy, the theater company became known as the Théâtre Feydeau. This position gave Cherubini the opportunity to read countless libretti and choose one that best suited his temperament. Cherubini’s music began to show more originality and daring. His first major success was Lodoïska (1791), which was admired for its realistic heroism. This was followed by Eliza (1794), set in the Swiss Alps, and Médée (1797), Cherubini’s best-known work. Les deux journées (1800), in which Cherubini simplified his style, was a popular success. These and other operas were premièred at the Théâtre Feydeau or the Opéra-Comique. Feeling financially secure, he married Anne Cécile Tourette in 1794 and began a family of three children.
The fallout from the French Revolution affected Cherubini until the end of his life. Politics forced him to hide his connections with the former aristocracy and seek governmental appointments. Although Napoléon found him too complex, Cherubini wrote at least one patriotic work per year for more than a decade. He was appointed Napoléon’s director of music in Vienna, where he met Haydn, Beethoven, and was responsible for concerts at Schönbrunn for part of 1805 and 1806, whereupon he conducted several of his works in that city. These had their effect on Beethoven’s Fidelio, the first performance of which under the director of the court opera, Baron Peter von Braun, Cherubini attended during his visit to Vienna. Following this, Cherubini returned to Paris, where he retained his position as inspector at the Conservatoire, but now wrote relatively little, finding occupation in the study of botany and in painting. After Les deux journées, Parisian audiences began to favor younger composers such as Boieldieu. Cherubini’s opera-ballet Anacréon was an outright failure and most stage works after it did not achieve success. Faniska, produced in 1806, was an exception, receiving an enthusiastic response, in particular, by Haydn and Beethoven. Fortunately, he was asked to compose a mass for the church in Chimay, and this request prompted him to return to music.
As time went on Cherubini was able to return to composition, with the one-act opera Pimmalione (Pygmalion) staged at the Tuileries in 1809 and with an Ode à l’Hymen the following year for Napoleon’s second marriage. Les Abencérages (1813), an heroic drama set in Spain during the last days of the Moorish kingdom of Granada, was Cherubini’s attempt to compete with Spontini’s La vestale; it received critical praise but few performances. Disappointed with his lack of acclaim in the theater, Cherubini turned increasingly to church music, writing seven masses, two requiems, and many shorter pieces. During this period under the restored monarchy he was appointed Surintendant de la Musique du Roi, a position he would hold until the fall of Charles X in 1830. In 1815 London’s Royal Philharmonic Society commissioned him to write a symphony, an overture, and a composition for chorus and orchestra, the performances of which he went especially to London to conduct, increasing his fame. Cherubini’s Requiem in C minor (1816), commemorating the anniversary of the execution of King Louis XVI of France, was a huge success. The work was greatly admired by Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms.
The restoration of the monarchy after Napoleon’s defeat brought him appointment in 1816 as a superintendent of the King’s music under his former patron, now Louis XVIII. In 1822, Cherubini became director of the Conservatoire, a position he held with distinction until a few weeks before his death in 1842, and completed his textbook, Cours de contrepoint et de fugue, in 1835. Although extremely busy at the Conservatory, Cherubini continued composing, writing, among other works, his profound Requiem in D minor, completed in 1836 and intended to be performed at his own funeral. It is for male choir only, as the religious authorities had criticized his use of female voices in the earlier work. His role at the Conservatoire would bring him into conflict with the young Hector Berlioz, who went on to portray the old composer in his memoirs as a crotchety pedant. Nevertheless, Cherubini had many friends, including Szymanowska, Rossini, Chopin and, above all, the artist Ingres. In 1841, Ingres produced the most celebrated portrait of the old composer. Also, in 1841, Cherubini was made Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur, the first musician to receive that title. Cherubini died in Paris on March 15, 1842, at age 81 and is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery
The work that made Cherubini famous as a dramatist of exceptional psychological acumen was the opera Medée, based on the harrowing tragedy by Euripides. Besides his operas, Cherubini’s major orchestral works include his Overture in G (1815), Symphony in D major (1815), and the Marche funèbre (1820). Cherubini also excelled as a church composer. In his sacred music, particularly the later works, Cherubini combined his profound knowledge and skill as a contrapuntalist with an ability to express, tempering a passionate dramatic impulse with the discipline of religious contemplation, the tremendous experience of faith. Although chamber music does not make up a large portion of his output, what he did write was important. Cherubini’s six string quartets are considered first rate, and Nos. 1 and 3 are regarded as masterworks. His String Quintet for two violins, viola and two cellos is also considered a first rate work.
The following works by Luigi Cherubini are contained in my collection:
Etude No. 2 for French Horn and Strings.
Faniska (1806): Overture.
Lodoiska (1805): Overture.
Medee (1797): Overture.
Symphony in DM (1816?).
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources