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Florence, 14/9/1760 – Paris, 15/3/1842
The standing of Cherubini’s music, with critics and audiences, has always been somewhat ambiguous. In 1875, reviewing a biography of Cherubini, Ebenezer Prout, four years before his appointment as Professor of Harmony and Composition at the Royal Academy, wrote “Few, perhaps, if any of the great composers whose names are held in honour by musicians have been so little appreciated in proportion to their real merits by the general public as the master whose name stands at the head of this article”. He is seen as one of “the great composers”, his “name […] held in honour by musicians”, but he is “little appreciated” by the public (passages quoted from The Academy, August 21, 1875, p.207). The same ambiguity had been registered at the time of Cherubini’s death. Adolphe Adam (1803-56) wrote a lengthy obituary notice of Cherubini, (an anonymous English translation of which was published in The Musical World, March 31, 1842). It begins with resounding praise: “The career of very few composers has been so brilliant or so complete” (p.98), but on the very same page we are told that “Cherubini very rarely attained to much popularity… it will be for posterity to enjoy and reward what the living world have yet scarcely comprehended”. It can hardly be said, I think, that the ‘posterity’ invoked by Adam has been markedly kinder to Cherubini and his music. I offer, for example, a brief quotation from this website. Harry Downey, reviewing a recording of two of Cherubini’s string quartets in July 2000, opened up thus, “Nowadays something of a marginal figure – respected but out on the fringes – we must recall how highly Cherubini was regarded in his heyday. Beethoven regarded him as the greatest living composer”. Again, significantly,
the ‘witness’ called is a musician.
Why did Cherubini’s music not capture the admiration of the public? Charles Frederick Kenyon, writing in the Musical Standard in September 1905 offered one explanation: “His one great fault was his weak lyrical impulse. He has written fine and beautiful melodies, but in the greater number of them, there is lacking that royal sweep and outburst of emotion that are discoverable in the melodies that, created a century ago, are still part of our musical life”. Almost half a century later (in Volume I of A.L. Bacharach’s The Music Masters, 1948), W.R. Anderson concluded his essay on Cherubini thus: “His defects were of the imagination; he can glow, but rarely flames; his skill was of the intellect rather than the heart; but what the easy command of every technical device could do for a composer, Cherubini cleverly made those devices do” – which has more than a little in common with Kenyon’s assessment. Prout, in the essay quoted earlier, declared “One thing Cherubini lacked, and that was warmth”. This criticism of Cherubini can perhaps be traced back to Mendelssohn. Prout himself makes use of a striking passage from Ferdinand Hiller’s Recollections of Mendelssohn, quoting a comment on Cherubini by Mendelssohn: “What an extraordinary creature he is! You would fancy that a man cannot be a great composer without sentiment, heart, feeling, or whatever else you call it; but I declare I believe that Cherubini makes everything out of his head alone.” It should be noted, however, that what Mendelssohn said, if reported correctly, was that despite his
deficiency of heart or feeling. Cherubini was “a great composer”.
The qualities Cherubini is said to lack, hindering his chances of popularity, are essentially those of a Romantic composer. But should we expect Romanticism from Cherubini? If one looks only at the date of his death – 1842 – it might seem a reasonable expectation. However, if one views his life and work in the context of those of other composers, the situation doesn’t appear so simple. He was born only four years after Mozart, though he outlived him by more than half a century. In his youth he was taught by Giuseppe Sarti (1729-1802). He was invited to London and made a favourable impression, in 1785, some six years before Haydn first came to London. Remarkably, Cherubini was born just one year after Handel’s death and died in the same year that Wagner’s Rienzi, was premiered. Cherubini’s roots very much lay in late-classicism and, behind and beyond that, in the study of Palestrina in his native Italy (in the obituary cited above Adolphe Adam wrote “I cannot help thinking that if Palestrina had survived to these days, he would
have been another Cherubini”).
If one compares Cherubini’s date of birth (1760) with those of a number of the major Romantic composers – Weber (1786), Berlioz (1803), Mendelssohn (1809), Robert Schumann (1810), Chopin (1810) and Liszt (1811) – it is immediately obvious that (using the conventional measure of 25 years for a ‘generation’), Cherubini was either one generation or, in most cases, two generations older than such figures. Cherubini, as a man and a composer, was instinctively attracted to tradition (though not incapable of musical innovation), and thus inherently unlikely to adopt much from the music of these composers so much younger than himself. Still, our view of Cherubini’s ‘conservatism’ should not be unduly influenced by what Berlioz says of him in his Mémoires, in a mischievous account which reads as if exaggerated almost
to the point of caricature.
It is unsurprising – and was perhaps inevitable – that nineteenth-century listeners should have heard and judged Cherubini’s music with ears and minds attuned to the music of Romanticism. But we, now, are surely at a sufficient distance to recognize in Cherubini a composer who remained faithful to his own sensibility and temperament during a period of enormous changes in musical style, without half-damning him because his music doesn’t sweep us off our feet like the best of Liszt or break our hearts like Chopin.
In an age less in thrall to the idea that the primary measure of music’s worth is its emotional ‘warmth’, now would seem to be the ideal time for a serious reassessment of Cherubini’s music. Fortunately, there have been signs in recent years that such a process is under way for example under the auspices of the International Cherubini Society / Internationale Cherubini-Gesellschaft: – “A particular concern of the International Cherubini Society is the promotion, indexing and scientific processing as well as the performance of Cherubini’s works. The results are incorporated into the Cherubini edition”. The ongoing edition of Cherubini’s considerable output is being published by Simrock of Berlin, under the general editorship of Professor Helen Geyer of the Institute for Musicology Weimar-Jena. It was only towards the end of the 1970s that the significant collection of Cherubini manuscripts formerly in the Berlin State Library and now stored in the Biblioteka Jagiellonska in Kraków became accessible, an accessibility which has made possible a fresh and better-informed approach to Cherubini’s work. It has sparked a renewed awareness of Cherubini.
Luigi Cherubini – whose full and resonant list of given names reads thus – Maria Luigi Carlo Zenobio Salvatore – was born in Florence in September 1760. His father was a keyboard player and a teacher. When still a young child, Luigi showed musical talent. This was initially developed under his father’s tuition until, in 1773 he was sent to Bologna to further his study of music.
Around this time he is known to have composed a Te Deum, a Miserere and a Mass. Around the age of 16 or 17 Cherubini came to the notice of Leopold, the Grand Duke of Tuscany (the future Emperor Leopold II of the Holy Roman Empire). He was sufficiently impressed by the young Cherubini’s abilities to award him a pension. This enabled Cherubini to relocate to Milan in 1778, and study with Giuseppe Sarti. Sarti (1729-1802) was principally a composer (and conductor) of opera, but his appointment in 1779, as maestro di cappella of Milan’s cathedral prompted him to write a good deal of sacred music too. Musically speaking, Cherubini was thus, exposed to both sacred and secular influences. Given Milan’s significant history as a centre of opera, it is perhaps not surprising that it was on opera that Cherubini focused his energies. Even before coming to Milan he had written, in 1775, an intermezzo, ll giucatore. While in Milan he was commissioned to write a full-length opera seria, Il Quinto Fabio. These apprentice works, though skilled, are not marked by any particularly distinctive qualities or originality. In the tradition of Italian musicians, he looked for fame and/or fortune abroad. An invitation to London produced two operatic commissions: the opera buffa La finta principessa (1785) and the opera seria Il Giulio Sabino (1786). Both were produced, at the King’s Theatre, but neither achieved any very marked success,
Encouraged to do so by the violinist and composer Giovanni Battista Viotti, Cherubini decided to try his luck in Paris. Then or later the two shared a house in Paris. Viotti presented Cherubini at the French court and before long he was commissioned to set a libretto by Jean-François Marmontel, on the story of Demophon. The resulting opera, Démophon, was premiered at the Opéra Comique in 1788. In the following year Cherubini decided to make Paris his home; he was involved in the creation of a new opera company at the Théâtre de Monsieur, which opened in January 1789. It was originally intended that the company should present Italian opera buffa. But by the summer of that year, the beginnings of the revolution made it clear that a change of both a name and policy would be advisable. The company became the Théâtre Feydeau, based in a new building on the rue Feydeau, and the focus was now on operas whose subjects had clear contemporary relevance. When Cherubini’s Lodoïska was premiered on July 18th 1791, four days after the Storming of the Bastille, such relevance was not hard to see. The opera is set in Poland (its libretto being by Claude-François Fillette-Loraux) and deals with the tyrant Dourlinski, who holds prisoner Lodoïska, the beloved of Count Floreski, and with the eventual release of Lodoïska. The music was on a grand scale and full of powerful passages. The Finale in which Dourlinski’s castle is burned to the ground, with Cherubini’s metaphorically blazing orchestral writing and some spectacular stage effects, made a great impression. The opera had a lengthy run – the longest in the 1790s. Further operas – Eliza, ou Le voyage aux glaciers du Mont St. Bernard (December 1794), Médée (March 1797) and Les deux journées, ou le porteur d’eau (January, 1800) – all premiered at Théâtre Feydeau, established Cherubini’s position as a central figure in the musical life of Paris.
Although it wouldn’t have been clear at the time, Les deux journées effectively marked the high point of Cherubini’s Parisian career as a composer for the theatre. In 1805 Napoleon appointed Cherubini his music director in Vienna, and Cherubini’s existing operas were very well received when performed there. He also wrote a new opera for performance in Vienna – Faniska (1806). However, by the time that Cherubini returned to Paris he was somewhat disillusioned with the operatic world there, perhaps in part because he knew that Napoleon was not fond of his music. Cherubini’s operas have, nowadays, a certain limited interest and appeal, but it seems impossible that they will ever again be spoken of in the way they were by Georg Friedrich Treitschke when discussing Fidelio (Der Freimütige, December 26, 1805): “The melodies and characterization, in spite of many felicities, lack that happy, striking, overwhelming expression of passion which, in Mozart’s and Cherubini’s works moves us so irresistibly”.
My own instinct is that if Cherubini’s reputation is to revive and grow it will probably do so through his sacred music. After the fall of Napoleon, and the Bourbon restoration, Cherubini was appointed ‘Surintendant de la musique du Roi’ in 1815; his attention and his energies (which were clearly still considerable) again found regular expression in sacred works, after his years as, primarily, a composer of operas. The revival of Cherubini’s interest in the writing of sacred music seems, in part, to have come about through a set of chance circumstances; after his return from Vienna, The Prince de Chimay invited him to stay with him at his Château de Chimay (Chimay is now in the Belgian province of Hainault). After Cherubini had enjoyed a period of rest there, spent in drawing and botanical studies, it chanced that a church in Chimay was to be dedicated. Cherubini was persuaded to write a mass for the occasion. What he produced was the Mass in F (1809), sometimes referred to as the Messe de Chimay. This was to be the first in a series of sacred works – which included the Requiem in C-minor (1816), marking the anniversary of the execution of Louis XVI; the Missa solemnis in E (1818); the Mass in G (1819), written for the coronation of Louis XVIII; the Messe solennelle (1825), written for the coronation of Charles X, and the Requiem in D minor (1836) written with his own funeral in mind – which represent the pinnacle of Cherubini’s achievements as a composer. In them the sense of pathos, a strong sense of the dramatic and the theatrical and an almost
epic scale are fused (in differing proportions).
The last phase of Cherubini’s career as a composer was thus – as the first had been – focused on sacred music. His sense of religious ceremony (rather than any profundity of personal faith) seems to lie at the core of his religious music. In an anonymous contribution published in The MusicalWorld (March 24, 1883, p.173), the writer quotes (without citing a source) Cherubini’s daughter: “‘He was no mystic in religion,’ said Cherubini’s daughter. ‘He understood it liberally, like a man of high intelligence, and not according to the narrow ideas of the Catholic Church.’”. In discussing Cherubini’s Mass in F major (1808/9), the same author writes thus: “Cardinal Caprara, the Papal Legate, sent by his Holiness to the First Consul, Bonaparte, when it was proposed to re-establish religion in France, was present at the performance; going up to the composer, he said to him: ‘Caro figlio, siete degno di cantar le lodi de Dio.’ In saying to Cherubini, “Dear Son, you are worthy to sing the praises of God” the Cardinal was making a judgement on the skill and power of his music, not an assessment of how ‘good’ a Catholic Cherubini was.
In contrast to the quotations from nineteenth-century views of Cherubini quoted at the beginning of this piece, I offer a passage from Anthony Lewis’s discussion of the Requiem in C minor (taken from The New Oxford History of Music, Vol. VIII, p.623): “The setting of the Introit ‘Requiem aeternam’ at once creates an atmosphere of sincerity and reverence in which one feels the influence of [Cherubini’s] long study of Palestrina and other Italian polyphonic masters […] the discreet use of discipline gives his style a strength and dignity in the highest traditions of Italian church music. In an epoch of increasing emotional extravagance Cherubini had a rare sense of poise”.
Rather than being criticized for a lack of emotional ‘warmth’, Cherubini is here valued for the “rational” qualities of “discipline” and “poise”, by means of which he avoids “emotional extravagance”. These are
terms on which a reassessment of Cherubini’s music might profitably build.