Memoir of Cherubini

This admirable composer was born at Florence, on the 8th Sept., 1760, and he received the baptismal name of Maria Luigi Carlo Zenobio Salvador Cherubini. He mastered the first elements of music before he was six years old. At the age of nine, he had lessons of harmony and accompaniment from Bartolomeo Felici and his son Alessandro. On the death of these two masters, he obtained instruction from Pietro Bizzari and Guiseppe Castrucci, who promoted his studies in composition, and gave him some idea of vocal art.

The progress he made was so rapid, that as early at 1773, before he had completed his thirteenth year, there was a solemn mass of his performed at Florence. This work was followed by several others, both sacred and secular; and the public greeted with warm applause those early productions of a genius already remarkable. The grand duke of Tuscany, Leopold II. – a prince distinguished no less by his enlightened taste for the fine arts, than by his mild and benevolent rule – denoted his estimate of young Cherubini's talent by granting him, in 1778, a pension which should enable him to repair to Bologna and study under Sarti. Four years were spent by the young artist in this school, acquiring by assiduous labour a profound knowledge of counterpoint and of ancient fugal style.

To Sarti's excellent precepts, Cherubini's extensive acquaintance with the classical Italian composers is mainly owing; while to this master's judicious system – not only imparting to his pupils solid scientific instruction, but exercising their fertility of invention by entrusting them with the composition of subordinate portions of his own operas – may be traced Cherubini's ready skill in writing down his thoughts. Sarti's scores contain many pieces composed by Cherubini.

Before permanently quitting the tutelage of his master, Cherubini wrote the opera Quintus Fabius, which was first performed in 1782, and which was followed by seven other works, that made their appearance at Florence, Leghorn, Rome, and Mantua. In 1784, Cherubini left Italy for London. Here he wrote La Finta Principessa, an opera buffa; and brought out his Giulo Salino, of which he had re-written several pieces. He also contributed several new pieces to the score of Paisiello's Marchese di Tulipano; after which he repaired to Paris, with the intention of settling there. But he was immediately summoned to Turin, that he might write his opera of Iphigenia in Aulide, which obtained such marked success, that Marshesi made choice of this work for the autumn of 1788, at the theatre of La Scala, in Milan.

On his return to London, in 1787, Cherubini filled the post, (and with the title) of composer to His Majesty's Theatre. Here he brought out Cimarosa's Giannina e Bernadone, and Paisiello's Gli Schiavi per amore, with other works, to which he contributed several charming pieces. Burney alludes with eulogy to these productions of Cherubini's genius, in his History of Music. At Paris, in 1788, Cherubini wrote his first French opera, entitled Démophon; it appeared on the opera stage, the 2nd of December of that year, but met with slight success. Many causes operated to occasion this cold reception of a work, which was an experiment in the style of composition where Cherubini seemed to have relinquished those peculiarities of Italian music he had till then cultivated. The chief of these causes was the interest taken by the public in Vogel, – the auther of another Démophon; the overture to which had attained considerable favor and celebrity. This young musician had expired the same year, leaving his opera completed. It was performed during the summer; and although the remainder of the work did not keep pace with the merit of its overture, the public regarded it with a partiality which prevented due interest in Cherubini's production. In this latter, there was a creative power superior to anything yet achieved in France; which power being beyond the comprehension of the opera-pit critics of the time, did not compensate, in their eyes, for the want of spirit and dramatic interest that may be alleged against the score as a whole. Of all its composer's works, Démophon is now the least known, even to his admirers; nevertheless there are pieces in it, (particularly a chorus, “Ah! vous rendes la vie”) which, for skill of instrumentation, for disposal of the voices, and for purity of style, were, at the period when the opera was written, truly original creations, and were the heralds of a new school.

In 1789, an Italian opera was regularly organized in Paris, and Cherubini was installed as its musical director. The company's first performances took place in a paltry kind of building, called “Le Théatre de la foire Saint Germain'; and here were executed – with a perfection till then unknown – the first works of Anfossi, Paisiello, and Cimarosa, in which Cherubini introduced some excellent pieces of his own composition. All these pieces bear the stamp of superior talent; and the excited general admiration. Among them is a delicious quartet, “Cara da voi dipende” (introduced into the Viaggiatori felici), and also the trio given in the Italiana in Londra. Both of these productions present a study full of interest, if compared with Démophon, or, still more, with Lodoiska – a French opera written by Cherubini at that period. They prove that their author then possessed two distinct styles; the one, simple as that of Cimarosa, or Paisiello, but distinguished by a purity of character superior to all that had preceded it; the other, severe, – rather instinct with harmony than with melody, – rich in details of instrumentation, and constituting a type, as yet unappreciated, of a new school destined to remodel existing forms in musical art.

Lodoiska first appeared in 1791. This fine composition, where the magnitude of plan in the concerted pieces, the novelty of combination, and the richness of instrumental beauty, are so remarkable, – caused a revolution in French music, and was the origin of that music of effect which composers of modern time have imitated through so many varied modifications. Among those of the French school, may be cited Méhul, Steibelt, Berton, Lesueur, and even Gréty, as throwing themselves into this new path, with an implicitness only differing in the several peculiarities that mark the style of each. It is true that Mozart had already revealed, in his immortal compositions of Figaro and Don Giovanni, all the effect to be produced by grand combinations in harmony, and by fine instrumental accompaniment in conjuction with the most-exquisite melodies; but these works, produced before even Mozart's own countrymen were capable of fully comprehending them, were at that time entirely unknown to foreigners. There can be no doubt therefore, that Cherubini was indebted to his own inspiration alone, for the new style which he introduced into France; while a careful comparison between his manner and that of his illustrious predecessor attests the fact beyond dispute.

The revolution commenced by Lodoiska, was completed by Elisa, or Mount St. Bernard, and by Medea. Unfortunately, these operas, the music of which, after a lapse of many years, excites the admiration of musicians, were composed on libretti, either devoid of interest, or written in a style of absurdity, that prevents their keeping possession of the stage. As a proof that Cherubini needed nothing else for the attainment of popular success, than more interesting or more-rational groundworks for his music, the opera of Les deux Journées was received with enthusiasm; its music is written on the same model as Cherubini's other French compositions, but its story possesses interest, and is well suited to the lovely character of the music. More than two hundred representations of this beautiful work did not exhaust the delight of true judges, yet, notwithstanding the high reputations by Cherubini throughout Europe, his position in France was not worthy of his great talent. The emoluments of office, as Inspector of the Conservatoire, formed all his income, and hardly sufficed for the maintenance of a numerous family. The head of that Government which succeeded the Directory, showed little favor to the man whose name was revered throughout France, England, Italy, and, above all, Germany.

Compelled at last to provide for the means of existence, it was towards this land of harmony that Cherubini cast his eyes, as a resource. An engagement was offered him to write some operas for Vienna, which he accepted, and repaired thither, with his family, in the spring of 1805. Arrived in the imperial city, he wrote the score of Faniska; the beauties of which excited the admiration of all the Viennese artists. Haydn and Beethoven pronounced the author of this work, the first dramatic composer of his time. The French musicians, and Méhul himself, subscribed to this verdict. But scarcely had Cherubini begun to reap the fruits of his success, and to plan new productions, when the war broke out between France and Austria. The results of this war are well know; Vienna was surrounded by French troops, the court of Francis II was compelled to leave, and the author of Faniska found himself obliged to return to Paris, where he expiated, in a forced leisure, the glory of a success which had seemed to defy Napoleon's disdain.

Meanwhile, some friends essayed to remove the prejudices and dislike conceived by this latter; they induced Cherubini to write an Italian opera for the theatre at the Tuilerics, and Crescentini promised to sing the principal part. The composer yielded to the persuasions, and some months afterwards, the score of Pimmaglione was completed. This charming work, written in a totally different style from the other productions of Cherubini, contains scenes of a most-felicitous conception. Napoleon seemed surprised when he was told the name of its author; he evinced at first some satisfaction, but no amelioration in the position of the composer was the result. So flagrant an injustice could not but carry discouragement to the artist's soul; but suddenly, in the midst of the neglect into which he had fallen, unforeseen circumstances directed Cherubini to a new course, which may be considered as one of the most-solid foundations of his renown. He had just left Paris, to enjoy, at the residence of M. le Prince de Chimay, a repose of spirit, a calm, that he felt imperatively necessary for him. He was in one of those crises of disgust at Art, which are not of infrequent occurrence in the lives of great artists; but in order that his spirit might not lack aliment, he had taken up the pursuit of botany, and seemed to have no other thought than the diligent prosecution of this science.

It so happened, that a project was formed for getting up a mass with music in the church of Chimay; but, for the realization of this project one thing was wanting, – namely, the music of the mass. They had recourse to Cherubini; who at first refused, but afterwards, consented. It was on this occasion that he wrote his admirable mass for three voices, in F. The prevailing idea in this effort has nothing in common with that which pervades all the music of the ancient Roman school; that was conceived as an emanation of pure sentiment, apart from all human passion; while Cherubini, on the contrary, chose that his music should express a dramatic sense of the words, and in the fulfilment of this idea, he gave proof of a talent so exalted, as to leave him without rival in this particular. A union of the severe beauties of fugue and counterpoint, with those belonging to dramatic expression, and rich instrumental effects, is an achievement peculiar to the genius of Cherubini. The European success obtained by this fine work, determined its author to produce many others similar in style. The restoration of the old French monarchy, removing the kind of proscription under which Cherubini dwelt, gave him frequent occasion to exercise his talent in this way. In 1816, he succeeded Martini in his office of superintendent of the king's music; and from that time forth, he continued to write numerous masses and motets for the service at the royal chapel. A portion of them only have been published; but the majority of these works are considered by judges to be compositions of a very high order.

Among the principal works of Cherubini may be numbered no fewer than thirty-two operas, twenty-nine church compositions, four cantatas, and several instrumental pieces; besides the admirable Treatise on Counterpoint and Fugue, first published in Paris, in 1833. This latter work is, in fact, the result of Cherubini's experience as to what was necessary in teaching counterpoint to the pupils of the Conservatoire for nearly a quarter of a century; and the examples are models of that perfection of style which distinguishes the productions of the ancient Italian masters.

After filling the post of Inspector of the Conservatoire of Music in Paris during a period of twenty years, Cherubini was nominated Professor of Composition there, in 1816; and subsequently, Director, in 1822. He was created Chavalier of the Legion of Honor in 1814, became an officer of the order, and chevalier of that of Saint Michael. The Institute of Holland, the Academy of Music at Stockholm, and the Academy of Fine Arts in France, elected him among their members.

He resided in Paris until the period of his death, which took place in 1842, at the age of eighty-two.

The obsequies of the great composer were celebrated with much pomp. More than three thousand persons repaired to the Conservatoire, and attended the funeral train to its destination at St. Roch. The whole school, – professors and students, – accompanied the procession. Mournful music, consisting, among other productions of the illustrious deceased, of the piece formerly composed for the obsequies of General Hoche, was played during its progress to the church; where his solemn Requiem, for male voices, recently written, was performed. Nothing, in short, was omitted, to render this closing homage complete. Subsequently, a subscription was voluntarily entered into among the artists with a view of erecting a monument to his memory; and a proposal was made, to give the name of Cherubini to one of the streets in Paris adjoining the principal lyric theatres.

He enjoyed the respect and attachment of his pupils, the esteem of his intimates, and the highest admiration from those best capable of appreciating his genius – the first-rate musicians of his own time.

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