Luigi Cherubini (1760–1842) was an Italian composer who spent most of his working life in France. Although his music is not well known today, it was greatly admired in his time. Beethoven regarded him as the greatest of his contemporaries.
Cherubini was born Maria Luigi Carlo Zenobio Salvatore Cherubini on 14th September 1760 in Florence. His instruction in music began at the age of six with his father, himself a musician. By the age of thirteen he had composed several religious works. From 1778 to 1780, he studied music in Bologna and Milan. Cherubini's early operas, settings of Italian libretti by Metastasio, adhered closely to the conventions of opera seria.
In 1788, Cherubini made a brief visit to London, where he started work on a setting of a French libretto by Jean-François Marmontel, Démophon. Cherubini's music began to show more originality and daring. Later the same year he settled in Paris. His first major success here was Lodoïska/i] (1791) which was admired for its realistic heroism. This was followed by Eliza (1794), set in the Swiss Alps, and Médée (1797), which is Cherubini's best-known work. Les deux journées (1800), in which Cherubini simplified his style somewhat, was a popular success. These and other operas were premiered at the Théâtre Feydeau.
Cherubini's popularity declined markedly after Les deux journées, with Parisian audiences turning to younger composers such as Boieldieu. His opera-ballet Anacréon was an outright failure. In 1805, Cherubini received an invitation from Vienna to write an opera and to direct it in person. Faniska was produced the following year and was enthusiastically received, in particular, by Haydn and Beethoven. 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 brought the composer critical praise, but was given few performances.
Disappointed with his lack of success in the theater, Cherubini turned increasingly to church music, writing seven masses, two requiems and many shorter pieces. During this period, he was also appointed surintendant de la musique du roi under the restored monarchy (his relations with Napoleon had been decidedly cool). In 1815, the London Philharmonic Society commissioned him to write a symphony, an overture, and a composition for chorus and orchestra, the performance of which he went especially to London to conduct, and this increased his international 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. In 1836, Cherubini wrote a requiem in D minor to be performed at his own funeral. It is for male choir only, as the religious authorities had criticised his use of female voices in the earlier work.
Although chamber music does not make up a large portion of his output, what he did write was important. Wilhelm Altmann, writing in his Handbuch für Streichquartettspielers (Handbook for String Quartet Players) about Cherubini's six string quartets,states that they are first rate, and regarded numbers 1 and 3 as masterworks. His string quintet for two violins, viola, and two cellos is also considered a first-rate work.
In 1822, Cherubini became director of the Conservatoire and completed his textbook, Cours de contrepoint et de fugue, in 1835. His role at the Conservatoire would bring him into conflict with the young Hector Berlioz, who went on to portray the old composer as a crotchety pedant in his memoirs. Some critics, such as Basil Deane, maintain that Berlioz's depiction has distorted Cherubini's image with posterity, and it must be remembered that Berlioz himself was a great admirer of much of Cherubini's music. There are many allusions to Cherubini's personal irritibality among his contemporaries; Adolphe Adam wrote, "some maintain his temper was very even, because he was always angry". Nevertheless, Cherubini had many friends, including Rossini, Chopin and, above all, the artist Ingres. The two had mutual interests: Cherubini was a keen amateur painter and Ingres enjoyed practising the violin. In 1841, Ingres produced the most celebrated portrait of the old composer.
Cherubini died in Paris on 15th March 1842 at the age of eighty-one, and was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery.
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