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Luigi Cherubini: Luigi Cherubini (b. Florence, 14 Sept 1760, d. Paris, 15 March 1842).
Luigi Cherubini (Maria Luigi Carlo Zenobio Salvatore Cherubini) was born in Florence, the son of a musician, and showed an early gift for music. By the age of seventeen he had composed a number of works for the church, including three Masses, and it was on the strength of these that the then Grand Duke of Tuscany (the future Emperor Leopold II) sent him to study with Giuseppe Sarti in Venice. Sarti had already spent two spells of time as composer to the Danish Court in Copenhagen and was later to hold a similar appointment in St Petersburg. Luigi Cherubini studied with him while he was director of the Ospedaletto in Venice and seems to have worked exclusively at perfecting his mastery of the traditional contrapuntal style, so-called alia Palestrina, still in demand for ecclesiastical works. His first opera, Quinto Fabio (1780) was given at Alessandria and was followed two years later by three other pieces all given the same year (1782), one in Leghorn and two in his native Florence. An opera buffa, Lo sposo di tre, marito di nessuna was given in Venice (1783); and at the end of the following year, during which he produced Idalide (Florence) and Alessandro nelle Indie (Mantua), he went to London, where he wrote two pasticcios and two operas for the King's Theatre. During the two years spent in London he attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales and held the post of Composer to the King (George III) for a short time. It was probably this position rather than the popularity of his music that won him an invitation in 1786 to visit Paris, where he stayed for a year; but it was in Italy that he produced his next two operas (Didone abbandonata, Brescia 1786, Ifigenia in Aulide, Turin, 1788). The first work that he presented in Paris (December 1788) was Demophoon, with a libretto by Marmontel and in a style adapted to that of the prevailing French taste. This meant a cross between the severer, essentially cosmopolitan style of the mature Gluck and the overtly Italian, but still highly dramatic manner popularised by Piccinni and his successors in French favour, Salieri and Sacchini.
When Luigi Cherubini settled in Paris, where he was to remain for the rest of his life, he was still under thirty and France was on the very brink of revolution. In the circumstances it seems strange that the Theatre de Monsieur, where Luigi Cherubini conducted an entirely Italian repertory for the next three years (1789-92), had been recently established in the Tuileries by Marie Antoinette's hairdresser Leonard; but the circumstance gives us a good idea of the connection between the Court and the Italian opera and of the similar social rating of artists and Court servants. Luigi Cherubini, however, seems to have been at this period of his life an adaptable young man, for in 1791 he produced the first of a number of operas totally unlike the Metastasio settings of his early days and reflecting, however obliquely, the very different preoccupations of the revolutionary period. The first of these was Lodokiska, a 'rescue-opera' with a Polish setting. followed in 1800 by Les deux Journees, a comedie-lyrique in three acts by J. N. Bouilly, author of that Leonore, ou l'amour conjugal which Sonnleithner was to translate for Beethoven's Fidelio. The hero of Les deux Journees is a peasant, the water-carrier Mikeli, and Bouilly's text is full of priggish sentiments never, fortunately, common in the mouths of any social class.
Si dans une obscure indigence
Par le destin je fus jete,
Tachons du moins qu'mon existence
Soit util a l'humanite!
Mikeli's prosody denotes his social standing, which certainly contributed to the work's success. But the French public, to do them justice, were greatly impressed by Luigi Cherubini's new musical style, 'more expressive and more characteristic' than any that they had hitherto heard. Indeed anyone today hearing the overture to his Demophoon must immediately be struck by the similarity to the music of Beethoven, at that time (1788) a boy at Bonn; and Beethoven himself was not only greatly struck by Luigi Cherubini's music when he heard it in Vienna, but continued to the end of his life to name him as the greatest living opera composer.
Unfortunately for Luigi Cherubini Napoleon took a dislike to his unsmiling, perhaps rather schoolmasterly manner; and although he was appointed one of the three Inspecteurs des Etudes when the Conservatoire was founded in 1795, and married the same year, his life in Paris was complicated by shortness of money. An unexpected return to the world of Gluck, even to the opera seria, may well have shown where his own natural tastes continued to lie, and Medee (1797) is today regarded as his operatic masterpiece, best appreciated historically if it is remembered that it was written only six years after Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito.
The French Embassy in Vienna during the years when Bernadotte was ambassador was an important centre of French musical influence in Austria, and it was there that Beethoven made the acquaintance of the music of Mehul and Luigi Cherubini, both of whom he admired. In July 1805 Luigi Cherubini arrived in Vienna, where he was present not only at a performance of his own Les deux Joumees (first given there in 1802) but also on the 20th November at the first performance of Beethoven's Fidelio. This was at the Karntnerthor Theatre where, three months later, Luigi Cherubini's own Faniska had its first performance, the librettist being the same Sonnleithner who was responsible for the text of Fidelio. The two composers met, but seem to have found little in common, least of all perhaps a language that both could use with freedom. In any case war had broken out between Austria and France soon after Luigi Cherubini's arrival in Vienna, and on the 13th November 1805, French troops occupied the city. Luigi Cherubini found himself obliged to organise and conduct the musical soirees which Napoleon gave at Schonbrunn during his stay.
Luigi Cherubini's portrait by Ingres certainly suggests the dry correctness of an academic establishment-figure, but his brusque and unsympathetic treatment of the young Berlioz and the revenge taken by Berlioz in his Memoirs cast a long and undeserved shadow over a composer who, though often unexpectedly frigid in his music for the theatre, proved himself a master of traditional style, a chaste melodist and, in his middle years, by no means unoriginal handler of harmony and orchestration.
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