Luigi Carlo Zanobi Salvatore Maria Cherubini

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Luigi Carlo Zanobi Salvatore Maria Cherubini

Luigi Carlo Zanobi Salvatore Maria Cherubini (1760-1842) was an Italian-born composer and teacher who lived in France. His dramatic compositions revitalized the French opéra comique. As a pedagogue, he had profound influence in shaping French music in the 19th century.

Luigi Cherubini was born in Florence on Sept. 12, 1760. He began his musical studies with his father, a musician of modest attainments. In 1778 Cherubini went to Bologna to study with the eminent opera composer Giuseppe Sarti. At a young age Cherubini had already begun to compose his own catalog, recording a "Mass" and an "Intermezzo" completed when he was 13. His first opera was produced when he was 20. After a brief attempt to establish himself in London, Cherubini settled in Paris in 1787 and remained there the rest of his life.

In 1789 Cherubini was named music director for the Théâtre Monsieur, founded to produce opéra comique (comic opera), and later, for the Théâtre Feydeau, an informal club for the aristocracy during the Revolution. In 1791 he electrified Paris with his first major "rescue opera," Lodoīska. This was followed by Eliza (1794), Médée (1797), and the immensely popular Les Deux journées (1800), known also under its German title, Der Wasserträger (The Water Carrier).

In the Napoleonic era Cherubini became more and more conservative in both his life and music. Described as moody and aloof, he made his most lasting friendship with J. A. D. Ingres, the great French painter of the neoclassic tradition. In 1808 Cherubini turned his attention to the composition of church music and became one of the few major composers active in the 19th century to write effectively in this genre. Long involved in pedagogical activities, he became director of the Conservatory in 1822, the institution he had been partially instrumental in founding in 1795. Elected to the Institut de France in 1815, he was named commander of the Légion d'Honneur in 1842 shortly before his death on March 15.

Cherubini is remembered more as a haughty, academic composer than as the creator of exciting revolutionary theater. He was a master contrapuntalist, was wary of innovation, and in an age which prized individual eccentricities, Cherubini became notorious as a reactionary traditionalist. In particular, he was the bane of the young Hector Berlioz. Beethoven, however, admired Cherubini above all his contemporaries, and Médée was not only a source of inspiration but a model as well for Fidelio. Cherubini's sense of decorum and propriety and his slavish respect for tradition have contributed to the beclouding in modern times of his genuine accomplishments.

Further Reading

The best study of Cherubini in English is Basil Deane, Cherubini (1965). His operas are discussed in Donald J. Grout, A Short History of Opera (1947; 2d ed. 1965). □