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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 8442

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Before Napoleon became First Consul, he had been on familiar terms with Cherubini. The soldier and the composer were seated in the same box listening to an opera by the latter. Napoleon, whose tastes for music were for the suave and sensuous Italian style, turned to him and said: "My dear Cherubini, you are certainly an excellent musician; but really your music is so noisy and complicated that I can make nothing of it;" to which Cherubini replied: "My dear general, you are certainly an excellent soldier; but in regard to music you must excuse me if I don't think it necessary to adapt my music to your comprehension." This haughty reply was the beginning of an estrangement. Another illustration of Cherubini's sturdy pride and dignity was his rejoinder to Napoleon, when the latter was praising the works of the Italian composers, and covertly sneering at his own. "Citizen General," he replied, "occupy yourself with battles and victories, and allow me to treat according to my talent an art of which you are grossly ignorant." Even when Napoleon became Emperor, the proud composer never learned "to crook the pregnant hinges of his knee" to the man before whom Europe trembled.

On the 12th of December, 1800, a grand performance of "The Creation" took place at Paris. Napoleon on his way to it narrowly escaped being killed by an infernal machine. Cherubini was one of the deputation, representing the various corporations and societies of Paris, who waited on the First Consul to congratulate him upon his escape. Cherubini kept in the background, when the sarcasm, "I do not see Monsieur Cherubini," pronounced in the French way, as if to indicate that Cherubini was not worthy of being ranked with the Italian composers, brought him promptly forward. "Well," said Napoleon, "the French are in Italy." "Where would they not go," answered Cherubini, "led by such a hero as you?" This pleased the First Consul, who, however, soon got to the old musical quarrel. "I tell you I like Paisiello's music immensely; it is soft and tranquil. You have much talent, but there is too much accompaniment." Said Cherubini, "Citizen Consul, I conform myself to French taste."

"Your music," continued the other, "makes too much noise. Speak to me in that of Paisiello; that is what lulls me gently." "I understand," replied the composer; "you like music which doesn't stop you from thinking of state affairs." This witty rejoinder made the arrogant soldier frown, and the talk suddenly ceased.

As a result of this alienation Cherubini found himself persistently ignored and ill-treated by the First Consul. In spite of his having produced such great masterpieces, his income was very small, apart from his pay as Inspector of the Conservatory. The ill will of the ruler of France was a steady check to his preferment. When Napoleon established his consular chapel in 1802, he invited Paisiello from Naples to become director at a salary of 12,000 francs a year. It gave great umbrage to the Conservatory that its famous teachers should have been slighted for an Italian foreigner, and musical circles in Paris were shaken by petty contentions. Paisiello, however, found the public indifferent to his works, and soon wearied of a place where the admiration to which he had been accustomed no longer flattered his complacency. He resigned, and his position was offered to Méhul, who is said to have declined it because he regarded Cherubini as far more worthy of it, and to have accepted it only on condition that his friend could share the duties and emoluments with him. Cherubini, fretted and irritated by his condition, retired for a time from the pursuit of his art, and devoted himself to flowers. The opera of "Anacreon," a powerful but unequal work, which reflected the disturbance and agitation of his mind, was the sole fruit of his musical efforts for about four years.

While Cherubini was in the deepest depression-for he had a large family depending on him and small means with which to support them-a ray of sunshine came in 1805 in the shape of an invitation to compose for the managers of the opera at Vienna. His advent at the Austrian capital produced a profound sensation, and he received a right

royal welcome from the great musicians of Germany. The aged Haydn, Hummel, and Beethoven became his warm friends with the generous freemasonry of genius, for his rank as a musician was recognized throughout Europe.

The war which broke out after our musician's departure from Paris between France and Austria ended shortly in the capitulation of Ulm, and the French Emperor took up his residence at Sch?nbrunn. Napoleon received Cherubini kindly when he came in answer to his summons, and it was arranged that a series of twelve concerts should be given alternately at Schonbrunn and Vienna. The pettiness which entered into the French Emperor's nature in spite of his greatness continued to be shown in his ebullitions of wrath because Cherubini persisted in holding his own musical views against the imperial opinion. Napoleon, however, on the eve of his return to France, urged him to accompany him, offering the long-coveted position of musical director; but Cherubini was under contract to remain a certain length of time at Vienna, and he would not break his pledge.

The winter of 1805 witnessed two remarkable musical events at the Austrian capital, the production of Beethoven's "Fidelio" and the last great opera written by Cherubini, "Faniska." Haydn and Beethoven were both present at the latter performance. The former embraced Cherubini and said to him, "You are my son, worthy of my love." Beethoven cordially hailed him as "the first dramatic composer of the age." It is an interesting fact that two such important dramatic compositions should have been written at the same time, independently of each other; that both works should have been in advance of their age; that they should have displayed a striking similarity of style; and that both should have suffered from the reproach of the music being too learned for the public. The opera of "Faniska" is based on a Polish legend of great dramatic beauty, which, however, was not very artistically treated by the librettist. Mendelssohn in after years noted the striking resemblance between Beethoven and our composer in the conception and method of dramatic composition. In one of his letters to Edouard Devrient he says, speaking of "Fidelio": "On looking into the score, as well as on listening to the performance, I everywhere perceive Cherubim's dramatic style of composition. It is true that Beethoven did not ape that style, but it was before his mind as his most cherished pattern." The unity of idea and musical color between "Faniska" and "Fidelio" seems to have been noted by many critics both of contemporary and succeeding times.

Cherubini would gladly have written more for the Viennese, by whom he had been so cordially treated; but the unsettled times and his homesickness for Paris conspired to take him back to the city of his adoption. He exhausted many efforts to find Mozart's tomb in Vienna, and desired to place a monument over his neglected remains, but failed to locate the resting-place of one he loved so much. Haydn, Beethoven, Hummel, Salieri, and the other leading composers reluctantly parted with him, and on April 1, 1806, his return to Paris was celebrated by a brilliant fête improvised for him at the Conservatory. Fate, however, had not done with her persecutions, for fate in France took the shape of Napoleon, whose hostility, easily aroused, was implacable; who aspired to rule the arts and letters as he did armies and state policy; who spared neither Cherubini nor Madame de Sta?l. Cherubini was neglected and insulted by authority, while honors were showered on Méhul, Grétry, Spontini, and Lesueur. He sank into a state of profound depression, and it was even reported in Vienna that he was dead. He forsook music and devoted himself to drawing and botany. Had he not been a great musician, it is probable he would have excelled in pictorial art. One day the great painter David entered the room where he was working in crayon on a landscape of the Salvator Rosa style. So pleased was the painter that he cried, "Truly admirable! Courage!" In 1808 Cherubini found complete rest in a visit to the country-seat of the Prince de Chimay in Belgium, whither he was accompanied by his friend and pupil Auber.

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