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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 15119

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

With this period Cherubini closed his career practically as an operatic composer, though several dramatic works were produced subsequently, and entered on his no less great sphere of ecclesiastical composition. At Chimay for a while no one dared to mention music in his presence. Drawing and painting flowers seemed to be his sole pleasure. At last the president of the little music society at Chimay ventured to ask him to write a mass for St. Cecilia's feast day. He curtly refused, but his hostess noticed that he was agitated by the incident,'as if his slumbering instincts had started again into life. One day the Princess placed music paper on his table, and Cherubini on returning from his walk instantly began to compose, as if he had never ceased it. It is recorded that he traced out in full score the "Kyrie" of his great mass in F during the intermission of a single game of billiards. Only a portion of the mass was completed in time for the festival, but, on Cherubini's return to Paris in 1809, it was publicly given by an admirable orchestra, and hailed with a great enthusiasm, that soon swept through Europe. It was perceived that Cherubini had struck out for himself a new path in church music. Fétis, the musical historian, records its reception as follows: "All expressed an unreserved admiration for this composition of a new order, whereby Cherubini has placed himself above all musicians who have as yet written in the concerted style of church music. Superior to the masses of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and the masters of the Neapolitan school, that of Cherubini is as remarkable for originality of idea as for perfection in art." Picchiante, a distinguished critic, sums up the impressions made by this great work in the following eloquent and vigorous passage: "All the musical science of the good age of religious music, the sixteenth century of the Christian era, was summed up in Palestrina, who flourished at that time, and by its aid he put into form noble and sublime conceptions. With the grave Gregorian melody, learnedly elaborated in vigorous counterpoint and reduced to greater clearness and elegance without instrumental aid, Palestrina knew how to awaken among his hearers mysterious, grand, deep, vague sensations, that seemed caused by the objects of an unknown world, or by superior powers in the human imagination. With the same profound thoughtfulness of the old Catholic music, enriched by the perfection which art has attained in two centuries, and with all the means which a composer nowadays can make use of, Cherubini perfected another conception, and this consisted in utilizing the style adapted to dramatic composition when narrating the church text, by which means he was able to succeed in depicting man in his various vicissitudes, now rising to the praises of Divinity, now gazing on the Supreme Power, now suppliant and prostrate. So that, while Palestrina's music places God before man, that of Cherubini places man before God." Adolphe Adam puts the comparison more epigrammatically in saying: "If Palestrina had lived in our own times, he would have been Cherubini." The masters of the old Roman school of church music had received it as an emanation of pure sentiment, with no tinge of human warmth and color. Cherubini, on the contrary, aimed to make his music express the dramatic passion of the words, and in the realization of this he brought to bear all the resources of a musical science unequaled except perhaps by Beethoven. The noble masses in F and D were also written in 1809 and stamped themselves on public judgment as no less powerful works of genius and knowledge.

Some of Cherubini's friends in 1809 tried to reconcile the composer with the Emperor, and in furtherance of this an opera was written anonymously, "Pimmalione." Napoleon was delighted, and even affected to tears. Instantly, however, that Cherubini's name was uttered, he became dumb and cold. Nevertheless, as if ashamed of his injustice, he sent Cherubini a large sum of money, and a commission to write the music for his marriage ode. Several fine works followed in the next two years, among them the Mass in D, regarded by some of his admirers as his ecclesiastical masterpiece. Miel claims that in largeness of design and complication of detail, sublimity of conception and dramatic intensity, two works only of its class approach it, Beethoven's Mass in D and Niedermeyer's Mass in D minor.

In 1811 Halévy, the future author of "La Juive," became Cherubini's pupil, and a devoted friendship ever continued between the two. The opera of "Les Abencérages" was also produced, and it was pronounced nowise inferior to "Médée" and "Les Deux Journées." Mendelssohn many years afterward, writing to Moscheles in Paris, asked: "Has Onslow written anything new? And old Cherubini? There's a matchless fellow! I have got his 'Abencérages,' and can not sufficiently admire the sparkling fire, the clear original phrasing, the extraordinary delicacy and refinement with which it is written, or feel grateful enough to the grand old man for it. Besides, it is all so free and bold and spirited." The work would have had a greater immediate success, had not Paris been in profound gloom from the disastrous results of the Moscow campaign and the horrors of the French retreat, where famine and disease finished the work of bayonet and cannon-ball.

The unsettled and disheartening times disturbed all the relations of artists. There is but little record of Cherubini for several years. A significant passage in a letter written in 1814, speaking of several military marches written for a Prussian band, indicates the occupation of Paris by the allies and Napoleon's banishment in Elba. The period of "The Hundred Days" was spent by Cherubini in England; and the world's wonder, the battle of Waterloo, was fought, and the Bourbons were permanently restored, before he again set foot in Paris. The restored dynasty delighted to honor the man whom Napoleon had slighted, and gifts were showered on him alike by the Court and by the leading academies of Europe. The walls of his studio were covered with medals and diplomas; and his appointment as director of the King's chapel (which, however, he refused unless shared with Lesueur, the old incumbent) placed him above the daily demands of want. So, at the age of fifty-five, this great composer for the first time ceased to be anxious on the score of his livelihood. Thenceforward the life of Cherubini was destined to flow with a placid current, its chief incidents being the great works in church music, which he poured forth year after year, to the admiration and delight of the artistic world. These remarkable masses, by their dramatic power, greatness of design, and wealth of instrumentation, excited as much discussion and interest throughout Europe as the operas of other composers. That written in 1816, the C minor requiem mass, is pronounced by Berlioz to be the greatest work of this description ever composed.

We get some pleasant glimpses of Cherubini as a man during this serene autumn of his life. Spohr tells us how cordially Cherubini, generally regarded as an austere and irritable man, received him. The world-renowned master, accustomed to handle instruments in great orchestral masses, was not familiar with the smaller compositions known as chamber music, in which the Germans so excelled. He was greatly delighted when the youthful Spohr turned his attention to this form of music, and he insisted on the latter directing little concerts

over and over again at his house.

In 1821 Moscheles writes in his diary, apropos of Cherubini and his artistic surroundings: "I spent the evening at Ciceri's, son in-law of Isabey, the famous painter, where I was introduced to one of the most interesting circles of artists. In the first room were assembled the most famous painters, engaged in drawing several things for their own amusement. In the midst of these was Cherubim, also drawing. I had the honor, like every one newly introduced, of having my portrait taken in caricature. Bégasse took me in hand and succeeded well. In an adjoining room were musicians and actors, among them Ponchard, Levasseur, Dugazon, Panseron, Mlle, de Munck, and Mme. Livère, of the Theatre Fran?ais. The most interesting of their performances, which I attended merely as a listener, was a vocal quartet by Cherubini, performed under his direction. Later in the evening, the whole party armed itself with larger or smaller 'mirlitons' (reed-pipe whistles), and on these small monotonous instruments, sometimes made of sugar, they played, after the fashion of Russian horn music, the overture to 'Demophon,' two frying-pans representing the drums." On the 27th of March this "mirliton" concert was repeated at Ciceri's, and on this occasion Cherubini took an active part. Moscheles relates of that evening: "Horace Vernet entertained us with his ventriloquizing powers, M. Salmon with his imitation of a horn, and Dugazon actually with a mirliton solo. Lafont and I represented the classical music, which, after all, held its own."

The distinguished pianist, in further pleasant gossip about Cherubini, tells us of hearing the first performance of a pasticcio opera, composed by Cherubini, Pa?r, Berton, Bo?eldieu, and Kreutzer, in honor of the christening of the Duke of Bordeaux. Of the part written by Cherubini he speaks in the warmest praise, and says quizzically of the composer: "His squeaky sharp little voice was sometimes heard in the midst of his conducting, and interrupted my state of ecstasy caused by his presence and composition."

In 1822 Cherubini became Director of the reestablished Conservatory, that institution having fallen into some decay, and displayed great administrative power and grasp of detail in bringing order out of chaos. His vigilance and experience, seconded by an able staff of professors, including the foremost musical names of France, soon made the Conservatory what it has since re? mained, the greatest musical college of the world. He was incessant in the performance of his duties, and spared neither himself nor his staff of professors to build up the institution. His spirit communicated itself both to masters and pupils. Ten o'clock every morning saw him at his office, and interviews even with the great were timed watch in hand. This law of order even prompted him to rebuke the Minister of Fine Arts severely when one day that functionary met an appointment tardily. Fétis tells us: "To his new functions he brought the most scrupulous exactitude of duty, that spirit of order which he possessed during the whole of his life, and an entire devotion to the prosperity of the establishment. Severe and exacting toward the professors and servants as he was with himself, he brought with him little love in his connections with the artists placed under his authority." His official duties finished, this incessant worker occupied his time with original composition, or copying out the scores of other composers from memory.

Though habitually cold and severe in his manner during these latter years, there was a spring of playful tenderness beneath. One day a child of great talent was brought by his father, a poor man, to see Cherubini. The latter's first exclamation was: "This is not a nursing hospital for infants." Relenting somewhat, he questioned the boy, and soon discovered his remarkable talents. The same old man was charmed and caressed the youngster, saying, "Bravo, my little friend! But why are you here, and what can I do for you?" "A thing that is very easy, and which would make me very happy," was the reply; "put me into the Conservatory." "It's a thing done," said Cherubini; "you are one of us." He afterward said to his friends playfully: "I had to be careful about pushing the questions too far, for the baby was beginning to prove that he knew more about music than I did myself."

His merciless criticism of his pupils did not surpass his own modesty and diffidence. One day, when a symphony of Beethoven was about to be played at a concert, just prior to one of his own works, he said, "Now I am going to appear as a very small boy indeed." The mutual affection of Cherubini and Beethoven remained unabated through life, as is shown by the touching letter written by the latter just before his death, but which Cherubini did not receive till after that event. The letter was as follows:

Vienna, March 15,1823.

Highly esteemed Sir: I joyfully take advantage of this opportunity to address you.

I have done so often in spirit, as I prize your theatrical works beyond others. The artistic world has only to lament that in Germany, at least, no new dramatic work of yours has appeared. Highly as all your works are valued by true connoisseurs, still it is a great loss to art not to possess any fresh production of your great genius for the theatre.

True art is imperishable, and the true artist feels heartfelt pleasure in grand works of genius, and that id what enchants me when I hear a new composition of yours; in fact, I take greater interest in it than in my own; in short, I love and honor you. Were it not that my continued bad health stops my coming to see you in Paris, with what exceeding delight would I discuss questions of art with you! Do not think that this is meant merely to serve as an introduction to the favor I am about to ask of you. I hope and feel sure that you do not for a moment suspect me of such base sentiments. I recently completed a grand solemn Mass, and have resolved to offer it to the various European courts, as it is not my intention to publish it at present. I have therefore asked the King of France, through the French embassy here, to subscribe to this work, and I feel certain that his Majesty would at your recommendation agree to do so.

My critical situation demands that I should not solely fix my eyes upon heaven, as is my wont; on the contrary, it would have me fix them also upon earth, here below, for the necessities of life.

Whatever may be the fate of my request to you, I shall for ever continue to love and esteem you; and you for ever remain of all my contemporaries that one whom I esteem the most.

If you should wish to do me a very great favor, you would effect this by writing to me a few lines, which would solace me much. Art unites all; how much more, then, true artists! and perhaps you may deem me worthy of being included in that number.

With the highest esteem, your friend and servant,



Cherubini's admiration of the great German is indicated in an anecdote told by Professor Ella. The master rebuked a pupil who, in referring to a performance of a Beethoven symphony, dwelt mostly on the executive excellence: "Young man, let your sympathies be first wedded to the creation, and be you less fastidious of the execution; accept the interpretation, and think more of the creation of these musical works which are written for all time and all nations, models for imitation and above all criticism."

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