Luigi Cherubini has suffered from the worst misrepresentation in musical history. He was appointed director of the Paris Conservatoire in 1822, and immediately decreed that one entrance should be for the ladies, the other for men. Not long after, the young Hector Berlioz, transgressing this rule, came up against an apoplectic Cherubini, and wrote a hilarious account in his memoirs, mocking his Italian accent.

How can such a trivial insult triumph over the high opinions of Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms? It’s certainly not borne out by the music.

Was Luigi Cherubini a great composer?

The case for Cherubini is often supposed to be bolstered by his influence on Beethoven, and Beethoven’s statement that he was the greatest composer of his time. But Cherubini can argue for himself. Listened to with an open ear, one hears a different way of putting notes together. He is neither Haydn nor Mozart, but clearly of their time and beyond.

It is interesting, too, that the composer one thinks of when listening to his quartets is Mendelssohn, and sometimes Schubert, not Haydn and Mozart. Four years younger than Mozart, and 17 years Beethoven’s senior, Cherubini straddled the Classical and Romantic periods, and yet side-stepped the Viennese classical stream.

When and where was Cherubini born?

Cherubini was born in September 1760 in Florence, where his father was musical director at the Pergola Theatre.

When did Cherubini start playing music?

The son of a professional keyboard player, he began lessons at the age of six, and from eight was trained in old church counterpoint, making him one of the finest contrapuntists of his generation – one of his undoubted masterpieces, the C minor Requiem (1816), is a tour de force in this respect.

When did Cherubini start writing operas?

Throughout his life, it seems, he worked to find a path that would bring together the cold rigour of academic discipline with the passionate demands of drama. Masses and other liturgical works poured from his pen, but he did not try his hand at opera until he was 20.

He quickly became very successful here, however. Two years in London from 1784 saw four of his operas premiered there, and his appointment as Composer to the King.

What was Luigi Cherubini known for?

In 1787 he moved to Paris and remained there virtually for the rest of his life. His first opera there, Démophon, introduced a new style characterised by colourful harmony and a more ‘symphonic’ treatment of the orchestra. Other operas followed in the style of Démophon: Lodoïska in 1791 and Médée in 1797, a vehicle for Maria Callas 150 years later.

This new style was just what the Revolution needed. ‘In the afternoon, people were guillotined, in the evening the theatres were full,’ Cherubini’s wife said. But under Napoleon, Cherubini’s star waned. The Emperor liked Italian music, but thought him too French. In a period of depression, he all but gave up composing, turning instead to the graphic arts – he was close friends with Ingres, whose portrait of him is in the Louvre. However, Napoleon did appoint him director of music in Vienna when he took the city.

When did Luigi Cherubini meet Beethoven?

There he met Beethoven, who ten years earlier had written a fan letter about Médée. Cherubini in turn attended the first performances of Leonore and Beethoven’s style must have struck a chord with him, but all he is recorded as saying is that he could not tell what key the overture was in, and that Beethoven’s vocal writing was untutored.

Beethoven on the other hand, and Haydn too, was very impressed with Cherubini’s Faniska, staged in Vienna in 1806. The German composer, as a teenage violinist at court in Bonn, had already soaked-up the idiom of French opera, and from the first notes one is startlingly aware of the seminal influence on him of Les Deux Journées and Médée.

Cherubini’s sympathy with the Bourbons stood him in good stead at the Restoration in 1814, and he was appointed director of the Chapelle Royale. The final stage of his career dates from this time, and saw the creation of the Masses, the symphony and the chamber music. One might argue that, although his innovative operatic style earned him his place in history, it has distorted our appreciation of these other sides to his genius.

What is Luigi Cherubini's legacy?

Cherubini was not one of history’s lighter spirits. His ill-humour was legendary, and his seriousness an easy target for jokes. But as director of the Conservatoire he was a formative influence on a generation of French composers including, ironically, Berlioz, whose monumental style derives from such works as Cherubini’s astonishing Marche funêbre (1820), the apollonian Chant sur la mort de Joseph Haydn (1804) and the C minor Requiem.

Perhaps because of the high-minded seriousness of such works, their Italian composer, who spent the greater part of his life in France, became greatly revered in Germany. The teenage Mendelssohn came to see him in 1825, with Cherubini astonishing his colleagues by the warmth of his welcome. ‘He is rich,’ he said. ‘He will do well, he has already done well, but he spends too much money…’ For his part, Mendelssohn called Cherubini ‘an extinct volcano, throwing out occasional sparks and flashes’, but later in his life, looked out works of his to perform in Germany, including Les Deux Journées.

The ‘sparks and ashes’ of the ‘extinct volcano’ included liturgical and instrumental music of note. As Schumann wrote in 1838, on the publication of the First String Quartet ‘…it is not the familiar native tongue… it is a distinguished stranger addressing us; the more we come to understand him the more we come to respect him.’

The Second Quartet of 1829 is a reworking of Cherubini’s one and only symphony, commissioned in 1815 by the Philharmonic Society of London. Cherubini was not above re-using good material: the second subject of the overture to Médée appears in the same place in the overture to Les Deux Journées. The symphony may be his only one, but it advances the claim that Cherubini is the only Italian symphonist of substance in the 19th century: there are moments of visionary beauty in the first movement, while the Scherzo is distinctly Haydnesque – with some nice cross-rhythms – inhabiting the same world as the Austrian’s London Symphony, though with an atmosphere all of its own. No wonder Toscanini loved it so much.

Prompted by the C minor Requiem, (not to be confused with the D minor Requiem for men’s voices of 1836) Brahms declared ‘Cherubini was the great master from whom everything has proceeded…’ He may have been dour and humourless as a person, but his music is not. It is colourful and lyrical with flights fancy, wistful harmonic turns, rhythmically quirky, and brilliantly orchestrated. The Requiem is an extremely fine work, wonderfully crafted, completely original, with a delicious instrumental portrayal of heavenly delights. The tolling choral monotone at the end is mesmeric, and highly praised even by Berlioz.

In 1889 – by then Cherubini had been dead 45 years – Mahler’s First Symphony was premiered in Budapest in a concert which began with the overture to Cherubini’s grand opera, Les Abencérages and, perhaps more significantly, a few days earlier some of Mahler’s songs were premiered in a chamber concert which included Cherubini’s Third Quartet. Les Abencérages, set in the last days of the Moorish Kingdom of Granada, includes a ballet sequence consisting of a fascinating set of variations of the Spanish melody, La Folia.

Were Luigi Cherubini's operas popular?

And what of Cherubini’s operatic legacy? When revived, his operas are individual and compelling experiences and we should not forget just how influential he was. But fashion overtook him, and his work ceased to be heard regularly. Circumstances prevented him from following up on the success of Les Deux Journées. Napoleon did not favour him, and his next stage work, an opera-ballet, Anacreon, was a failure in spite of its overture which is still an occasional concert item and was admired by Weber, another composer greatly influenced by Cherubini.

Although Faniska was respectfully received in Vienna, it was perhaps Cherubini’s association with Napoleon that prevented the opera surviving the Emperor’s retreat from Austria. Back in Paris he did write an Italian version of Pygmalion for Napoleon’s private theatre in the Tuileries. But other ambitious composers challenged his popularity in Paris, among them his pupil, Auber, (whose first success took place in the same year as Les Abencérages) and Spontini, who was favoured by the Empress Josephine.

Auber’s lighter style and catchy tunefulness, and Spontini’s grandeur chimed with the tastes and aspiration of the post-revolutionary era. Being out of fashion was something Cherubini had already got used to, and after the Restoration he was too busy running the Royal Chapel and the Conservatoire, earning a knighthood along the way, to have much energy to direct to opera.

He produced two works in cooperation with other composers, in 1814 and 1821, and had one last push for success in 1833, with Ali Baba, which was a reworking of material he had originally composed 40 years earlier. By the time Cherubini died in 1842, the young Richard Wagner, living in poverty in Paris, had lamented the fact that his music no longer held the stage.

Cherubini’s curious sunset was crowned with the completion of his string quintet, the first of a planned triptych. It shows that, even at nearly 80 years old, the ‘extinct volcano’ had not run out of creative energy or ideas.

When did Luigi Cherubini die?

After having published a treatise and becoming the first musician to be made a Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur, Luigi Cherubini died on 15 March in Paris. His Requiem in D minor was played at the funeral.

What was Luigi Cherubini's composing style?


Cherubini was a skilled painter, and it is not too far fetched to compare the often luminous darkness of his orchestration to the Italian style of chiaroscuro. The Stygian opening of the Chant sur la mort de Joseph Haydn, solo cellos and lower strings, is comparable to Purcell’s Music for Queen Mary in simplicity of utterance and profound solemnity. His characterisation of solo instruments, such as the oboe in the finale of Act I of Médée, clearly struck Beethoven (above) deeply. 


Cherubini completed his Cours de contrepoint et de fugue in 1835 to crown his career as a musical educator. The fugal sections of the Masses are masterly and original, such as the wonderful example of augmentation in the ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ fugue of the C minor Requiem. 


Compared to the other great classical composers, Cherubini hardly ever used sonata form and when he did, particularly in the late chamber music, it was with imaginative freedom. His music proceeds in terms of the contrasts of utterance, by an implied drama, and by the balance of

the parts.


When you have heard Cherubini’s overtures to the late operas, you understand precisely where Beethoven got his characteristic hammering repetitions in, for instance, Coriolan, and the rhetorical unisons of the Leonore overtures.


Chris de SouzaWriter, BBC Music Magazine