Born in Florence, Cherubini revealed his musical gifts early;
by the age of 18 be had written 35 compositions, including a
cantata performed in the cathedral of Florence to honour the
future emperor Leopold II. Suitably impressed, Leopold granted
funds for the young composer to study in Milan under the leading
opera composer Giuseppe Sarti.
Cherubim's first opera, Quinto Fabio, was performed in
1780 but met with little response. He set his sights on London,
and wrote La finta principessa in 1 785 and Giulio
Sabino in 1786 for the King's Theatre, earning the respect of
both the intelligentsia and the English royal circle. While the
theatre was in summer recess, he visited Paris, where he was
presented to the French queen, Mane Antoinette. He settled in the
city and with the librettist Marmontel created his first French
opera, Demophon performed in December 1788 without great
Over the next few years Cherubini conducted a number of operas
for an Italian opera company in Pans started by the queen's
hairdresser. He introduced changes to the orchestra and
intensified the dramatic action, mirroring the temperament of a society in the
throes of revolution. The theatre group broke up in 1792 and
Cherubim spent the next year in the Normandy countryside working
Returning to an ever more turbulent Paris, Cherubim was
eventually offered a post at the newly established Institut
National de Musique, which two years later became the
Conservatoire. He wrote several more operas, including in 1797
Medee, based on the myth of Medea, who after rejection by
Jason murdered her own children. The main focus of the opera is
the psychological torment of Medea, who dominates the stage in a
display notable for the huge range, both in pitch and dynamics, of
her vocal part.
Cherubim moved to Vienna in 1805, where he received the praise
of both Haydn and Beethoven. When Napoleon marched into the city
in 1809, to Cherubim's surprise the Emperor requested his return
to Pans: Cherubim complied. His Requiem in С minor was later
composed at the request of the government to commemorate the
anniversary of the execution of Louis XVI. The work was first
performed in 181 6 and was much
admired by Beethoven, who preferred it to the more famous
Requiem by Mozart. It has no soloists but its bare choral
writing is lifted by colourful orchestration.
Relations with Napoleon soured, however, when the Emperor found
fault with one of Cherubini's compositions. Cherubim's retort -
"Your Majesty knows no more about it than I about a battle"
-resulted in his losing his official post. Temporarily abandoning
music, he retired to the chateau of the Prince of Chimay, where he
studied painting and botany. However, the local church's need for
a new Mass tempted him to begin composing again, and the resultant
Mass was a resounding success. In 1822 he became director of the
revitalized Conservatoire, a post he held for almost 20 years.
After 1835. when he composed another Requiem, Cherubim
concentrated on teaching, his pupils including Halevy and Auber.
He died in 1842.