“Such,” says M. Miel, “was Cherubim; a colossal and incommensurable genius, an existence full of days, of masterpieces, and of glory. Among his rivals he found his most sincere appreciators. The Chevalier Seyfried has recorded, in a notice on Beethoven, that that grand musician regarded Cherubini as the first of his contemporary composers. We will add nothing to this praise: the judgment of such a rival is, for Cherubini, the voice itself of posterity.”
Luigi Carlo Zanobe Salvadore Maria Cherubini was born at Florence on September 14, 1700, the son of a harpsichord accompanyist at the Pergola Theatre. Like so many other great composers, young Cherubini displayed signs of a fertile and powerful genius at an early age, mastering the difficulties of music as if by instinct. At the age of nine he was placed under the charge of Felici, one of the best Tuscan professors of the day; and four years afterward he composed his first work, a mass. His creative instinct, thus awakened, remained active, and he produced a series of compositions which awakened no little admiration, so that he was pointed at in the streets of Florence as the young prodigy. When he was about sixteen the attention of the Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany was directed to him, and through that prince’s liberality he was enabled to become a pupil of the most celebrated Italian master of the age, Giuseppe Sarti, of whom he soon became the favorite pupil. Under the direction of Sarti, the young composer produced a series of operas, sonatas, and masses, and wrote much of the music which appeared under the maestro’s own name—a practice then common in the music and painting schools of Italy. At the age of nineteen Cherubini was recognized as one of the most learned and accomplished musicians of the age, and his services were in active demand at the Italian theatres. In four years he produced thirteen operas, the names and character of which it is not necessary now to mention, as they are unknown except to the antiquary whose zeal prompts him to defy the dust of the Italian theatrical libraries. Halevy, whose admiration of his master led him to study these early compositions, speaks of them as full of striking beauties, and, though crude in many particulars, distinguished by those virile and daring conceptions which from the outset stamped the originality of the man.
Cherubini passed through Paris in 1784, while the Gluck-Piccini excitement was yet warm, and visited London as composer for the Royal Italian Opera. Here he became a constant visitor in courtly circles, and the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Queensbury, and other noble amateurs, conceived the warmest admiration for his character and abilities. For some reason, however, his operas written for England failed, and he quitted England in 1786, intending to return to Italy. But the fascinations of Paris held him, as they have done so many others, noticeably so among the great musicians; and what was designed as a flying visit became a life-long residence, with the exception of brief interruptions in Germany and Italy, whither he went to fill professional engagements.