Cherubini took up his residence with his friend Viotti, who introduced him to the Queen, Marie Antoinette, and the highest society of the capital, then as now the art-center of the world. He became an intimate of the brilliant salons of Mme. de Polignac, Mme. d’Etioles, Mme. de Richelieu, and of the various bright assemblies where the wit, rank, and beauty of Paris gathered in the days just prior to the Revolution. The poet Marmontel became his intimate friend, and gave him the opera story of “Demophon” to set to music. It was at this period that Cherubini became acquainted with the works of Haydn, and learned from him how to unite depth with lightness, grace with power, jest with earnestness, and toying with dignity.
A short visit to Italy for the carnival of 1788 resulted in the production of the opera of “Ifigenia in Aulide” at La Scala, Milan. The success was great, and this work, the last written for his native country, was given also at Florence and Parma with no less delight and approbation on the part of the public. Had Cherubini died at this time, he would have left nothing but an obscure name for Fetis’s immense dictionary. Unlike Mozart and Schubert, who at the same age had reached their highest development, this robust and massive genius ripened slowly. With him as with Gluck, with whom he had so many affinities, a short life would have been fatal to renown. His last opera showed a turning point in his development. Halevy, his great disciple, speaks of this period as follows: “He is already more nervous; there peeps out I know not exactly how much of force and virility of which the Italian musicians of his day did not know or did not seek the secret. It is the dawn of a new day. Cherubini was preparing himself for the combat. Gluck had accustomed France to the sublime energy of his masterpieces. Mozart had just written ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ and ‘Don Giovanni.’ He must not lag behind. He must not be conquered. In that career which he was about to dare to enter, he met two giants. Like the athlete who descends into the arena, he anointed his limbs and girded his loins for the fight.”
Marmontel had furnished the libretto of an opera to Cherubini, and the composer shortly after his return from Turin to Paris had it produced at the Royal Academy of Music. Vogel’s opera on the same text, “Demophon,” was also brought out, but neither one met with great success. Cherubini’s work, though full of vigor and force, wanted color and dramatic point. He was disgusted with his failure, and resolved to eschew dramatic music; so for the nonce he devoted himself to instrumental music and cantata. Two works of the latter class, “Amphion” and “Circe,” composed at this time, were of such excellence as to retain a permanent hold on the French stage. Cherubini, too, became director of the Italian opera troupe, “Les Bouffons,” organized under the patronage of Leonard, the Queen’s performer, and exercised his taste for composition by interpolating airs of his own into the works of the Italian composers, which were then interesting the French public as against the operas of Rameau.