Cherubini’s place in ecclesiastical music is that by which he is best known to the musical public of to-day; for his operas, owing to the immense demands they make on the dramatic and vocal resources of the artist, are but rarely presented in France, Germany, and England, and never in America. They are only given where music is loved on account of its noble traditions, and not for the mere sake of idle and luxurious amusement. As a composer of masses, however, Cherubini’s genius is familiar to all who frequent the services of the Roman Church. His relation to the music of Catholicism accords with that of Sebastian Bach to the music of Protestantism. Haydn, Mozart, and even Beethoven, are held by the best critics to be his inferiors in this form of composition. His richness of melody, sense of dramatic color, and great command of orchestral effects, gave him commanding power in the interpretation of religious sentiments; while an ardent faith inspired with passion, sweetness, and devotion what Place styles his “sublime visions.” Miel, one of his most competent critics, writes of him in this eloquent strain: “If he represents the passion and death of Christ, the heart feels itself wounded with the most sublime emotion; and when he recounts the ‘Last Judgment’ the blood freezes with dread at the redoubled and menacing calls of the exterminating angel. All those admirable pictures that the Raphaels and Michael Angelos have painted with colors and the brush, Cherubini brings forth with the voice and orchestra.” In brief, if Cherubini is the founder of a later school of opera, and the model which his successors have always honored and studied if they have not always followed, no less is he the chief of a later, and by common consent the greatest, school of modern church music.
The influence of Gluck was not confined to Cherubini, but was hardly less manifest in molding the style and conceptions of Mehul and Spontini,* who held prominent places in the history of the French opera.
* It is a little singular that some of the most distinguished names in the annals of French music were foreigners. Thus Gluck was a German, as also was Meyerbeer, while Cherubini and Spontini were Italians.
Henri Etienne Mehul was the son of a French soldier stationed at the Givet barracks, where he was born June 24, 1763. His early love of music secured for him instructions from the blind organist of the Franciscan church at that garrison town, under whom he made astonishing progress. He soon found he had outstripped the attainments of his teacher, and contrived to place himself under the tuition of the celebrated Wilhelm Hemser, who was organist at a neighboring monastery. Here Mehul spent a number of happy and useful years, studying composition with Hemser and literature with the kind monks, who hoped to persuade their young charge to devote himself to ecclesiastical life.