One of the great modern masters of counterpoint and the earliest of the modern Italian composers, who has justly been styled "The last and noblest Roman in the purely classical style of music." Was at an early age instructed in music by his father, who was cymbalist at the Pergola Theatre at Florence, in which city Cherubim was born. He began to study harmony when he was only nine and his progress was rapid, and after studying under various teachers he was sent to Bologna and Milan by Duke Leopold II., of Tuscany (the future Emperor Leopold III.), who defrayed the expenses of his education and enabled him to become the pupil of the great Sarti. At thirteen he wrote a mass and a stage intermezzo for a theatre in Florence. Under Sarti's direction he confined himself to church music, but, in 1780, began to compose dramatic works and his first opera, Quinto Fabio, was produced in that year. After the production of this opera he brought out seven others in various cities in Italy. In 1784, he went to London, where he brought out two operas, but they were not successful. In Turin he wrote and produced his successful opera, Ifigenia in Aulide, and returning to Paris, in 1787, he was made composer to the King, and the next year his first French opera, Demophon, was produced. This was Cherubim's initial step in the work of founding a grand style of French opera and it was not a success, because it was written above the heads of the public of that time. Dramatic music was an unknown quantity when Cherubini appeared, and his efforts to improve the music of his time were so discouraging that he shortly after returned to the light style made popular by Cimarosa and Paisiello. In 1791 he wrote Lodoiska, in which he returned to his old ideals as expressed in Demophon, and this work caused a thorough revolution in the style of the French dramatic school. Other composers soon followed the lead of Cherubini, and he seems to have had an influence for good on the music of his time. He followed Lodoiska, with Elisa and Medee, but their poor librettos made them anything but popular. In Les Deux Journees, he found, however, a text worthy of his music and this opera is generally considered his masterpiece. In it, he is declared by musicians to have struck the first blow in the system for annihilating the tyranny of the leading singers in opera, an accepted Wagnerian theory. In 1805, Cherubini accepted an engagement at Vienna, where he wrote Faniska. This opera had an almost unprecedented success, Haydn and Beethoven both declaring that its author was the first dramatic composer of his time, and for some years it was considered the greatest opera since Mozart. Cherubini ultimately became very friendly with Beethoven.
When the French took Vienna, Cherubini left the scene of his triumphs and returned to Paris, but Napoleon had never liked the composer, whose musical opinions he did not agree with, and for this reason, Cherubini, humiliated and embittered, retired to the country, and at the house of the Prince de Chimay devoted himself to the study of botany. One day a mass was needed for the consecration of a church and he was urged by his friends to write it. After much thought upon the subject he complied and set to work on his Mass in F for- three voices and orchestra. With this successful work a new field was opened to him and a new era began. Although he wrote many operas, he devoted himself almost entirely from then on to the composition of sacred music, and in this field he probably did his greatest work. Upon the restoration of the House of Bourbon he returned to Paris, and, in 1816, he succeeded Martini as superintendent of the King's music and wrote many masses for the Royal Chapel. In the same year he was appointed professor of composition at the Conservatory, and 1822 director. As chief of his famous school he influenced his pupils to a great extent, but for some reason or other, he took no lasting hold on the French people. In Germany he was much more popular and his music was appreciated there as it never was in France. His adopted country, however, made him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, afterwards an officer, and honored him in many other ways. As a man and a musician there was much that was noteworthy in his career, and musicians at the time generally regretted that he had no copyists. His influence consisted in the lofty light in which he always regarded music, but he seems to have just missed being a great musician.
He wrote altogether fifteen Italian operas and fourteen French operas, and beside those already mentioned the following rank among his best work, Pimmaglione; Les Abencerages; La Finta; Principessa (opera buff a) and Giulio Sabine. Cherubini's last work, like Mozart's, was a Requiem which was first performed at his own funeral. His portrait by Ingres is in the gallery of the Louvre, Paris. The most exhaustive work on Cherubini is his life by Edward Bellasis, the title being, Cherubini: Memorials illustrative of his life. The article on Cherubini in the Biographic universelle by Fetis is also very complete, as is also an article by Ferdinand Hiller, which was published in Macmillan's Magazine for July, 1875.