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8.557908 - CHERUBINI: Symphony in D Major / Opera Overtures
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Luigi Cherubini (1760–1842)
Symphony in D major • Overtures

 

Luigi Cherubini was born in Florence in 1760, the tenth of the twelve children of the theatre harpsichordist at the Teatro della Pergola, his first teacher. As a child he had further instruction from leading Florentine composers and had an early composition, a Mass, performed in 1773. He continued in adolescence to write further church music and a smaller number of secular dramatic works. In 1778, after the performance of his cantata La pubblica felicità (Public Happiness) in honour of the Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany, the future Emperor Leopold II, he was awarded by the Grand Duke the means of further study with the well known opera composer Giuseppe Sarti, a former pupil of Padre Martini. Cherubini's period from 1778 to 1781 with Sarti in Bologna and from 1779 in Milan, where his teacher was maestro di cappella at the Cathedral and distinguished at the Teatro della Scala, brought the chance to compose operas for Florence and other Italian cities. In 1784 and 1785 he was in London, where he won success in the theatre, and from there he travelled to Paris. It was through the violinist and impresario Viotti, established in that city, that Cherubini was presented to Queen Marie Antoinette, and in 1786 he settled in France, collaborating with Viotti under the patronage of the King's brother at the Théâtre de Monsieur at the Tuileries, before his great success with the opera Lodoïska at Viotti's new Théâtre Feydeau, a venture curtailed by the Revolution, when Viotti took refuge in London and the wine-trade.

After a period of retirement to the countryside, Cherubini returned to Paris in 1793, eventually finding employment as an inspector at the new Institut National de Musique, the future Conservatoire. The decade brought settings of texts approved by the new, secular régime and operatic success with what remains his best known opera, Médée (Medea), and with Les deux journées (The Two Days), an opera that had its effect on Beethoven's own later Fidelio, the first performance of which Cherubini attended in 1805 during a successful visit to Vienna at the invitation of the director of the court opera, Baron Peter von Braun in 1805. Here he met Haydn, Beethoven and others and saw to the staging of his opera Lodoïska and of a new opera, Faniska. Napoleon's occupation of the city in that year brought Cherubini unexpected if perhaps grudging favour, and Napoleon took advantage of Cherubini's presence in Vienna to make him his director of music in Vienna late in 1805 until early in 1806, responsible for concerts at Schönbrunn, where Napoleon had taken up residence. After this Cherubini returned to Paris, where he retained his position as inspector at the Conservatoire but now wrote relatively little, finding occupation in the study of botany and in painting. As time went on he was able to return to composition, with the one-act opera Pimmalione (Pygmalion) staged at the Tuileries in 1809 and with an Ode à l'Hymen the following year for Napoleon's second marriage. The restoration of the monarchy after Napoleon's defeat brought him appointment in 1816 as a superintendent of the King's music under his former patron, now Louis XVIII. Further official honours followed, with significant appointment in 1822 as director of the Conservatoire, a position he held with distinction until a few weeks before his death in 1842.

Cherubini's three overtures, here included, once formed a very familiar part of concert programmes. The operas Lodoïska, Les deux journées, Médée and Elise had been seen in Vienna in 1802, and the overtures, with their dramatic relative freedom of form, had a strong influence on Beethoven, who, with Haydn, was also present at the performances of 1805 and 1806. Lodoïska was the first, in fact, of a series of such operas seen in Vienna in these years, after Emanuel Schikaneder's first Vienna staging of the work at the Theater an der Wien. Cherubini's heroic comedy in three acts, Lodoïska, was first seen at the Paris Théâtre Feydeau on 18 July 1791. The libretto by Claude-François Fillette-Loraux was based on an episode in Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvrai's novel Les amours du chevalier de Faublas and tells the story of the rescue of the heroine, Lodoïska, by her lover Count Floreski from the wicked designs of Baron Dourlinski, the hero and heroine both rescued from the Baron's clutches by a Tartar attack on the Baron's castle. The same story formed the basis of an opera by Simone Mayr and of Rossini's Torvaldo e Dorliska. The slow introduction to the overture, with its dramatic horn-calls, leads to an Allegro that suggests the excitement and danger to come, the predicament of Lodoïska and her lover and their final triumph.

Médée was first mounted at the Théâtre Feydeau in March 1797 and won only limited success in France, although it was soon to be taken up by German opera houses. The libretto by François-Benoît Hoffman deals with the traditional story used by Euripides, in which Jason, leader of the Argonauts, intends to marry Dirce, daughter of Creon, King of Corinth, but is prevented by the re-appearance of his wife Medea, mother of his children, who takes her revenge by sending a poisoned robe to Dirce and murdering her children, before rising into the air, accompanied by the Eumenides, as the temple where her children lie dead bursts into flames. The opera, recognised by Brahms as the height of dramatic music, represents the strong emotions of Jason and, above all, those of Medea. The overture sets the dramatic scene, with intervening moments of lyricism.

Faniska has a libretto by Joseph von Sonnleitner, librettist for Beethoven's Fidelio, and is based on René-Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt's Les mines de Pologne (The Mines of Poland). Written for Vienna, it was staged there at the Kärntnerthor Theatre on 25 February 1806. The heroine Faniska and her infant daughter are imprisoned by Count Zamoski, who is in love with her and tries to convince her that her husband is dead. Rasinski, very much alive, presents himself as the messenger of his own death, his identity revealed to Faniska's captor through the obvious affection of the child towards him. Eventually Zamoski is defeated and the captives are released. The plot bears a close enough resemblance to that of Cherubini's other rescue opera seen in Vienna in the same season, Lodoïska. The overture has a slow introduction that offers a blend of drama and tenderness, moving forward into livelier territory that hints at elements of the story to be unfolded.

Cherubini's last opera was staged in Paris in 1813. During the hundred days, after Napoleon's return from Elba in the early summer of 1815, he was able to travel to London, where the Philharmonic Society had commissioned, for a fee of £200, an overture and a symphony from him, with the cantata Inno alla primavera (Hymn to Spring). His hopes for a staging in London of his earlier opera Eliza ou Le voyage aux glaciers de Mont Saint-Bernard were disappointed, and, in spite of the success of the works performed in London, Cherubini returned to Paris, where he encountered new difficulties at the Conservatoire from which his royal appointment in 1816, generously shared with his predecessor Lesueur, provided some consolation. The Symphony in D major, scored for flute, pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani, with strings, opens with a slow introduction, leading to an Allegro, its first theme proposed by the strings, which are also entrusted with the A minor second subject, which soon turns into a sprightly major in a repeated exposition, material that makes its duly modified return in recapitulation after the central development. The principal theme of the G major slow movement is given to the first violins, accompanied by the strings, with the briefest interjections from the wind instruments. The strings again propose the contrasted second subject. The central development makes considerable use of the main theme, which makes its return in a varied recapitulation, followed by the secondary theme, now in the tonic key. The Minuetto has a D minor trio section in which the wind instruments are brought into full play, and the symphony ends with another sonata-form movement, in which Cherubini finds the expected opportunities for contrapuntal exploration of the thematic material.

Keith Anderson

 


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