Interlude at the side of the road: Luigi Cherubini

When Beethoven was asked to name the greatest living composer, his answer was Luigi Cherubini. When asked to name his favorite composer of operas, Beethoven’s answer was the same: Cherubini. Rarely performed, perhaps Cerubini’s music is due for reevaluation?

Before diving into his music, a few words about the man are needed. Cherubini was blessed with long life: Only four years younger than Mozart, Cherubini died 15 years after Beethoven. As his name suggests, Cherubini was Italian by birth, but lived most of his adult life in France. Ironically, Napoleon objected to his music as being “too French” as the Emperor preferred the Italian School. Nonetheless, Cherubini was installed in Vienna by Napoleon, where he met Beethoven. In later years, Cherubini was the headmaster of the Paris Conservatoire, where he was reknowned for his strict rules and dour demeanor, clashing with young Romantics such as Hector Berlioz.

Cherubini’s best known work is his opera Mèdeè (or Medea in its Italian version). The opera became a vehicle for the great Maria Callas and few have sought to follow in her footsteps, given the huge demands made of the lead soprano role. This fall, Medea makes its premiere at the leading opera house in the United States–the Metropolitan–225 years after its French premiere. Sondra Radvonovsky’s turn as the crazed sorceress is simply breathtaking–her performance alone, and the chance to see Medea live, make it THE must see opera event of the season.

Two orchestral parts, the overture and the prelude to the third act, reveal a bit about what Beethoven prized in Cherubini’s compositional technique–Dramatic orchestration, and repetitive motifs stand out, but fall well short of Beethoven’s mark in my estimation. Where Cherubini excells, however, is in vocal composition, which seems far more natural, while just as demanding as Beethoven’s. The best example of Cherubini’s talent for vocal composition is his Requiem in C. Not surprisingly, it featured at Beethoven’s funeral. Here is a brief playlist of some of these highlights:

If you can look beyond the mono recording, Maria Callas’ 1953 recording of Medea remains the benchmark. I, for one, will confess that the joys of old recordings are simply lost on me. Maybe on the right system, on vinyl with tube amplification–maybe. But certainly not streamed. Record companies take note: Radvonovsky (and her excellent Jason (Matthew Polenzani) and Neris (Ekaterian Gubanova)) would define the opera for the digital age.

That Day of Tears and Mourning

Mozart famously received a commission from a secret patron to compose a Requiem in 1791. Mozart had been ill for a year and was laboring under the strain of producing two other major compositions—The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito, his return to opera seria—as well as on several other notable works. Surely, composing a Requiem had been too much and was therefore often left on the back burner. Incidentally, the mysterious patron was not Salieri—he was an Austrian nobleman who had recently lost his daughter to illness. This nobleman had a history of commissioning works in secret and then passing them off as his own. In any event, he never got his hands on the Requiem. Mozart died leaving at least a third of it unfinished. Sussmayr, Mozart’s student, completed the work. Other composers have taken shots at re-working the Sussmayr bits, but for all their merit, the Mozart-Sussmayr score remains authoritative.

Here is the bitter end, late into the night of December 4, 1791. Mozart is in bed, feeble from illness and near death. Surrounding him are Sussmayr, several of the singers from The Magic Flute, which was playing to packed houses, and his wife Costanza. The singers worked through the score, with Mozart frantically giving instructions on how to complete the Requiem from his bed. Bits of the notes and scraps that comprised the original score keep turning up, but we will never know what Mozart fully intended here. In fact, even the parts that Mozart unquestionably composed smack of someone cutting corners—more than any work previously, Mozart borrows bits wholesale from other composers, Handel and the Haydn brothers in particular (Michael Haydn’s earlier Requiem greatly influenced the structure and harmonics). You could see Mozart instructing his student to “listen to this bit of X” and rework it accordingly. While it is often said (and indeed I just said above) that the Requiem was 2/3 complete, the fact is that only the first Introit had been fully orchestrated at the time of Mozart’s death. The balance was left in some degree of sketch form. Sussmayr was not nearly as good as Mozart in disguising his influences or otherwise hiding the bits Mozart was borrowing. So what we are left with is something truly fascinating—a clear window into how Mozart composed.

So, let’s dive into the Requiem.  Not surprising, it is one of my favorite works of music, warts and all.  That big brooding sound he developed for Don Giovanni returns in force, right at the start, and barely lets up for the entire piece.  As previously mentioned, Mozart’s hand was solely responsible for the Introit—with a serious assist from Handel.  Mozart takes the source material, lengthens the line, and adds trombones to up the dramatic tension.  And tension is where he leaves us, holding an unresolved dominant triad at the end, leaving the audience waiting for what comes next.  Here is the Introit and two source materials from Handel.  For the Requiem, I am turning to the very famous recording by Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir.  For my money, it is the best out there.  There are links in the comments to jump to the relevant sections, but I can think of no better way to spend 45 minutes than to crank this all the way up and drown in Mozart’s grief at his impending mortality. 

The first part of the Introit borrows heavily from Handel’s The Ways of Zion Do Mourn, part of his Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline.  The Kyrie section echoes back to the Messiah, particularly the “And With His Stripes” section.  There are links in the file to take you directly to those parts.

W.A. Mozart, Requiem:

George Frideric Handel, Funeral Anthem, The Ways of Zion Do Mourn: (use the links to skip to the second track)

George Frideric Handel, Messiah: “And with his stripes”

The Kyrie ends with an open fifth, which resolves the tension created at the end of the first part.  This also previews the end of the Requiem itself (also unquestionably composed by Mozart).  This is Mozart at his best. 

As for the rest, we are now firmly in compromised territory, with the master’s hand being supported if not supplanted by his student.  There is much great music left.  The tears of the Lacrymosa are among the most famous bits of the Requiem, as are the Rex Tremendae and Confutatis sections.  To see the difference Mozart makes, contrast the Domine Jesu Christe at the start of the Offertory (pure Mozart invention) with the Sanctus, which is mostly Sussmayr.  The Sanctus is a hot mess, with Sussmayr failing to find a way back to D Major for the second Osanna.  This lack of balance is decidedly un-Mozartian.  Use the links in the above video to jump to the relevant parts.

Mozart died after composing the Lacrimosa—the last words he set to music were “that day of tears and mourning.”  Indeed.