Beethoven, Cherubini, and a son of a Bach
Santa Fe audiences have been hearing an awful lot of Beethoven in orchestral concerts this season. I make that observation not by way of complaint, to be sure. His symphonies and concertos represent a high standard, indeed. They are a rite of passage for orchestras and conductors, and for ensembles capable of refinement they offer an ongoing wealth of challenges.
Audiences love Beethoven’s symphonies, of course, especially the big, muscular ones — the Third, the Fifth, the Seventh, and the Ninth — to which lineup the Sixth is also admitted among the favorites to provide pastoral contrast. Those five works, in fact, are all being played in Santa Fe this season. The Sixth and Seventh figured on Santa Fe Pro Musica’s all-Beethoven weekend at the end of January; the Santa Fe Concert Association Orchestra performed the Ninth on New Year’s Eve, and SFCA brought in the Opole National Philharmonic of Poland (the symphony orchestra of the southern Polish city of Opole) to play the Third earlier this month; and this week arrives Beethoven’s Fifth, with Steven Smith leading the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on Sunday, March 27. The Beethoven concertos are represented even more densely. Pro Musica has given the Violin Concerto and the Fifth Piano Concerto, SFCA has offered the Triple Concerto, and on May 21 and 22 the symphony offers its own Beethoven marathon, most of which is given over to a traversal of all five Beethoven piano concertos, with Anton Kuerti as soloist. Ticking off that list reveals that, in this season alone, Santa Fe audiences get to hear every concerto the master completed.
Classics are classics for a reason, and it is important that they remain in the rotation as examples of surpassing achievement. Nonetheless, a diet benefits from variety. Even if we are inordinately fond of asparagus, an occasional sampling of broccoli can be most welcome, even if only because it reminds us of the superiority of asparagus. We therefore cheered when we saw that at this weekend’s Santa Fe Symphony concert, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony will serve as prelude to Luigi Cherubini’s Requiem, a work for chorus and orchestra that goes practically unheard — and we’re the poorer for it.
Luigi Carlo Zanobi Salvadore Maria Cherubini (to use his full and glorious name) lived from 1760 to 1842; his long life completely encompassed Beethoven’s. He was profoundly respected in his time, and he even earned Beethoven’s admiration, which was not easy to do. Thayer’s
Life of Beethoven, the indispensable repository of anecdotes involving that composer, relates, in a chapter devoted to the year 1817: “Beethoven used to walk across the fields to Vienna very often and sometimes [the conductor, pianist, and composer Cipriani] Potter took the walk with him. … One day Potter asked: ‘ Who is the greatest living composer, yourself excepted?’ Beethoven seemed puzzled for a moment, then exclaimed ‘ Cherubini.’ ” Cherubini seems to have admired Beethoven rather less in return, referring to him as “brusque” and at one point likening him to “an unlicked bear.” On the other hand, Mrs. Cherubini thought Beethoven was the bee’s knees.
Though he was born in Florence, Cherubini spent most of his career in France. He settled there at the age of 27, somehow managed to weather the revolution and the Reign of Terror, and after those unpleasant times became a pillar of French musical society, serving as director of the Paris Conservatoire from 1822 to 1842. He was generally well liked there, though not by Hector Berlioz. In his Memoirs, Berlioz recounts how Cherubini, informed by the Conservatoire’s porter that Berlioz had entered the school by what had just been declared the women’s door, tracked him down in the library, interrupted his perusal of a Gluck opera score, and chased him around a desk, shrieking in Italian-accented French. After that, Berlioz never missed an opportunity to needle Cherubini in print.
Cherubini composed this Requiem in 1815, seven years after the premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It was commissioned by the