In the biographical preface to his work catalogue, compiled in 1831, Cherubini gave 8 and 14 September as his dates of birth, but the records of the baptistery of S Giovanni state that he was born on 14 September (and baptized the following day). He was the tenth of 12 children. It has been claimed that his mother died when he was four years old (Pougin, 1881, p.321) but there is no documentary evidence to support this. He had his first music lessons at the age of six with his father, Bartolomeo Cherubini, maestro al cembalo at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence. From 1769 he studied composition with Bartolomeo Felici and his son Alessandro at their school, continuing after 1776 with Pietro Bizzarri and Giuseppe Castrucci. Among Cherubini's first compositions were sections of the mass set for solo voices, chorus and orchestra (1773, 1774, 1775), a cantata, La pubblica felicità, performed at Florence Cathedral in 1774 in honour of Duke Leopold of Tuscany (later Emperor Leopold II), and an intermezzo, Il giocatore (1775). The surviving works do not affirm the traditional view that compositional teaching in Florence was still in the thrall of a ‘medieval, scholastic empiricism’ (Picchianti). In the mass movements accentuated string figuration enlivens the score and the texts are set in a mostly homophonic, syllabic style with melismas reserved for soloists. The intermezzo demonstrates that in Florence Cherubini had already absorbed Neapolitan influences, particularly Pergolesi's model of buffo style consisting of fast recitative conversation, and arias or duets in which musical structure highlights the drama.
Despite having 18 works to his credit at the age of 18 and a scholarship awarded by the duke, it was through an apprenticeship with Giuseppe Sarti in Bologna and Milan between 1778 and 1781 that Cherubini felt he learnt counterpoint and the style of dramatic music. Sarti, who in those years was commissioned to write a number of operas for Florentine theatres, asked him to contribute the arias for the secondary characters. While in Bologna and Milan, Cherubini also wrote some 20 unaccompanied antiphones and litanies for four, five and six parts in the style of Palestrina, and made a foray into instrumental music with six sonatas for the harpsichord dedicated to a Florentine noble. In these two-movement sonatas (an allegro or moderato followed by a rondo in the same major key) invention remains on a motivic, mostly formaic level, and fizzles out altogether in some sequentially treated figurations.
Between 1779 and 1784 he composed a series of mostly serious operas based on historical plots for various Italian cities, including Alessandria, Florence, Livorno, Rome and Venice. In comparison with the level of musical dramatization already achieved by Traetta and Gluck, Cherubini's scores display his facility for treating predominantly Metastasian texts in a conventional way. As was common practice at the time, he omitted writing out secco recitatives in his scores. Starting with his first opera, Quinto Fabio (composed in 1780), he showed a particular interest in accompanied recitative, here inspired by the setting of an ombra scene, for which he invented orchestral motifs with incisive rhythmic accentuation. The only surviving aria of the main protagonist displays a complex rondò form in slow–fast tempos where pauses and interludes are imaginatively used with solo instruments. However, in the overtures and arias of these operas almost no attempt is made towards a harmonic or thematic development. His early interest in individual orchestral colouring came to the fore in the Sinfonia of L'Alessandro nell'lndie (1784) where he incorporated a slow section consisting of viola, cello and bassoon soli with accompanying strings; other parts of the opera feature solo instruments. Furthermore, the quotation of a musical passage in a later part of the drama enhances the opera's structure. Lo sposo di tre e marito di nessuna (1783), his only opera buffa of the time and his only commission from Venice, closely resembles Paisiello's style and, in musically parodying numinous powers, shows a sense of humour, particularly in the ensembles.
During his last years in Italy Cherubini also composed a motet, Nemo gaudeat (1781), and a five-part madrigal, Ninfa crudel (1783). Both have a basso continuo and counterpoint based on chordal harmony. According to his preface, the latter was composed following the theory of Francesco Vallotti. The musical life of Florence, where Cherubini returned between his opera commissions, was enlivened by the local and visiting nobility and, in particular, by Georg Nassau Clavering, 3rd Earl Cowper (1738–89), a wealthy English patron, who gave frequent concerts and assemblies in his villa, and to whom Cherubini dedicated two duets with two-horn accompaniment. Through Cowper, who negotiated many posts for the King's Theatre (the Italian opera house in London), Cherubini secured a contract in 1784. He was to leave Florence for good in September 1784 and joined the King's Theatre company as house composer (with Pasquale Anfossi) during a disorientating season dominated by litigation.
One of his first pieces as house composer was a pasticcio entitled Demetrio (1785), which consisted partly of music from his Italian operas, and featured Girolamo Crescentini and Adriana Ferrarese, the recently appointed singers at the King's Theatre. In the overture to another work written in the same year, La finta principessa, the first occurrence of a personal stylistic trait has been detected, namely the introduction of the main theme in one part only, to which is added the bass before the other instruments enter (Hohenemser, 1913, p.70). The opera remains in the mould of Paisiello (although without his dramatic gestures), especially in the central trio of Act 2. Cherubini also held the position of court composer, on a salary of £224 for the winter season of 1785–6, and conducted a number of concerts and operas, such as Il marchese Tulipano (a parody by J.A. Gourbillon of Paisiello's Il matrimonio inaspettato, 1789), for which he also composed six insertion arias. His own opera, Il Giulio Sabino (1786), was based on a two-act adaptation of the libretto which Sarti had successfully set for Venice in 1781. The resulting dramatic oddities were exacerbated by misplaced accompanied recitatives and orchestral textures. Giulio Sabino was performed only once, ‘murdered in its birth, for want of the necessary support of capital singers in the principal parts’ (BurneyH).
Cherubini had already spent the summer of 1785 in Paris. He struck up an immediate friendship with Giovanni Battista Viotti, who introduced him to the French queen, Marie Antoinette, the sister of Duke Leopold of Tuscany, and to the writers Jean François Marmontel and Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian, who were later to become his librettists. Undoubtedly, Viotti also had a hand in securing a performance at the Concert Spirituel of Cherubini's work; the instrumental section was however criticized in the Mercure de France for ‘incoherence of ideas’ and ‘little motivic interest’ (Pougin, 1881, p.345). After the failure of Giulio Sabino Cherubini decided to leave London.
Just before composing his first and only symphony in 1815, Cherubini wrote his first string quartet. Perhaps he was encouraged by his colleague at the Conservatoire, the violinist Kreutzer, and by the subscription concerts which Cherubini's student Baillot founded with his quartet ensemble in 1814, to acquaint Parisians with the works of the Viennese Classical school. However, as Cherubini's first quartet was not performed until 1826, and as his second was an arrangement of his symphony (which had had no success), with a new second movement substituted in 1829, most of his string quartets were written between 1834 and 1837. Subsequently, he completed only the first of a planned series of string quintets, so this group of chamber music, together with the D minor Requiem, represents the final section of his oeuvre. In a letter dated 8 February 1838, Cherubini declared that he had no intention of writing another symphony for he did not wish to be perceived as competing with the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
Following a critical review by Schumann published in 1838, German writers in particular tended to evaluate Cherubini's chamber music techniques in the context of the Viennese school instead of recognizing their debt to the Parisian traditions of the quatuor concertant and quatuor brillant (Finscher, 24). Thus, the first violin dominates, almost invariably introducing the thematic material, but the other parts provide a harmonic foundation or, more often, participate in establishing and developing the theme. At times a high degree of virtuosity is demanded from all performers; the quartets are thus ostensibly to be played only by a professional ensemble.
Cherubini's quartet style shares with Viennese traditions the symmetric periodicity particularly associated with Haydn. However, his style deviates from Viennese models in the juxtaposition of short themes and motifs, each of which might be developed in any part of the movement, before being contrasted with a new musical idea. The cyclical reappearance of such themes and the often clear demarcation of sections facilitates musical comprehension. Still, this multitude of ideas of uncertain status may seem overwhelming, especially as ‘curtain’ gestures are often followed by a fugato, a recitative section, a march, dance, arioso, cadenza, or a gesture of high pathos. As such sequential treatment usually employs chromatically consecutive steps, startling harmonic alterations are introduced – usually in the middle two instruments – yet without changes to the movements' simple harmonic structure.
The audience's surprise at being continuously confronted with new musical ideas is effectively heightened by the imprévu of harmonic alterations. Combined they prevent the quartets – and the audience – from falling into an all too heavy mood. The perceived lack of ‘warmth’ is the reverse of a noticeable avoidance of any sentimentality. While it seems appropriate, for example, to identify the romance character of the main theme in the Lento of Quartet no.2, it almost immediately disintegrates. The composer's experimental attitude is evident in the Scherzo of Quartet no.4, where major–minor alterations are linked with the statements of two contrasting themes, which subsequently appear in quick succession and in fragmented shape before an operatic coda. In the same movement a fortissimo semiquaver unison flourish over 22 bars shows the severe side of a playfulness, whose lighter features come to the fore in the thematic development of the final movement. In a similarly experimental fashion, in Quartet no.6 the openings of all the previous movements are quoted in the finale. In Quartet no.1, his most popular quartet, movements are linked thematically and by emphasizing contrapuntal technique; its Scherzo is a ‘Spanish’ genre piece with refined texture and colourful instrumentation.
Cherubini's overtures to his French operas became popular concert overtures in their own right during the 19th century. He quickly replaced the Italian overture of Ifigenia in Aulide with the French overture from Démophon, both of which he composed in 1788. The musical independence and relative technical simplicity of the former stands in marked contrast to the foreboding sound of Démophon, for which Cherubini took Gluck as his model. For the first time he employed metrically irregular demisemiquaver figures, which became popular during the Revolutionary period. He usually treated the main motifs of his overtures sequentially, while giving a quasi-vocal theme a subordinate role. In Eliza, for example, the main motif consists of two parts which are later developed separately. In Les deux journées, the unifying feature of the overture is a dotted rhythmic impulse, while the motivic content is much reduced. The overture to Anacréon introduces two themes which are subsequently combined. Cherubini's interest in specific instrumental colours which is already noticeable in his use of the horns in Lodoïska appears to outweigh his dramatic concerns by the time of Anacréon.
The instrumental music for Médée clearly surpasses that of the other operas, not least because Cherubini wrote introductions to all three acts. The main musical ideas of the overture consist of motifs which are brought to the listener's attention by their dynamic intensity before they are replaced by other equally powerful figurations. To capture Médée's growing obsession with violent revenge the second act is preceded by musical soul-painting spun from one motif. The first part of the third introduction omits any motivic content to demonstrate the flux of emotion in the purest possible fashion, whereas the second part is a pantomime to accompany Médée's fateful gift being delivered by her children to her rival. Thunder, imitated in the music, inspires the audience's awe.
From his arrival in Paris in July 1786 Cherubini was to share an apartment for the next six years with Viotti, who having just abandoned the stage at the height of his career gave weekly matinées at home. Now they both formed part of the musical circle of Marie Antoinette at Versailles and, while learning French, Cherubini composed 18 romances to Florian's novel Estelle. Upon joining the masonic Loge Olympique in 1786 he composed a cantata, Amphion, the introduction of which he later used for the overture to his opéra-ballet Anacréon (1803). Fulfilling a contract he had signed on his very first journey from Florence to England, Cherubini spent the months from October 1787 to March 1788 in Turin, composing Ifigenia in Aulide. This opera received a glowing report in the Paris Calendrier musical universel (1789) where it inevitably provoked a comparison with Gluck's version of the plot with which he had started his momentous career in Paris in 1774. Cherubini was credited with almost unheard of effects apparently due to a tighter link between drama and music. While some protagonists – and especially Ulysses – still expressed their feelings in Metastasian-style metaphors, which resulted in formulaic, highly ornamented arias, Ifigenia's gradual emergence as the sacrificial heroine and the despair of her father, Agamemnon, are translated into pathos-laden, arioso declamation enhanced by accentuated ostinato figures in the orchestra.
These compositional features developed into a personal style in Démophon (1788), Cherubini's first commission for the Paris Opéra. Marmontel, who since the 1770s had provided Niccolò Piccinni with a series of librettos as well as an aesthetic rationale (insisting on a periodic structure and melodic flow), radically updated Metastasio's popular version of the plot, expressing the dramatic conflicts much more aggressively. The way in which the protagonists veer between submission to and revolt against supernatural powers has made it hard for contemporary as well as later audiences to resist making comparisons with Gluck's operas – Alceste in particular. Building on Gluck's expressivity, Cherubini transplanted techniques of motivic development from instrumental music into several arias of Démophon (Knepler, 1959, p.7; Döhring, 1975, p.158). The arioso declamation of the protagonists meant that the aria's structure was determined by the orchestra, which developed and varied instrumental figures. The origins of this noticeable stylistic change have been sought in Haydn's ‘Paris’ symphonies (Reichardt, 96); they have also been described as an aesthetic response to the French Revolution (Knepler, 1959 p.16) and interpreted as a compositional necessity deriving from the seemingly unstructured vocal melody (Dahlhaus, 1985, p.349ff). This orchestral technique, which was simultaneously developed in Paris by Etienne Méhul in Euphrosine, ou Le tyran corrigé (1790), just as Mozart had independently used it in Idomeneo (1781) and Le nozze di Figaro (1786), provided the musical means for the representation of emotions as dynamic phenomena. Still, Démophon was coolly received, and was eclipsed by Johann Christoph Vogel's treatment of the same topic, produced posthumously at the Opéra the following year.
With the unlimited financial backing of the king's brother, the Count of Provence, later Louis XVIII, Léonard-Alexis Autié and Viotti founded the Théâtre de Monsieur in January 1789 to bring the comic Italian repertory of Pergolesi, Paisiello, Cimarosa, Gazzaniga and others to Paris. Cherubini acted as musical director and over the next three years composed some 40 insertion arias and ensembles to the works of these composers. The company's orchestra soon gained a reputation as the best in Paris, performing without a teneur de baton, and Cherubini was given a contract of 2000 livres for his French opera Lodoïska. In January 1791 this costly assemblage of musicians and actors moved to the newly built Théâtre Feydeau. Cherubini signed a four-year contract stipulating that he would continue to compose insertion arias and ensembles for a monthly salary of 500 livres, but would also write two French operas a year for 2000 livres each, and would receive another 4000 livres for each additional opera. In the following years neither side managed to fulfil its obligations.
After the abandonment of his next opera, Marguerite d'Anjou (1790), on the theme of royal heroism, Lodoïska (1791) became his first international success. Both works reflect the gradual move of the company – and Cherubini – towards a repertory of French plays and operas with spoken dialogues. Based on a contemporary bestselling novel by Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvray, which was known to the Feydeau's audiences in Villemain d'Allancourt's highly successful stage adaptation, this heroic comedy was intended to provoke and mock aspirations to high pathos. The evil Dourlinski, whose musical traits later inspired Beethoven's characterization of Don Pizarro (in Fidelio), has imprisoned the young Lodoïska in his gloomy castle from which she is liberated not by the heroic pretensions of her lover, Floreski, but by the wit of his servant Varbel and the military might of the Tatar soldiers. Their burning of the castle at the end of the opera, a spectacle created by the stage designers Ignazio and Ilario De Gotti and the technician Boullet, had an awe-inspiring effect on Parisian audiences. To achieve the pathos demanded by the Gothic subject, Cherubini refined his orchestral technique and mixed serious and comic situations in the ensembles. Crudely speaking, he had made striking progress in fusing the traditions of Gluck and Paisiello. Such a synthesis of conflicting styles was probably unprecedented in French opera, and it provoked Fétis to date a ‘revolution’ in its history with Lodoïska (FétisB).
In 1792 Cherubini's success came to a halt. The Feydeau administrators had disbanded the French acting troupe after bad reviews, and they were unlucky with the other acting companies employed to fill the gap. The Italian troupe, which had provided the mainstay of the repertory, emigrated after the August insurrection and the operatic genre which Cherubini had helped introduce into France was dropped from the repertory. Ironically, as both Autié and Viotti fled to England, Cherubini was for some months a temporary director of the Théâtre Feydeau, but towards the end of 1792 he took refuge himself, staying for one year at the Chartreuse de Gaillon near Rouen, a residence owned by the theatre architect Victor Louis, and with friends in Le Havre. There he almost completed Koukourgi, a mock ‘rescue opera’ in a Chinese setting which parodied the heroic lover of noble birth – in a much more pungent fashion than Floreski in Lodoïska. The story had been written by Honoré-Nicolas-Marie Duveyrier (1753–1839) who had been known since the 1780s for his political satires. At a time when Louis XVI lost more and more authority, the ridicule of a decadent ruler in Koukourgi could hardly have been more pertinent. Indeed Duveyrier's own imprisonment and subsequent flight to Denmark may have been the main reason why this work was not performed. While staying at the Chartreuse Cherubini also worked on his next two operas, Eliza, ou Le voyage aux glaciers du Mont St Bernard (1794) and Médée (1797).
After his return to Paris in 1794, Cherubini married Anne-Cécile Tourette (1773–1864), with whom he was to have three children. In the same year, Eliza was completed. The spectacular effects of an avalanche on stage and musical couleur locale form the backdrop for a love-smitten hero seeking suicide in the glaciers. Curiously, Cherubini first composed a tragic ending, although this was converted into a rescue by a community of selfless friars before the opera reached the stage. During 1794 Cherubini gained some much needed financial stability when he became a member of the music band of the Garde Nationale led by Bernard Sarrette, who founded the Conservatoire Nationale de Musique (3 August 1795), an institution where Cherubini, along with Gossec, Méhul, Grétry and Le Sueur, was employed as a teaching inspector. Since one of the conservatoire's tasks was to celebrate the political festivals, between 1794 and 1799 Cherubini composed at least nine hymns, odes and marches for mass choruses and bands, using special instruments (such as the buccin and tam-tam). There are no documents indicating his political views; however, he did conduct a corps de musique at the anniversary of the beheading of Louis XVI on 21 January 1796 (Pierre, 1894, p.42). Faced with a massive educational programme but modest resources, in the same year he over-officiously wrote to the general director of public education, Pierre Louis Ginguené, asking whether Napoleon's victorious conquest of Italy could help to bring the exceptional music library of Padre Martini in Bologna to the Conservatoire (letter of 2 July 1796).
While Cherubini contributed to the inspectors' discussions concerning the creation of elementary textbooks for the Conservatoire and began writing solfèges for pupils, he also composed Médée (1797). He may have received the libretto as early as 1790 and makes reference to a compositional plan in 1793. Imitating Jean-Marie-Bernard Clement's greater verisimilitude in his play based on the same story (1779), the librettist François-Benoît Hoffmann portrayed Médée as an abandoned mother who commits suicide. Jason's adulterous plans to marry Dirce are gradually destroyed by Médée, whose original hesitation (fig.1) gives way to ruthless revenge. With immense subtlety the composer follows an overall plan in which Médée's loss of identity and abandonment to her emotions are represented without resorting to a moralizing ensemble in the finale. The acceleration of dramatic action suited Cherubini's compositional technique at the time. His apt placing of lyrical, dramatic and declamatory melodies and his developmental orchestral techniques enhanced by jagged rhythms, chromatic harmonies and motivic connections between scenes had found their ideal subject, charting the process of a protagonist falling victim to her emotions and then becoming governed by their intensity (fig.2). No other composer had shed light on crimes of passion in such an unconciliatory manner. Only in this Parisian style of opera could the energy with which Médée pursues her goals be demonstrated as a constituent part of her character. And in Julie-Angélique Scio, Cherubini had a highly dramatic soprano-actress at his disposal, who also created roles in his other operas. Despite widespread praise in the Parisian press, the traditional ending of Médée escaping on a dragon chariot was subsequently reinstated, though without altering the score.
After Cherubini (simultaneously with Méhul) had inaugurated a genre of opera that was both dramaturgically and musically original, his style underwent a radical change. It may have been caused by a shift in Parisian taste in favour of lighter opera and could have been related to political as well as financial problems at the Théâtre Feydeau (whose director Sageret filed for bankruptcy in 1799), but it was perhaps also due to a contradiction or aporia in his compositional technique (Dean, 1982, p.36; Dahlhaus and Miller, 1999, 158ff). Despite his skill in adapting to new demands, Cherubini's three one-act comic operas (L'hôtellerie portugaise, La punition, La prisonnière) (1798, 1799), were unsuccessful. However, his increasing awareness of public demand triumphed in Les deux journées (1800) which was to remain in the international repertory for most of the 19th century. Bouilly, who had also written the original text of Beethoven's Fidelio, transferred the plot from the contemporary trauma of arbitrary imprisonments to the 17th century. His naive appeal to solidarity and the existence of providence is set in memorable strophic arias and chansons. Reminiscence motifs enhance the tight dramatical shape, as do the ostinato motifs and their dissonant treatment in the ensembles that dominate the last act.
The 56 performances of Les deux journées in its first year could not prevent the merger of the Théâtre Feydeau and the Théâtre de l'Opéra-Comique in 1801, following which Cherubini relied on his income as inspector at the Conservatoire. His attempts to become concert director in 1801 failed after just two concerts. In the same year he, together with his pupil François-Adrien Boieldieu and his colleague at the Conservatoire Louis-Emmanuel Jadin, founded the Journal d'Apollon to publish romances and other vocal works. In 1802 he became a partner, with Méhul, Rodolphe Kreutzer, Rode, Isouard and Boieldieu (mostly colleagues at the Conservatoire) in the Magasin de Musique, their publishing firm, which existed until 1811. In order to combat his ebbing fortunes, Cherubini had his first opéra-ballet, Anacréon, ou L'amour fugitif, staged at the Opéra in 1803. Miscalculating a certain vogue for anacreontic poetry and its playful eroticism, the work was a complete disaster which Cherubini, however, attributed to the Opéra's blind hostility to his affiliation with the Conservatoire. Instead of providing an aesthetic experience for the audience by way of intensive, meaningful action, Anacréon abandons dramatic time in the festivities of a banquet. Ostinato motifs acquire significance through their gestural qualities, and inventive instrumental colouring establishes the sound quality as an independent factor. This special interest in instrumental colour was more strongly developed in a successful ballet for the Opéra, Achille à Scyros (1804), which included music by Catel, Méhul, Haydn, Joseph Weigl and Righini. In the same year Cherubini conducted the first Parisian performance of Mozart's Requiem.
Cherubini's blossoming interest in Viennese music was reciprocated, as six of his operas from the previous decade, as well as operas by Méhul, Le Sueur, Devienne and other French composers, had been recently performed in Vienna to great acclaim. Abandoning a further opera project with Bouilly for fear of the Opéra's hostility, and renouncing Jouy's offer to set La vestale, which was passed on to Spontini, Cherubini accepted an invitation to Vienna. He travelled with his wife and youngest daughter to the Austrian capital in June 1805 in the company of Baron Peter von Braun, director of the Hofoper. Cherubini began immediately to direct his own works. He brought a diploma and a medal from the Conservatoire for Haydn, with whom he fostered an affectionate relationship and whose rumoured death earlier in 1805 he had prematurely commemorated in a Chant sur la mort de Haydn. He also saw the première of Beethoven's Fidelio on 20 November 1805, a week after Napoleon's conquest of the city brought its musical life to a standstill, and he possibly advised Beethoven on how to improve the treatment of the voices (Beethoven owned scores of Médée and later, Faniska). Napoleon ordered Cherubini to organize and conduct a dozen concerts at his residences in Schönbrunn and Vienna, expressing his wish that Cherubini should return to Paris.
Because of time constraints in Vienna, he only composed Faniska (1806), based on a mélodrame by Pixérécourt. Although the plot closely resembles Lodoïska, the score reflects Cherubini's technical development, notably in the trimmed links between vocal and orchestral parts, the increased variety of vocal and instrumental forms (including a canon) and the search for a Polish tone. With the score of Hummel's Fantasie op.18 in his luggage, Cherubini returned to Paris in April 1806. He fell into a severe depression which had manifested itself already in 1801–2 and was to recur at intervals throughout the rest of his life. It crippled his writing for two years, during which he developed an interest in botany, assembled a herbarium, and took to painting cards and fantastic objects. After a long stay at the château of the Prince of Chimay in 1808 and 1809, a request for a mass-setting for the local church reawakened his interest in composition. This large-scale mass (in F major) received at first only a private performance in the prince's Parisian residence, although it was published in 1810 by the Magasin de Musique.
In 1809, Cherubini's Pimmalione, with the castrato Crescentini in the title role, was performed for the private entertainment of Napoleon. He also wrote ceremonial works for Napoleon's marriage ceremony with Marie-Louise of Austria in 1810, and for the birth of their son in 1811. If Napoleon's dislike of Cherubini's music had indeed impeded his career during the previous decade, as many biographers since Fétis have stated, he may have regained the emperor's favour by submitting to his musical demands. The plot's artificiality, and the string-dominated orchestra simply supporting a mellifluous vocal line, appear curiously out of date, although the opera features an early example of a preghiera. Similarly, the score of Le crescendo (1810) harks back to the comic characterization of Lo sposo di tre of 1783 (Hohenemser, 1913, p.374) and, according to contemporary reports, the plot caused the bored audience to break into a crescendo of whistles. Shortly afterwards, Cherubini abandoned a new opera, Nausikaa, and in 1811 composed a mass (D minor), even larger in scale than Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. The mass may have been written with some urgency, for contemporary letters show that Cherubini had grounds to believe that he might become Haydn's successor at the Esterházy court, but the prince appears to have renounced any verbal agreement.
Cherubini spent most of 1812 composing Les abencérages, the première of which in April 1813 was attended by Napoleon. In this early orientalist opera, which was removed to the late 15th century, the ideal image of an altruistic, Christian Spanish soldier overcoming the barbaric practices and nefarious infighting of muslim families soon became hard to reconcile with contemporary political realities, when a Spanish uprising supported by English troops forced France to abandon the Iberian peninsula in May–June 1813. But Cherubini's small international success may have been due to the spectacular tableaux, complemented by an ingenious display of instrumental colouring, which seriously delayed the dramatic action. In its structure that anticipated grand opera, Cherubini's symphonic technique appears at times to match the taste of Viennese composers rather than that of contemporary Parisian audiences, who criticized him for lacking a light touch.
In 1813 plans to compose new operas in Naples and Milan came to nothing, probably because of Cherubini's high financial demands and delicate health. His wavering political position reached extremes in 1814: in February, at the command of the Napoleonic regime, he wrote morale-boosting music for the Garde Nationale and contributed to a pièce de circonstance, Bayard à Mezières; in May he wrote for the victorious Prussians; then in July and August he composed cantatas for the returning Bourbon king, Louis XVIII, who in December nominated him superintendent of the royal chapel and made him Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur. Meanwhile in London, at the instigation of Clementi and Viotti, the Royal Society commissioned a symphony, an overture and an Italian vocal piece from Cherubini for £200. Only days after Cherubini arrived in London, Napoleon began his short return to power on 1 March 1815. An offer from the Prussian king to become maître de chapelle in Berlin, which would include compositional, conducting and teaching duties at the planned new conservatory, was put on hold by Cherubini as he had recently received the equivalent position from Louis XVIII. Hopes for a London performance of Eliza, the financial purpose of his trip, did not materialize, and Cherubini succumbed to a new bout of depression (letter of 7 April 1815). In May 1815 he was elected (in his absence) member of the Institut de France.