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The Price of a Comeback

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On December 12, 1800, Napoleon had survived an assassination attempt in Paris, and although a number of bystanders were killed by the explosive device known as “the infernal machine,” a deputation from Paris societies and corporations waited to congratulate the First Consul on his escape. Representing the Paris Conservatory was composer Luigi Cherubini, who wisely stayed in the background because he had a history of crossing words with Napoleon.

But Napoleon couldn’t resist drawing out the composer. “I do not see Monsieur Cherubini,” he said, pronouncing the name in the French way, implying that Cherubini wasn’t worthy of being called an Italian composer. When Cherubini came forward, the two of them just stood there in stony silence.

At a banquet soon afterward, though, Cherubini would say more than enough.

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“Well,” said Napoleon, “the French are in Italy.”

Cherubini replied, “Where would they not go led by such a hero as you?”

Napoleon seemed pleased, but switched from French to Italian so much that Cherubini became confused. Then Napoleon said something that was all too clear.

“You are very talented, but there’s too much accompaniment.” He mentioned an aria by Giovanni Paisiello as an example of the sort of thing he liked.

Cherubini had heard it before. He remained calm. “Citizen Consul, I write to French tastes. In the words of the proverb, when in Rome do as the Romans do.”

“Your music makes too much noise,” Napoleon declared. “Speak to me like Paisiello does. Lull me gently.”

Cherubini couldn’t resist a comeback that would cost him dearly. “I understand,” he said. “You like music that doesn’t keep you from thinking about state affairs.”

When a lucrative position came up, Paisiello got it, and for the next two years the downcast Luigi Cherubini wrote little music, choosing instead to devote himself to his botanical pursuits.

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