Cherubini was born in Florence. His instruction in music began at the age of six with his father, himself a musician. By the age of thirteen, he had composed several religious works. From 1778 to 1780, he studied music in Bologna and Milan.
In 1788, Cherubini settled in Paris. In the years following, he met with only partial success as an opera composer. His first major success was Lodoïska (1791) which was admired for its realistic heroism. This was followed by Médée (1797), which is Cherubini's best known work, and Les deux journées (1800). However, his works had to be performed in the small Theatre de la Foire Saint-Germain because the grand opera house was closed to him. His idealism, his independent disposition, and above all the austere, lofty character of his music, prevented him from becoming popular among his contemporaries. However, his fortunes improved slightly in 1795 when he was appointed inspector at the Paris Conservatoire.
In 1805, Cherubini received an invitation from Vienna to write an opera and to direct it in person. Faniska was produced the following year and was enthusiastically received, in particular, by Haydn and Beethoven.
Disappointed with his lack of success in the theater, Cherubini turned increasingly to church music, writing seven masses, two requiems and many shorter pieces. During this period, he was also appointed surintendant de la musique du roi under the restored monarchy. In 1815, the London Philharmonic Society commissioned him to write a symphony, an overture, and a composition for chorus and orchestra, the performance of which he went especially to London to conduct, and this increased his international fame.
In 1822, Cherubini became director of the Conservatoire and completed his textbook, Cours de contrepoint et de fugue, in 1835.
He died in Paris at age 81.
With arrival in Paris in the 1820s of the brilliant, effervescent operas of Rossini with their vocal pyrotechnics, the classically austere operas of Cherubini, like those of Gluck and Spontini, fell out of fashion. However, Médée (or Medea as it is known in Italy) is occasionally revived when a singer is available who can handle the role. Perhaps the most famous 20th century revival of the work was in Florence in 1953, with Maria Callas in the title role and conducted by Leonard Bernstein.
Another opera of Cherubini, Les Abencérages, was revived (in Italian) at the Maggio Musicale in Florence in 1957 under the baton of Carlo Maria Giulini.
Cherubini's Requiem in C-minor is also occasionally performed. Most notably, Arturo Toscanini conducted and made a recording of it with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in February 1950.