To celebrate, to commemorate: Pauline Viardot at 200

As for Mme Viardot, her performance is worthy of a study by itself. Her gifts are so complete and so varied, they touch on so many aspects of music and combine such fine technique with irresistible spontaneity, that they inspire both amazement and deep emotion. Her art is at once impressive and moving, awesome and convincing. Her voice, which is of exceptional range, goes with a mastery of vocal control and of phrasing in chant large which is rare today. She fuses an indomitable verve, thrilling and commanding, with a deep sensibility and an almost shattering ability to express great sorrow.

So wrote Berlioz in his review of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice in the Journal des Débats of November 22nd.

Pauline Viardot and her older sister Maria Malibran were two of the most famous singers of their day, and this year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Viardot’s birth. Not only did they achieve super-stardom in their time, but they were also the daughters of the celebrated Spanish tenor Manuel Garcia for whom Rossini created Count Almaviva in what is probably his best-known opera: The Barber of Seville. No pressure on the daughters then, to uphold the family tradition. Garcia taught both his daughters to sing, but regrettably his methods with Maria were notoriously harsh, deploying corporal punishment as an inducement to “get it right”. With Pauline, thankfully, the approach was much more humane, and in any case, Papa died when she was eleven. Alas we cannot know what she actually sounded like (although contemporary reports suggest that her voice wasn’t necessarily perfect), but with testimonials such as that of Berlioz we can, probably, be reasonably sure that she was blessed with great presence on the stage and able fully to inhabit her character.

But Pauline didn’t really want to be a singer, she would much rather have been a famous pianist and in her early teens took lessons with Liszt (as you do…). However, Mama had other ideas and decreed that Pauline was to follow in her sister’s footsteps and become a Famous Singer. Tragically, Maria Malibran died a couple of months after Pauline’s 15th birthday following a riding accident and all eyes immediately focused on the younger sister and at just 18 she made her debut in a role originally composed for her sister – Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello (poor Verdi, if only he had been born earlier). The critic Henry Fothergill Chorley was at that performance reporting for the Athenaeum and saw beyond the not quite-yet-matured voice: “she was at ease on the stage, there could be no doubt with anyone who saw that Desdemona that night that another great career was begun”. And so it was: the rest, one might say, is history.

Once established, she remained much in demand and in a position to dictate the terms of engagements with the various opera houses in Europe who were anxious to present her. Here, for example, is an extract from Gounod’s Sapho which Viardot was instrumental in bringing about having insisted that she would only renew her contract with the Paris Opera if Gounod were to be commissioned to compose the work in which she would sing the title role. The ruse worked. Here is Sapho’s final powerful aria before she throws herself into the river…

It was in 1840 that Pauline married Louis Viardot, author and director of the Théâtre Italien and some 22 years her senior, to whom she had been introduced by George Sand and who had encouraged the match thinking that it would be very suitable. Indeed, he became her manager and remained devoted to her for the rest of his life.

Viardot’s social circle was most definitely “A list” and in her later years she sat down and made a list of all the celebrities she had known (the MS of which is now in the Houghton Library at Harvard – MS Mus 264 (367) should you wish to consult it). It runs to over 300 names and reads like a who’s who of the nineteenth century: Weber, Berlioz, Wellington, Ingres, Bellini, Donizetti, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Liszt, Da Ponte, Chopin, George Sand, the Schumanns, Turgenev (of whom more in a moment), and so on.

…So what of Turgenev? He met the Viardots when they visited Russia in 1843 and from that moment became a devoted supporter for the rest of his life, even to the extent of either sharing a house with them, as he did in later years, or living nearby. We cannot know what kind of a relationship existed between these three protagonists, but one can imagine the gossip at the time. But, dear reader, this is not the tabloid press, we are celebrating the anniversary of a spectacularly talented singer and so let us move on.

Or rather, back, to Berlioz. In November 1859, Viardot sang the title role in Berlioz’s reworking of Gluck’s Orfeo in which he recast the original counter-tenor title role for soprano (renamed Orphée). Poor Berlioz, he had become utterly infatuated with Pauline during the preparations and rehearsals for the work and, being Berlioz, his feelings were all in CAPITAL LETTERS, pouring out his emotions in letters to her, one ending “Yours, yours, yours always, in everything and everywhere and for everything. What torture!” But the storm passed, thankfully, and they remained good friends. Orphée was given a positive reception and Pauline’s performance highly regarded. Dickens, for example, who saw her perform the role in 1862 was so moved he confessed himself “disfigured with crying”. And so life moved on for Viardot in this high profile, high octane vein until April 1873 when she gave her final public performance singing the title role in Massenet’s oratorio Marie Magdeleine. By the late 1870s she had retired completely from singing.

Sadly in 1883 Pauline lost both the men in her life in fairly quick succession. She lived on in Paris teaching for some years and composing. Indeed, composition had been a continuous activity throughout her life. Her works included setting of poems by Turgenev as well as several operettas – Le dernier sorcier for example, given its first performance in 1867.

Here are two of her songs:

Finally, Pauline collected autograph manuscripts throughout her life: a prized possession was that of Don Giovanni. Unimaginable, isn’t it, to think of owning such a priceless artefact? (Tchaikovsky was suitably overwhelmed when he paid a visit to her and was shown the MS). It is now safely in the care of the Paris Conservatoire Library to which Pauline bequeathed it. Madame Viardot, we salute you.


PS: There are two excellent biographies of Mme Viardot: Michael Steen’s Enchantress of Nations (Icon Books, 2007) [M517.c.200.94] and April Fitzlyon’s The Price of Genius (Calder,1964) [M517.c.95.26]. And don’t you think, dear reader, that the two titles taken together encapsulate the life of a celebrity such as Pauline Viardot?

About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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