Who was Jenny Lind?

Worshipped by Mendelssohn and promoted on a sell-out US tour by PT Barnum, Jenny Lind enjoyed unrivalled popularity for a singer. George Hall traces the remarkable story of the ‘Swedish Nightingale’

Who was Jenny Lind

There are great singers who are forgotten after their deaths, and others who are remembered. With sopranos like Maria Callas, Rosa Ponselle or Nellie Melba, we have recordings that allow us to experience at least something of the spell they cast; but with earlier singers we must rely on visual depictions and written records to approach the reality behind the legend. One such is the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind.

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Who was Jenny Lind?

Jenny Lind was more than a star. To describe the extent of her fame we might have to use a term such as ‘global celebrity’ or ‘megastar’. Cultural figures placed her at the pinnacle of her art. ‘No book or personality whatever has exerted a more ennobling influence on me, as a poet, than Jenny Lind,’ wrote Hans Christian Andersen. ‘For me she opened the sanctuary of art.’ In Clara Schumann’s estimation, ‘Lind has a genius for song such as can appear hardly once in centuries’. ‘The great event of the evening,’ wrote Queen Victoria after her London debut, ‘was Jenny Lind’s appearance and complete triumph. She has a most exquisite, powerful and really quite peculiar voice, so round, soft and flexible, and her acting is charming, touching and very natural.’

When and where was Jenny Lind born?

In personal terms she was known for her extraordinary acts of charity, giving away more than most other stars earned. Yet Lind reached these heights from an unpromising beginning. The baptismal register for illegitimate children at the church of Sancta Clara in Stockholm records: ‘1820 October 6. Johanna Maria. Baptised. Parents unknown. Mother 27 years old.’

Jenny’s mother Anna Fellborg had an unsuccessful marriage at the age of 19, successfully petitioned for divorce and obtained custody of her daughter, Amelia. In 1819 the two were living in an overcrowded building in the centre of Stockholm. Nearby lived one Niclas Jonas Lind, a 21-year-old bookkeeper. The two got together. Anna became pregnant, giving birth to her second daughter. Niclas took no part in his daughter’s upbringing; nor, initially, did her mother – Jenny was mostly brought up by surrogate parents. At some point, Jenny’s father reappeared and her parents finally married when she was 14. 

When was Jenny Lind’s extraordinary talent for singing first noticed?

Lind’s extraordinary abilities as a singer were noticed when she was tiny. While her mother disapproved of a stage career, she allowed singing lessons. Aged nine, Lind was brought to the attention of a singing master at the Royal Theatre, who was moved to tears. The head of the company at first refused to listen to so small a child; when he did, he cried too. The result was that in 1830 Jenny became a pupil at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, taught to sing, dance and act – all the skills required in the theatrical and operatic profession. Initially she appeared in plays put on by the Theatre – by 1833 as many as 22 of them.

When did Jenny Lind start performing opera?

In 1837 Lind was engaged on an annual contract by the Royal Opera. The real launch of her career came with a role in Weber’s Der Freischütz on 7 March 1838. As she later put it, ‘I got up that morning one creature and went to bed another, for I had found my vocation.’ She quickly became, as one magazine later put it, ‘the declared favourite of the Swedish public.’ The company soon showcased her in other leading roles – Julie in Spontini’s La vestale, Alice in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable – but she knew that artistically she had further to go.

She gave a concert tour to finance studies in Paris with Manuel García, the most prestigious singing teacher of the day. Initially he was unimpressed, explaining that ‘it would be useless to teach you, Mademoiselle: you have no voice left’. But he relented, and over the next 11 months he retrained her voice from scratch, giving her a solid technique and finish.

His enthusiasm led to Lind singing for Giacomo Meyerbeer, who at this point oversaw the Court Opera in Berlin, due to reopen following a fire with his new opera Ein Feldlager in Schlesien, in which he wanted her to sing the leading role of Vielka. She spent two months in Germany studying the language and the role, but received a request to sing at the coronation of Sweden’s new monarch Oscar I and simultaneously a letter from her father telling her that her mother was ill. She returned home to fulfil her various duties but was soon back.

She stood down from the Meyerbeer premiere, however, when the company’s regular star soprano complained about being replaced by a guest. A week after the reopening in December 1844, Lind sang the title role of Bellini’s Norma, then finally appeared as Vielka; both were triumphs. In the run-up to these performances she also met another leading contemporary composer – Felix Mendelssohn – whose influence on her would be profound.

Meanwhile the canny English impresario Alfred Bunn, manager of Drury Lane Theatre, contracted Lind, who almost simultaneously received an offer from Benjamin Lumley, the impresario of Her Majesty’s Theatre. To appear at Her Majesty’s, Lind had to get out of her contract with Bunn, who threatened imprisonment. His rival Lumley’s masterstroke was to persuade Mendelssohn to appeal to Lind. It worked. Lumley also commissioned Mendelssohn to write an opera for her to star in.

According to evidence uncovered some years ago, Lind’s friendship with Mendelssohn may well have deepened into something far more serious  even though the composer was married with children. Lind, however, admitted in a letter written just before Christmas 1845, that ‘deep in my soul I feel how much this man means to me, and it is true when I say to you that for me no other man exists at this moment’. For his part Mendelssohn expressed the desire to write an opera, ‘and for you’.

When did Jenny Lind come to London?

Lind, who was now known to many as ‘the Swedish Nightingale’, arrived in London in April 1847. Lumley later described her debut at Her Majesty’s in Robert le Diable: ‘For a few moments she appeared bewildered and “scared” but her self-possession returned. Her very first notes seemed to enthral the audience. The cadenza at the end of her opening air – the whole of which was listened to with a stillness quite singular – called down a hurricane of applause. From that moment her success was certain.’ During that season Lind also created the role of Amalia in Verdi’s I masnadieri .

1847 also brought a terrible blow when Mendelssohn died in November. ‘Seldom can there have been in the world two beings who so understood one another, and who so sympathised with one another as we!’ she later wrote. Arguably in a state of shock, Lind became engaged to an old colleague – the tenor Julius Günther – before leaving England, but their engagement ended the following year.

In 1848, she once again appeared at Her Majesty’s: visiting London, Chopin was as full of praise for her as the rest of the audience. One of her charity concerts that year was in aid of what is now the Royal Brompton Hospital in Chelsea, where there is still a Lind ward; of several other hospitals to benefit, one in Norwich also retains a Jenny Lind Children’s Department. A performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah raised sufficient funds for the establishment of the Mendelssohn Scholarship – still in existence – whose first recipient was Arthur Sullivan.

Meanwhile, in another false move, Lind became attached to an Indian Army officer called Claudius Harris and promptly decided to marry him, but his requirement that she cease to perform at all brought an end to their engagement; nevertheless, she gave just one further season at Her Majesty’s before ending her stage career.

P T Barnum and Jenny Lind

At this point someone new entered her life and made her an extraordinary proposal that she accepted: Lind signed a contract with the American showman Phineas T Barnum to tour across the US under his management.

Recently reintroduced to audiences as the hero of the 2017 film The Greatest Showman (and, before that, the musical named after him), Barnum was in some ways an unlikely collaborator – a freewheeling huckster on the grandest scale who offered the widest public performing fleas, dogs, jugglers, ventriloquists and automata. But part of him also wanted to introduce them to more elevated entertainment – provided he could turn a profit in doing so.

For her part, Lind wanted to fund her large-scale charitable giving. Of her eventual total tour earnings, she kept only enough to pay for a piece of land and a house. With Julius Benedict as conductor and accompanist and Giovanni Belletti as supporting baritone, Lind made her first appearance at Castle Garden, New York, on 11 September 1850. Her contract stipulated 150 concerts – at least two per week in which she would sing four pieces. As well as all expenses, she would receive $1,000 per concert with possible break points if either party was dissatisfied. Employing modern marketing techniques, Barnum ratcheted up publicity to an unprecedented degree and the lengthy tour was an enormous success.

Lind and her entourage proceeded down the eastern seaboard and across to Havana, then back via New Orleans, Memphis, St Louis and Cincinnati. Eventually the contract was ended on amicable terms and Lind continued on her own for a further 40 dates. From the Barnum portion of the tour alone she netted $176,675 – something like £4.5m in today’s money.

When Benedict decided to return to London, Lind’s old associate and Mendelssohn’s pupil Otto Goldschmidt replaced him, and the affection that had previously existed between him and Lind became more serious. They arrived back in New York in December 1851. The Jewish Goldschmidt was baptised a Christian on 17 January 1852. They married on 5 February.

The Lind-Goldschmidts spent six years in Dresden, during which time Lind gave birth to two out of her three children, then subsequently moved to England. Continuing to sing oratorio, she became the first professor of singing at the Royal College of Music in 1883.

When did Jenny Lind die?

Four years later, in 1887, Jenny Lind died in Malvern aged 87. In 1894 a plaque was erected to her in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, the first woman to be thus honoured. 

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Who plays Jenny Lind in The Greatest Showman?

2017’s hugely popular The Greatest Showman, in which Rebecca Ferguson plays Jenny Lind alongside Hugh Jackman as PT Barnum, is not the first time the Swedish soprano has been depicted on the big screen. Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s 1930 A Lady’s Morals was a highly fictionalised biopic of the singer, played on this occasion by Grace Moore, in which Lind falls in love (eventually) with a young composer Paul Brandt (Reginald Denny). Unlike in The Greatest Showman, Lind sings recognisable opera arias in A Lady’s Morals – Grace Moore was herself a leading soprano who sang at the New York Met Opera and enjoyed the nickname ‘The Tennessee Nightingale’.