Who was Pauline Viardot?

As fine a composer as she was a singer, Pauline Viardot was respected and adored by Europe’s greatest musicians, discovers Jessica Duchen

Who was Pauline Viardot?

If you want to be an artist,’ Pauline Viardot wrote, ‘you must try to be indifferent to everything except your art. I had order in my affairs, despite my nature, because of my willpower. Oh, how many bad things I should have done but for
that willpower – the almost inseparable sister of my conscience.’

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When and where was Pauline Viardot born?

Viardot was born Pauline Garcia in Paris on 18 July 1821. Before she was 20, she was already becoming one of the great opera singers of her day. In her youth she sang to Chopin’s accompaniment; in her final years she knew Debussy. Her long life became a golden thread connecting the disparate worlds within musical Romanticism; and now, 200 years after her birth, some of her compositions are finally receiving the recognition they deserve.

Pauline was the youngest daughter of Manuel Garcia, a celebrated Spanish singer and teacher. She was four when Manuel took his family across the Atlantic, where they participated in the New York premiere of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, directed by its librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Pauline’s sister, 13 years her senior, sang Zerlina. Upon her marriage she became Maria Malibran.

Maria soon had a cult following among the young Romantics, who flocked to hear her sing Rossini, Donizetti (she premiered Maria Stuarda) and more. Pauline watched her sister rise to the heights, then abscond with the violinist Charles de Bériot. Manuel, enraged by this scandal, never forgave her. Pauline was deeply affected.

Then tragedy struck. Riding in London in 1836, Maria fell from her horse and was fatally injured. Her death at the age of 28 left the musical world shocked and in mourning. The family had no doubt who must take her place.

When Pauline was 17, the poet Alfred de Musset heard her sing. ‘It is impossible for anyone who loved her sister not to be moved,’ he wrote. ‘It is the same timbre, clear, resonant, audacious, that Spanish coup de gosier at the same time so harsh and so sweet, which produces an impression similar to the taste of a wild fruit. Pauline possesses the secret of great artists: before expressing something, she feels it.’

Pauline’s voice type defies today’s predilection for categorisation. Like Maria, she had a huge range. She is often described as a mezzo-soprano, sometimes a contralto. Among her most celebrated roles were Fidès in Meyerbeer’s Le prophète, written for her, and Gluck’s Orphée as revised by Berlioz, assisted by Pauline. Yet she also excelled as Bellini’s Norma, both Isabelle and Alice in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable and Rachel in Halévy’s La Juive, in all of which we would expect a soprano. She sang the second act of Tristan und Isolde in a private run-through – its first hearing – with Wagner himself as tenor; she also premiered Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody.

This versatility was entirely deliberate. Her pupil Anna Eugénie Schoen-René later wrote: ‘Madam Viardot strongly opposed the theory of vocal limitations which characterise the present generation of singers. She held that every singer must have an absolute equalised compass of two octaves, and that the voice must be flexible, and at the same time so broad as to be capable of singing roles widely differing in character.’

Who did Pauline Viardot marry?

The young Pauline was quickly drawn into the French capital’s cultural life. In particular, the novelist George Sand, then in her mid-thirties, took Pauline under her wing. Sand’s passionate fondness for the singer inspired her to base a novel, Consuelo, on her; moreover, she decided to find her a suitable husband. She lighted upon Louis Viardot, a well-known writer and theatre director 21 years Pauline’s senior. The couple married in 1840 and soon had a daughter, Louise.

At Sand’s country estate, Nohant, the Viardots were often guests; here Pauline sang, accompanied by Sand’s partner, Chopin, some of whose mazurkas she transformed into songs. Sand envisaged the marriage to Viardot as one of convenience; she advised Pauline that ‘people of genius have no time for love’. Pauline soon proved this only partly true by having an affair with Sand’s son, Maurice. But she regarded Louis as her dearest friend; leaving him was out of the question. After her sister’s bitter experience, she had no intention of breaking the social mould.

When did Pauline Viardot meet Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev?

Aged 22, Pauline set off to tour Russia with Louis. She became the toast of St Petersburg, surrounded by admirers. Louis went hunting with a new friend: a young writer from the Oryol region. A gentle giant in his mid-twenties, he was introduced to Pauline as ‘a landowner, a good shot, an agreeable conversationalist and a bad poet’. His name was Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev.

This seminal Russian author’s passion for Pauline lasted the rest of his life. Her powerful personality enveloped his introspective nature, while her behaviour towards him is reflected with brilliance and anguish in his literary masterpieces, from the novella First Love to the play A Month in the Country, in which the heroine’s admirer Rakitin watches his married beloved succumb to a younger man.

Indeed, Pauline was temporarily distracted by the composer Gounod, and Turgenev retreated to his Russian estate, Spasskoye, to lick his wounds. It all ended in tears, however, Pauline lamenting to Sand that Gounod was ‘nothing but a bag of selfishness, vanity and calculation’.

Early writers seemed puzzled that Pauline, whom they did not consider conventionally beautiful, could prove so attractive to so many men; but there was no doubting her sheer animal magnetism. Others who fell at her feet included Musset and later Berlioz, at the time of Orphée. Still, the offstage portrait that Orlando Figes paints of her in his book The Europeans shows a woman down to earth, intelligent, well read, fluent in six languages and financially astute. Indeed, Pauline’s fees were stratospheric. Some took offence that Pauline charged to perform in the Mozart Requiem at Chopin’s funeral; but she expected to be treated as the professional she was.

What did Pauline Viardot compose?

There is an elephant in Pauline’s room, however: her compositions. Although her catalogue extends to five operettas, choral works, piano duets and more, she lacked confidence as a composer – not surprising in an era which presumed that women didn’t, shouldn’t and couldn’t compose. There were few peers to support her efforts. Her friend Clara Schumann gave up writing music after her husband’s death in 1856; Pauline even discouraged her from continuing, given the lack of financial return. According to Figes, Pauline concealed her own compositions, often telling listeners that they were, for instance, unknown pieces by Mozart.

Prime in her output is a substantial quantity of art songs, ranging from typically Spanish pieces to settings of Russian poets. Her style has a natural melodic flow and engaging ambience akin to Gounod and Offenbach, with a flavour her own. Even her songs to Chopin’s mazurkas are more than curios, for she knew the composer well and her words cast intriguing light on the phrasing. Later she wrote a Sonatine and Six Morceaux for violin and piano for her violinist son, Paul. Both he and her eldest daughter, Louise Héritte-Viardot, wrote fine music as well.

In 1863 the Viardots moved to Baden-Baden, partly because Louis despised the Empire in France and partly because Pauline was retreating from the stage by then and adored the lifestyle in this spa town. Turgenev bought land next door to build a villa of his own. Their friends included the holidaying Brahms, along with Clara Schumann; regrettably, Brahms never set the opera libretto that Turgenev wrote for him there. Pauline, fond though she was of Brahms, was enchanted by Wagner’s operas (unlike Clara) and declared herself a ‘Wagnerian’.

The Viardots constructed a little theatre behind their house; here, Pauline and Turgenev began to write operettas together. Trop de femmes (1867) and L’ogre (1868) are much in the spirit of Offenbach (if ‘cleaner’). Yet with Turgenev’s quirky lightness of touch blending into Pauline’s mellifluous style, plus a mystical undercurrent rooted in the wonders of nature, Le dernier sorcier (The Last Sorcerer, 1869) has a rare magic worthy of the high-profile recording it has recently received, starring Eric Owens and Jamie Barton.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 exiled the Viardots from Germany, with Turgenev in tow. After a miserable spell in London – where Pauline found plenty of pupils thanks to her brother Manuel Garcia, like their father an influential singing teacher – they returned to Paris. Turgenev lodged upstairs in the Viardots’ city-centre house; beside their country villa in Bougival he built himself a Russian-style dacha. Something of a ménage à trois.

Now Pauline welcomed a new generation to her weekly salon, including Saint-Saëns and his pupil Fauré, seminal composers of the Societé Nationale de Musique, which aimed to create characteristically French music to shake off German influence. Saint-Saëns dedicated his opera Samson et Dalila to Pauline, though she demurred from performing it, pleading age. Fauré spent four years courting Pauline’s third daughter, Marianne; they were briefly engaged, but she broke it off, alarmed by Fauré’s intensity. The heartbroken young composer then wrote the ultimate song of disillusionment, Après un rêve.

In the 1870s, too, all things Spanish came into cultural vogue, culminating, somewhat disastrously, in Bizet’s opera Carmen. No prizes for guessing who was at the heart of this trend. According to Figes, it was Turgenev – whose authoritarian mother once referred to Pauline as ‘that damned Gypsy’ – who first steered Bizet’s librettists towards Prosper Merimée’s story.

Whether any of Pauline’s four children were Turgenev’s is unknown, but speculation has inevitably been rife. He, meanwhile, had had a daughter by a serf girl from Spasskoye and sent her to Paris for Pauline to raise. He wrote to the latter: ‘She has reason to call you Maman – why, by that you will make her into my real daughter.’

A fantasy of transferrable parenting seems reflected in his magical story The Song of Triumphant Love (1881), a triangle between a fragile young woman, an artist and a musician. Finally there’s a mysterious conception. Whose child? We never find out. Tchaikovsky, who met Pauline when she was ‘a little old woman of 70, so full of energy… literally sparkling with life’, considered setting Turgenev’s tale to music, but did not follow it up. Fauré’s friend Ernest Chausson based a piece for violin and orchestra on it, entitled simply Poème. Would he have noticed that Turgenev’s girl and musician in certain ways resembled Marianne and Fauré?

Tragically, Pauline’s two men died within months of each other in 1883, Louis after a stroke, Turgenev of cancer. Pauline spent her final decades as a living icon, students and artists flocking to her studio. ‘When I am quite alone, I give myself up to the bittersweetness of my memories,’ she wrote, ‘but when I become myself, then I feel how strongly those I love bind me still to life.’ She died in Paris on 18 May 1910, aged 88.

She composed one last operetta, Cendrillon. But Le dernier sorcier had been something apart, the melding of the two souls who created it: an artistic child that belonged to them both. 

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