Pauline Viardot Garcia
(1821-1910)Click to play Click to read
Born into a stellar Spanish opera family in Paris in 1821, Michelle Ferdinande Pauline Garcia grew up surrounded by prominent musicians, actors, composers and singers. Her father, Spanish tenor Manuel del Populo Vicente Garcia, recognized his child’s musical gifts early on and undertook her training as a pianist and a singer. After his death, however, her mother, the soprano and actress Joaquina Sitchez, steered the young woman away from the piano, with an eye to a career like hers as a singer. Pauline reluctantly obeyed her mother’s wishes, even though she displayed much pianistic talent, having studied with Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz. She remained an outstanding pianist all her life.
At the age of 16, Pauline Garcia gave her first vocal performance in Brussels. Two years later in 1839, she made her opera debut to great acclaim as Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello in London. The following year, to the disappointment of her famous suitor, Alfred de Musset, she married Louis Viardot, a writer and director of the Théâtre Italien. He was twenty-one years her senior and a wealthy man.
Viardot devoted himself to managing Pauline’s phenomenal singing career.
Renowned for her colorful, compelling personality, this “enchantress of nations” attracted rapt, enthusiastic opera audiences throughout Europe and so infatuated the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev that he took up permanent residence in her home. Frédéric Chopin, Hector Berlioz, Camille Saint-Saëns and Charles Gounod all found themselves equally inspired by her wide vocal range and stage presence. Berlioz described her as “one of the greatest artists… in the past and present history of music.”
After her retirement from the stage, Pauline Viardot Garcia taught at the Paris Conservatory, although at that time women were only permitted to teach other women. In class, she used various vocal works she had composed years before to develop her students’ singing. She had never intended to become a composer, but she devoted much of her time to the creation of what proved to be stunning vocal works in French, German and Russian, as well as short works for piano and violin.
Between 1864 and 1874 she wrote three salon operas, all to libretti by the ever-faithful Turgenev, and over fifty lieder. Later, Pauline’s two operettas, composed, accompanied and produced by herself, led her friend Clara Schumann to write, ”She is the most gifted woman I have ever met.” Franz Liszt declared that, “with Pauline Viardot, the world has finally found a woman composer of genius.”
Pauline Viardot Garcia died in Paris in 1910 at the age of eighty-nine, surrounded by a loving family. She is buried in the Montmartre Cemetery. Her family home, the Villa Viardot, in Bougival, near Paris, where so many musicians, painters and poets gathered, was restored in 2001. Today, master classes are offered there by leading singers of the opera and stage.
Fleurs Jetees, Songs by French Women Composers, Rebecca de Pont Davies, Mezzo-contralto, Clare Toomer, Piano, Lontano Records Ltd., 1996
Serenade Florentine (.42 secs
Madrid (.59 secs)
Bonjour mon Coeur (.42 secs)
Berceuse Cosaque (.38 secs)
Laura Kobayashi & Susan Keith Grey recordings courtesy of Albany Records (www.albanyrecords.com)
Feminissimo! Laura Kobayashi, violin, and Susan Keith Gray, piano. Albany Records 2008:
Six Morceaux: Romance (.56 secs)
Six Morceaux: Vielle Chanson (1:05 min)