Pauline Viardot

[This is taken from Camille Saint-Saens' Musical Memories.]

Alfred de Musset covered Maria Malibran’s tomb with immortal flowers and he also told us the story of Pauline Garcia’s debut. There is also something about it in Theophile Gautier’s writings. It is clear from both accounts that her first appearance was an extraordinary occasion.  Natures such as hers reveal themselves at once to those who know and do not have to wait to arrive until they are in full bloom. Pauline was very young at the time, and soon afterwards she married M. Viardot, manager of the Theatre-Italien and one of the finest men of his day. She went abroad to develop her talent, but she returned in 1849 when Meyerbeer named her to create the role of Fides in Le Prophete.

Her voice was tremendously powerful, prodigious in its range, and it overcame all the difficulties in the art of singing. But this marvellous voice did not please everyone, for it was by no means smooth and velvety. Indeed, it was a little harsh and was likened to the taste of a bitter orange. But it was just the voice for a tragedy or an epic, for it was superhuman rather than human. Light things like Spanish songs and Chopin mazurkas, which she used to transpose so that she could sing them, were completely transformed by that voice and became the playthings of an Amazon or of a giantess. She lent an incomparable grandeur to tragic parts and to the severe dignity of the oratorio.

I never had the pleasure of hearing Madame Malibran, although Rossini told me about her. He preferred her sister. Madame Malibran, he said, had the advantage of beauty. In addition, she died young and left a memory of an artist in full possession of all her powers. She was not the equal of her sister as a musician and could not have survived the decline of her voice as the latter did.

Madame Viardot was not beautiful, indeed, she was far from it. The portrait by Ary Scheffer is the only one which shows this unequalled woman truthfully and gives some idea of her strange and powerful fascination. What made her even more captivating than her talent as a singer was her personality—one of the most amazing I have ever known.  She spoke and wrote fluently Spanish, French, Italian, English and German. She was in touch with all the current literature of these countries and in correspondence with people all over Europe.

She did not remember when she learned music. In the Garcia family music was in the air they breathed. So she protested against the tradition which represented her father as a tyrant who whipped his daughters to make them sing. I have no idea how she learned the secrets of composition, but save for the management of the orchestra she knew them well. She wrote numerous lieder on Spanish and German texts and all of these show a faultless diction. But contrary to the custom of most composers who like nothing better than to show their compositions, she concealed hers as though they were indiscretions. It was exceedingly difficult to persuade her to let one hear them, although the least were highly creditable. Once she sang a Spanish popular song, a wild haunting thing, with which Rubinstein fell madly in love. It was several years before she would admit that she wrote it herself.

She wrote brilliant operettas in collaboration with Tourguenief, but they were never published and were performed only in private. One anecdote will show her versatility as a composer. She was a friend of Chopin and Liszt and her tastes were strongly futuristic. M. Viardot, on the contrary, was a reactionary in music. He even found Beethoven too advanced. One day they had a guest who was also a reactionary. Madame Viardot sang to them a wonderful work with recitative, aria and final allegro, which they praised to the skies. She had written it expressly for the occasion. I have read this work and even the cleverest would have been deceived.

But it must not be thought from this that her compositions were mere imitations. On the contrary they were extremely original. The only explanation why those that were published have remained unknown and why so many were unpublished is that this admirable artist had a horror of publicity. She spent half her life in teaching pupils and the world knew nothing about it.

During the Empire the Viardots used to give in their apartment on Thursday evenings really fine musical festivals which my surviving contemporaries still remember. From the salon in which the famous portrait by Ary Scheffer was hung and which was devoted to ordinary instrumental and vocal music, we went down a short staircase to a gallery filled with valuable paintings, and finally to an exquisite organ, one of Cavaille-Coll’s masterpieces. In this temple dedicated to music we listened to arias from the oratorios of Handel and Mendelssohn.  She had sung them in London, but could not get a hearing for them in the concerts in Paris as they were averse to such vast compositions. I had the honor to be her regular accompanist both at the organ and the piano.

But this passionate lover of song was an all-round musician. She played the piano admirably, and when she was among friends she overcame the greatest difficulties. Before her Thursday audiences, however, she limited herself to chamber music, with a special preference for Henri Reber’s duets for the piano and the violin. These delicate, artistic works are unknown to the amateurs of to-day. They seem to prefer to the pure juice of the grape in crystal glasses poisonous potions in cups of gold. They must have orgies, sumptuous ceilings, a deadly luxury. They do not understand the poet who sings, ”O rus, quando te aspiciam!” They do not appreciate the great distinction of simplicity. Reber’s muse is not for them.

Madame Viardot was as learned a musician as any one could be and she was among the first subscribers to the complete edition of Sebastian Bach’s works. We know what an astounding revelation that work was. Each year brought ten religious cantatas, and each year brought us new surprises in the unexpected variety and impressiveness of the work. We thought we had known Sebastian Bach, but now we learned how really to know him. We found him a writer of unusual versatility and a great poet. His Wohltemperirte Klavier had given us only a hint of all this. The beauties of this famous work needed exposition for, in the absence of definite instructions, opinions differed. In the cantatas the meaning of the words serves as an indication and through the analogy between the forms of expression, it is easy to see pretty clearly what the author intended in his Klavier pieces.

One fine day the annual volume was found to contain a cantata in several parts written for a contralto solo accompanied by stringed instruments, oboes and an organ obligato. The organ was there and the organist as well. So we assembled the instruments, Stockhausen, the baritone, was made the leader of the little orchestra, and Madame Viardot sang the cantata. I suspect that the author had never heard his work sung in any such manner. I cherish the memory of that day as one of the most precious in my musical career. My mother and M. Viardot were the only listeners to this exceptional exhibition. We did not dare to repeat it before hearers who were not ready for it. What would now be a great success would have fallen flat at that time. And nothing is more irritating than to see an audience cold before a beautiful work. It is far better to keep to one’s self treasures which will be unappreciated.

One thing will always stand in the way of the vogue of Sebastian Bach’s vocal works—the difficulty of translation. When they are rendered into French, they lose all their charm and oftentimes become ridiculous.


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One of the most amazing characteristics of Madame Viardot’s talent was her astonishing facility in assimilating all styles of music. She was trained in the old Italian music and she revealed its beauties as no one else has ever done. As for myself, I saw only its faults. Then she sang Schumann and Gluck and even Glinka whom she sang in Russian. Nothing was foreign to her; she was at home everywhere.

She was a great friend of Chopin and she remembered his playing almost exactly and could give the most valuable directions about the way he interpreted his works. I learned from her that the great pianist’s (great musician’s, rather) execution was much simpler than has been generally supposed. It was as far removed from any manifestation of bad taste as it was from cold correctness. She told me the secret of the true tempo rubato without which Chopin’s music is disfigured. It in no way resembles the dislocations by which it is so often caricatured.

I have spoken of her great talent as a pianist. We saw this one evening at a concert given by Madame Schumann. After Madame Viardot had sung some of Schumann’s lieder with the great pianist playing the accompaniments, the two great artists played the illustrious author’s duet for two pianos, which fairly bristles with difficulties, _with equal virtuosity_.

When Madame Viardot’s voice began to break, she was advised to devote herself to the piano. If she had, she would have found a new career and a second reputation. But she did not want to make the change, and for several years she presented the sorry spectacle of genius contending with adversity. Her voice was broken, stubborn, uneven, and intermittent. An entire generation knew her only in a guise unworthy of her.

Her immoderate love of music was the cause of the early modification of her voice. She wanted to sing everything she liked and she sang Valentine in Les Huguenots, Donna Anna in Don Juan, besides other roles she should never have undertaken if she wanted to preserve her voice. She came to realize this at the end of her life. “Don’t do as I did,” she once told a pupil. “I wanted to sing everything, and I ruined my voice.”

Happy are the fiery natures which burn themselves out and glory in the sword that wears away the scabbard.





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