August 8, 2010

Still the Beloved Oracle of Paris

Musical America- April 30, 1910

Still the Beloved Oracle of Paris
The Wonderful Old Woman Whom Famous Musicians Eagerly Consult in Their Moments of Doubt- The Friend of Liszt, Wagner, Schumann, Brahms, Berlioz, Whose Career Began Before That of Beethoven Ended



When I cross the Place de la Concord, I look up to windows of the corner house of the Boulevard St. Germain and I send my love and a grateful uplift of my heart of Mme. Pauline Viardot. I wonder how many others do this. I wonder how many people know that she lives there and is just as interested in the world and its doings as she was seventy years ago, when she was just nineteen and had it at her feet. Certainly among composers, singers and artists it is well known that she is there, for in moments of doubt they go to consult her. And behind closed doors it is sometimes possible to hear famous chef's d'orchestres being treated like naughty school boys, or great singers listening to home truths they are not accustomed to hear. But here the charming thing happens. Whoever goes to see her goes because she is the oracle, and they become like children, ready and eager to learn. There are no ruffled plumes. There is no wounded vanity—only a grateful acceptance of things said which perhaps no pther person in the world is equally well qualified to say.

Mme. Viardot was born in Paris in 1821. She is the daughter of Manuel de Popolo Garcia, Spanish tenor and teacher of singing, who in 1925 went to New York with an Italian opera company. It was in this city that, at the age of four, she took first piano lessons. Four years later we find her accompanying her father at his singing lessons, and it is thus that she learned his method. 

It must be remembered, however, that she was only eight years old, and that before becoming a singer she was first a pianist—a pupil of Liszt—making her début about the same time that Joachim appeared, and also as an infant prodigy. Her first appearance as a singer was in Brussels, in 1837.  After this her success was such that the doors of the whole world opened to her. She shared the triumphs of Grisi, Rubini, Lablache, and all the great stars of the day. With these geat singers she held her own, though in many ways less gifted than they. Her irregular features, the not always equal scale of her mezzo-soprano voice, were surely drawbacks, but behind them was an intellectual force all her own, and she turned her very deficiencies to good account. Artists, men and women of letters, all that were intellectual and cultivated, were among her first and ardent admirers. The well-known and much-quoted portrait of her by George Sand represents her so clearly and in so few words that one need scarce resist repeating it.  

'The pale, still—one might at first glance say lusterless—countenance, the suave, unconstrained movements, the astonishing absence of every sort of affectation—how transfigured and illuminated all this appears when she is carried away by her genius on the current of song!"

At Berlin, Viardot astonished the public one evening by singing at a moment's notice the part of Isabella in "Robert le Diable" in addition to her own part of Alice. Later she returned to Paris for the production of Meyerbeer's "Prophéte," the part of Fidés having been especially written for her. In 1859 came the revival, after thirty years of Glück's "Orphée," the leading part being restored by Berlioz from a high tenor to the contralto for which is was originally written. Her appearance in the rolé was a unique triumph. After many wanderings and a long stay at Baden, she once more returned to Paris in 1871, at the beginning of the Franco-Prussian war, and for many years she was professor of singing at the Conservatoire here.  

Any one who had ever met Mme. Viardot would know her for a great person. Yet to those who know her intimately she seems the simplest person in the world. I have come across old friends of hers—old pupils, casual acquaintances, people who have seen her but once, maybe, and whenever we have, to use the Scotch phrase, "foregathered" on the subject of Mme. Viardot—the same look of real interest has come into their faces. That is what she does for people. She calls out the "real," and happy are the artists who have had the great privilege of coming under her influence.  

She stopped one of her pupils at a lesson one day and asked:

"What are you trying to do?"

"I am trying to think of all you say." 

"Well, as you are singing sacred words," Mme. Viardot replied, "try to think of all that THEY say." 

She often says to students, "Trust no one but yourself to help you. Sometimes another artist may, but no one can help much. You must do it yourself."  

She not only gives lessons of singing, but lessons of courage, patient endurance and self-control. I have known her to put aside great suffering with a quiet joke. "I may be allowed to have my little pains like any one else." Or to a pupil in grief she will say, "Now sing me something gay. For artists must be able to make themselves sing truthfully any kind of music when they least feel it." For many years, owing to the failure of her eyesight, she has been obliged to rely on her infallible memory while teaching her pupils, whom she invariably accompanies. Yet I believe that she has never been heard to mention this as anything except one of the quite ordinary incidents of life.  

Her great principle in teaching it to make things easier. Her school is to train up. To her, each difficulty is but a stepping stone to greater things. Her idea is that the wish to be great is already the beginning of greatness. She is the one remaining link between traditional knowledge and unestablished self-sufficiency. She is the remnant of the school which always sought for greater ends. She cannot understand the school which accepts limitations. To her the artist who sings but one or two roles, and thereon makes a reputation, is but the merest beginner.  And this is easily understood, for she not only sang all the operas of her time, but also all the Lieder. In studying these latter with her it gives one a thrill of surprise to hear her say of Schumann, for instance, "I will not venture an opinion of my own. But I will tell you what the composer told me." They were great friends, these two. Schumann dedicated the "Liederkreis," op. 24, to her.

Mme. Viardot still plays the piano beautifully, and often, to illustrate how a phrase shall be sung, she will play it. At other times she will perhaps only speak the words, and when she does this is like the flashing up of an illuminating flame.  

She speaks all modern languages without accent, and her answers are pithy and convey her meaning without superfluous words. Her soul belongs to every one and to every country.  Her natonality is sunk to the exquisite development of her understanding of human nature.  

The calmness of her face, her quick alertness to be guided in any direction her companion wishes to take her, the observant way she has of listening to every remark made, her opinion given after reflection—always an opinion based on thorough knowledge, her great simplicity and sympathy—all these things proclaim her greatness, and, although I have never heard her sing, nor seen her act, after meeting her and talking with her, I know that she is one of the greatest persons I have ever met.  

Nothing can bring home to us more convincingly the conception of the immense strides that music has taken during the last eighty years, than the fact that some one is alive and with us, who knew Liszt, Wagner, Schumann, Brahms—as a young man—Berlioz, and how many others! —and who has seen Joachim come and go.  There were giants in those days. And the rapid evolution of music makes us forget how near in point of years we still are to the great spirits who forged the music to which the heart of the whole world responds today.  

When Schumann wrote his songs he perhaps dreamed in a happy moment that they might be sung in the homes of all countries. But he well knew at that time it was only to the few that they would speak. Brahms had much to endure. César Franck suffered deep humiliation. Wagner fought to secure a place of his "new" world of music- that new world which already some of us dare to call "old" and out of fashion.

All this and much more our valiant torch-bearer has seen and lived. She comes to us from the "Golden Age," carrying the sacred fire. During eighty-one years her hand has never wearied; her flame has never flickered. And this is a long time, for it takes us back to six years before the death of Beethoven.  

Louise Llewellyn

Pauline Viardot-Garcia told her family and students in May 1910 that she would pass away in three days. And she did, nineteen days after this article appeared in Musical America

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