VIARDOT-GARCIA. Michelle Ferdinands Pauline, a great lyric actress and singer, younger sister of Maria Malibran, is the daughter of the famous Spanish tenor and teacher, Manuel del Popolo Garcia, and of his wife, Joaquina Sitchez, an accomplished actress. She was born in Paris July 18, 1821, and received her names from her sponsors, Ferdinand Paer, the composer, and the Princess Pauline Galitzin. Genius was Pauline Garcia's birthright, and she grew up from her cradle in an atmosphere of art, and among stirring scenes of adventure. She was only three years old when her father took his family to England, where his daughter Maria, thirteen years older than Pauline, made her first appearance on the stage. His children were with him during the journeys and adventures already described, and Pauline has never forgotten her father being made to sing by the brigands.
The child showed extraordinary intelligence, with a marvellous aptitude for learning and retaining everything. At that time it would have been hard to determine where her special genius lay. Hers was that innate force which can be applied at will in any direction. She learned languages as if in play. Her facility for painting, especially portrait-painting, was equally great. Her earliest pianoforte lessons were given her by Marcos Vega, at New York, when she was not four years old. At eight, after her return from Mexico, she played the accompaniments for her father at his singing lessons, 'and I think,' she wrote afterwards, 'I profited by the lessons even more than the pupils did.' She thus acquired a knowledge of Garcia's method, although she never was his pupil in the usual sense, and assures us that her mother was her 'only singing-master.' Her father worked her hard, however, as he did every one. In his drawing-room operettas, composed for his pupils, there were parts for her, 'containing,' she says, 'things more difficult than any I have sung since. I still preserve them as precious treasures.'
The piano she studied for many years with Moysenberg, and afterwards with Liszt; counterpoint and composition with Reicha. Her industry was ceaseless. After the death of her father and sister she lived with her mother at Brussels, where, in 1837, she made her first appearance as a singer, under the auspices of De Beriot. She afterwards sang for him on a concert tour, and in 1838 at the Theatre de la Renaissance in Paris, at a concert, where her powers of execution were brilliantly displayed in a 'Cadence du Diable' framed on the 'Trillo del Diavolo' of Tartini. On May 9, 1839, she appeared at Her Majesty's Theatre as Desdemona in 'Otello,' and with genuine success, which increased at each performance. A certain resemblance to her sister Malibran in voice and style won the favour of her audience, while critics were not wanting who discerned in her, even at that early age, an originality and an intellectual force all her own. Her powers of execution were astonishing, and with the general public she was even more successful, at that time, in the concert room than on the stage. In the autumn of the same year she was engaged for the Theatre Lyrique by the impresario M. Louis Viardot, a distinguished writer and critic, founder of the 'Revue Indépendante.' Here, chiefly in the operas of Rossini, she shared in the triumphs of Grisi, Persiani, Rubini, Tamburini, and Lablache. With these great artists she held her own, and though in many ways less gifted by nature than they, her talent seemed enhanced rather than dimmed by juxtaposition with theirs. Her face lacked regularity of feature; her voice, a mezzo-soprano, but so extended by art as to compass more than three octaves, from the bass C to F in alt, was neither equal nor always beautiful in tone. It had probably been overworked in youth: although expressive it was thin and sometimes even harsh, but she could turn her very deficiencies to account. Her first admirers were among the intellectual and the cultivated. The public took longer to become accustomed to her peculiarities, but always ended by giving in its allegiance. For men and women of letters, artists, etc., she had a strong fascination. Her picturesque weirdness and statuesque grace, her inventive power and consummate mastery over all the resources of her art, nay, her very voice and face, irregular, but full of contrast and expression—all these appealed to the imagination, and formed an ensemble irresistible in its piquancy and originality. 'The pale, still,—one might at the first glance say lustreless countenance,—the suave and unconstrained movements, the astonishing freedom from every sort of affectation,—how transfigured and illumined all this appears when she is carried away by her genius on the current of song!' writes George Sand; and Liszt, 'In all that concerns method and execution, feeling and expression, it would be hard to find a name worthy to be mentioned with that of Malibran's sister. In her, virtuosity serves only as a means of expressing the idea, the thought, the character of a work or a role.'
In 1840 she married M. Viardot, who resigned the Opera management, and accompanied her to Italy, Spain, Germany, Russia, and England. At Berlin, after her performance of Rachel, in 'La Juive,' one of her greatest parts, she was serenaded by the whole orchestra. Here too she astounded both connoisseurs and public by volunteering at a moment's notice to sing the part of Isabelle in 'Robert le Diable' for Fraulein Tuczek, in addition to her own part of Alice—a bold attempt, vindicated by its brilliant success.
She returned to Paris in 1849 for the production of Meyerbeer's 'Prophete.' She had been specially chosen by the composer for Fides, and to her help and suggestions he was more indebted than 5s generally known. She was indeed, as Moscheles wrote, 'the life and soul of the opera, which owed to her at least half of its great success.' She played Fides more than 200 times in all the chief opera-houses in Europe, and has so identified herself with the part that her successors can do no more than copy her.
From 1848 to 1858 she appeared every year in London. In 1859 M. Carvalho, director of the Theatre Lyrique, revived the Orphée of Gluck, which had not been heard for thirty years. The part of Orphée, restored (by Berlioz) from a high tenor to the contralto for which it was written, was taken by Mme. Viardot, who achieved in it a triumph perhaps unique. This revival was followed in 1861 by that of Gluck's 'Alceste' at the Opera. The music of this—as Berlioz calls it—'wellnigh inaccessible part,' was less suited than that of Orphée to Mme. Viardot's voice, but it was perhaps the greatest of all her achievements, and a worthy crown to a repertoire which had included Desdemona, Cenerentola, Rosina, Norma, Arsace, Camilla ('Orazi'), Amina, Borneo, Lucia, Maria di Bohan, Ninette, Leonora ('Favorita'), Azucena, Donna Anna, Zerlina, Rachel, Iphigenie (Gluck), Alice, Isabelle, Valentine, Fides, and Orphée.
In 1863 Mme. Viardot fixed her abode at Baden, and has sung no more at the Opera, though she has appeared at concerts, and was heard in London as lately as 1870. She has composed a great deal, and several operettas, the books of which were written for her by Turgenief, were represented in her little private theatre by her pupils and her children. One of these, translated into German by Richard Pohl, as 'Der letzte Zauberer,' was performed in public at Weimar, Carlsruhe, and Riga. In 1871 she was obliged, as the wife of a Frenchman, to leave Germany, and since then has lived in Paris. She has devoted much time to teaching, and for some years was professor of singing at the Conservatoire.
Among her pupils may be named Mme. Desiree Artot, Orgeni, Marianne Brandt, and Antoinette Sterling. Mme. Viardot has published several collections of original songs, and vocal transcriptions of some of Chopin's Mazurkas, made famous by her own singing of them and by that of Jenny Lind. Her three daughters are all clever musicians. Her son, Paul Viardot, a pupil of Léonard, born at Courtavent, July 20, 1857, has appeared with success in London and elsewhere as a violinist. Mme. Viardot is still the centre of a distinguished circle of friends, by whom she is as much beloved for her virtues as admired for her genius and her accomplishments. Not one of her least distinctions is that to her Schumann dedicated his beautiful Liederkreis, op. 24.
We cannot close this brief account of a great artist without an allusion to her well-known collection of autographs, which among other treasures contains the original score of 'Don Giovanni,' a cantata 'Schmücke dich' by J. S. Bach, Mendelssohn's 42 Psalm, a scherzo by Beethoven, etc [F.A.M.]
A Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Sir George Grove, 1890, p. 259
Note: Mme. Viardot-Garcia (1821-1910) gave this rare c. 1880's photograph to pupil Sophie Traubman (1866-1951), a soprano who was born in New York City and made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1887. Traubman remained with the company for 10 seasons, appearing in the first American performances of Wagner's 'Das Reingold' and 'Götterdämerung,' where she sang the role of the Forest Bird to Lilli Lehmann's Brunhilde and Albert Niemann's Siegfried. She also appeared in 'The Barbier von Bagdad,' as Elvira in Don Giovanni,' in 'Siegfried' with Jean de Reszke in the title role, and in 'Carmen.' After subsequent appearances in Munich, Cologne, Vienna and London, Traubman taught voice in New York City at the Old Met on West 39th Street.
Photo Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.