Born: July 18, 1821, Paris, France
Died: May 18, 1910, Paris, France
Pauline Viardot-García, a French born singer and composer of Spanish descent, was a leading figure in late-19th century musical life throughout Europe. She was born into a famous musical family; her father, Manuel García, was an esteemed vocal pedagogue and her older sister, Maria Malibran, was one of the most adored opera singers of her time. Viardot quickly became a sensation after her operatic debut in London and enjoyed an international career of stardom that she maintained for most of her adult life. She made significant contributions to the operatic stage, music composition and in the world of music salons, which she often held in her home. She also had a tremendous influence on the careers of many of France’s most well known composers including Saint-Saëns, Liszt, Gounod, Berlioz, Meyerbeer and Fauré.
In 1840, when she was 18-years-old, Viardot married Louis Viardot, director of the Théâtre Italien and 21 years her senior. The arrangement was encouraged by Viardot’s close friend, George Sand, who advised her to marry in order to support herself. This marriage, while practical, was a great sacrifice for Viardot in her life; by succumbing to the societal expectation that women were intended to marry and start families in order to gain protection and respect in the world, she relinquished the opportunity to have a passionate romantic relationship. This circumstance tormented her, especially with regards to Ivan Turgenev, the Russian author with whom she maintained a love affair for most of her adult life.
With Louis, Viardot had four children. She did not, at any point in her career, allow the traditional responsibilities of wife and mother overshadow her musical pursuits but instead was fiercely dedicated to her art at all costs. Outside of her family, Viardot maintained friendships with many important French composers who owe the success in their careers, in great part, to her influence. These connections offer Viardot a place within the ranks of the most well-respected and successful musicians that lived, performed and composed in the 19th century, and provide a clear understanding of the influence she had throughout Europe during her lifetime.
While her voice was the instrument through which she achieved her great career and was able to provide guidance to the many French composers that admired her, Viardot’s operatic success only spanned a period of twenty-two years due to the strain she put on her voice and her insistence to sing any music she enjoyed, whether it suited her or not. Her later life was devoted to teaching voice and composing music.
As a composer, Viardot was drawn to dramatic texts. She wrote 100 songs in several different languages and styles with the technical abilities of herself and her students in mind. She set poems by Musset, Turgenev, Pushkin, Gautier, Mörike, and Goethe. Most of her music was published while she was still alive, a testament to her popularity and to the quality of her compositions. She often worked with publishers in France, Germany, and Russia, to ensure her music was distributed to a wide variety of people. Some of her most well known songs were transcriptions of 12 Chopin mazurkas, for which she received permission from Chopin to write. In addition, she arranged some of Schubert’s waltzes, one of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances as a duet, and several movements of Haydn’s string quartets for voice and piano. Beyond her song output, Viardot composed four operettas (three with with libretti by Ivan Turgenev), an opera, Cendrillon, chamber music, and several small-scale piano works. She also wrote cadenzas for well-known arias both for herself and for her students. Some of these have been published.
Viardot’s compositional tendencies employed various styles and influences from different countries. Her ultimate goal was to write music that communicated emotion, stories, and cultures while providing a connection between the artist and the audience. Most of her vocal music was translated into several languages with the intention of sharing this music with as many people as possible, no matter where they lived or what language they spoke.
Pauline Viardot was the glue with which much of the 19th century musical activity in Europe was connected. Her tremendous influence and fierce passion for her art cemented her as a force within all of her musical and social circles. The number of people with whom she collaborated and to whom she provided guidance and artistic inspiration is numerous, spanning several countries and decades. Viardot was unafraid to approach art in her own way, even when that meant sacrificing time with her family, the longevity of her voice, and relationships with friends and colleagues. The breadth of her compositions and her insistence on communicating with others by writing music in several languages and styles, speaks to her worldliness and desire to connect and find common ground with her audience.