Pauline Viardot was a pianist, a famous opera singer, and a composer well-known for her music in the 19th century. This year is Pauline Viardot’s bicentennial (her two-hundred-year birthday was in 2021). Since it’s a special occasion, let’s celebrate this noteworthy woman from music history and learn a bit about Pauline Viardot’s biography along the way.
Pauline Viardot was born on July 18th, 1821 in Paris, France, with the name Michelle Ferdinande Pauline Garcia. She had an international childhood, traveling with her parents and siblings to London, New York City, Mexico City, and more. As a result, Pauline spoke English, Spanish, French, and German fluently; she would later learn Russian. Her father was a Spanish singer and teacher, Manuel Garcia, and her mother, Joaquina, was a singer. Her big sister was another famous diva, an opera star named Maria Malibran. What a talented and musical family!
Pauline The Performer
In addition to her parents, Pauline had terrific teachers. As a young student, she studied composition with teachers at the Paris Conservatoire and took piano lessons from Liszt. By age 8, she played well enough to accompany her father’s voice students in their lessons. Studying the piano opened the door to her singing career. She followed in her older sister’s footsteps and made her first appearance in London in Rossini’s opera Otello at age 17!
A year later, Pauline married Louis Viardot, who was an impresario (a producer of operas) who supported her career. Pauline’s fame extended from London to Paris to Berlin to St. Petersburg, where she met her good friend, Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev.
In addition to her busy schedule performing all over Europe, Pauline Viardot was a working mother. She raised her family of four children while performing. After 24 years, she retired from the stage to focus on composing and teaching.
Among Famous Friends
Pauline Viardot was bold and brilliant, and she could throw quite the salon party! 19th-century Europe was famous for its salons. These were parties where composers, writers, artists, and musicians got together to perform for one another, and Pauline was an excellent host. Her music salon was the place to be in Paris for composers, and her gatherings inspired Gounod, Saint Saens, Berlioz, Faure, and more. Guess how much tickets cost for the party? Pauline charged her friends one potato as a joke.
Among Pauline’s closest friends were George Sand (the pen name of the novelist Aurore Dupin) and Frederik Chopin, with whom she spent many hours composing and playing the piano. Pauline was connected to the Schumann family, premiering works by Robert and performing with Clara. Johannes Brahms also wrote a piece for her in 1869, the Alto Rhapsody. Pauline also enjoyed introducing more Russian music to Parisians after her time in St. Petersburg and corresponded with Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
Pauline the Composer
Between perfecting her performances and befriending iconic composers, Pauline became a composer herself. Pauline’s compositions are tricky for pianists and singers alike! Here’s why:
- She wrote many works for piano (like this Serenade ), over 100 songs, four chamber operas, and one stage opera.
- Pauline composed primarily for her students because it was difficult for women to publish their compositions during the 19th century.
- Pauline liked variety. Sometimes she chose to showcase the Spanish music of her family –like this Havanaise. Other compositions use texts by Russian poets and have a different emotional character, like Stars.
- Once, Chopin dared Pauline at a dinner party to compose pieces based on his mazurkas. She accepted and wrote her 12 Mazurkas for voice as “re-compositions” of his work. Chopin was delighted, and he frequently accompanied her while she sang these.
Pauline Viardot’s biography illustrates a vivid musical career that encompassed performance, composing, and teaching. Her works are especially well-loved by singing teachers and vocalists. Advanced pianists specializing in accompanying singers might expect to come across her work while preparing for recitals or concerts. Even though there aren’t recordings of Pauline singing or playing, her unique voice and talents live on in her music
Listen and Compare:
Have you ever played a tune so catchy at the piano that you wanted to put words to it? This is Aime-Moi by Pauline Viardot. Next, listen to Mazurka Op., 33 No. 2 by Frederic Chopin, the piece it’s based on. What do you notice that’s the same in Pauline Viardot’s “re-composition”? What do you hear that’s different?