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Pauline Viardot-García



Pauline Viardot-García

On Saturday, August 19, [ii] a long week after settling in Leipzig, “12 year-old Jos. Joachim, pupil of Herrn Böhm in Vienna” [1] appeared for the first time in the city’s renowned Gewandhaus, as an assisting artist in the 22-year-old mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot-García’s first public appearance in Germany. [iii] One of the leading ladies of her day, Viardot-García possessed voice that Camille Saint-Saëns later described as powerful, prodigious in its range, and capable of overcoming all the difficulties in the art of singing. “But this marvelous voice did not please everyone,” he wrote, “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.” [iv]

Viardot Program 1843


Even as a young woman, Viardot-García was one of the preeminent musicians of the age. A great personality and an even greater intellect, she had recently been immortalized as Consuelo in George Sand’s novel of the same name (“La musique et la poésie sont les plus hautes expressions de la foi, et la femme douée de génie et de beauté est prêtesse, sibylle et initiatrice,” Sand wrote there: “Music and poetry are the highest expressions of faith, and the woman endowed with genius and beauty is a priestess, a sibyl and an initiator”). Viardot-García had studied piano with Liszt and composition with Reicha, and was reputed to be as fine a pianist and composer as she was a singer. She was a close friend of Chopin, and like him, she understood and excelled in the art of rubato, an attainment for which the mature Joachim would also be famous. According to Saint-Saëns, “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.” In her Gewandhaus appearance, Mme. Viardot-García sang French, Spanish and German Romanzen, as well as arias by Persiani, Händel, Rossini and Charles de Bériot, accompanying herself on the piano. [vi] Viardot-García’s older sister, the great Spanish diva Maria Malibran, had had a longstanding affair with de Bériot, and had married him shortly before her untimely death. [2] It must have seemed appropriate, therefore, for Joseph to contribute de Bériot’s Rondo — a work that he knew well, having first performed it in Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater two years earlier. Mendelssohn played the accompaniment.

Gewandhaus Hall


The Hall of the Leipzig Gewandhaus

The original Gewandhaus concert hall, designed by J. F. C. Dauthe, was constructed within the erstwhile cloth merchants’ exhibition building, just a few blocks from Leipzig’s central marketplace, and inaugurated on November 25, 1781. The auditorium was of modest proportions, 100 feet long and 40 feet wide, rounded at the corners, and surrounded on three sides by empty rooms and corridors. Its acoustics were reputed to have been ideal. [3] Emblazoned high above the stage was the Epigram of Seneca that was the motto of the Gewandhaus concerts: Res severa est verum gaudium — true joy is a serious matter. This otherwise unpretentious room quickly became one of the most prestigious concert venues in Europe. By Joachim’s time, it was steeped in history. For decades, it had been the site of concerts by the greatest artists, reaching back to an early visitor, Wolfgang Mozart, who appeared in the hall in May of 1789, performing a program of his own music. From 1835-1847 the Gewandhaus took on added prestige as the scene of Felix Mendelssohn’s path-breaking work.

Mozart Gewandhaus Program


The size and arrangement of the hall was conducive to Leipziger sociability (“Geselligkeit”). In reality, the Gewandhaus was a large salon, in which couples separated, and audience members associated by gender as they did at church, the women sitting together in the center of the auditorium, facing vis-á-vis, while the men stood crowded along the walls. The visual focus of a Gewandhaus performance was therefore not primarily on the stage, but on one’s fellow concertgoers. Audience members were primarily regular attendees. A few seats at the back of the hall, and a small room for standees were all that were available for non-subscribers.

The closely packed, cramped quarters of the old Gewandhaus were likened by a contemporary to the mid-deck of a slave ship. According to Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, the hall “was quite innocent of windows […] and was capable of a truly wonderful Turkish-bath temperature.” [ix] On this August evening, the heat and humidity of the crowded auditorium caused Joseph’s E-string to snap as he began the Rondo. [4] Returning with a new E-string in the second half of the program, he was again interrupted in mid-performance — this time by the alarm and commotion attending a nearby fire, which sent the audience into a momentary panic. Julius Becker, writing for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, observed: “nevertheless, he received rich applause, as his playing in any case deserved.” [x] Joseph’s success on this occasion was an auspicious introduction to musical Leipzig, and helped to confirm his parents in their decision to allow him to stay. [xi] His favorable notice in Leipzig’s music journals sent his name throughout Germany and beyond.

The evening’s program also included a Beethoven Sonata played by Clara Schumann, and Robert Schumann’s newly-composed Andante with Variations for two pianos in B-flat Major, op. 46, performed from manuscript by Clara Schumann and Mendelssohn. [5] At the rehearsal for the concert Joseph was introduced to Robert Schumann for the first time. Joachim later recalled to Friedrich Niecks, how the taciturn Schumann had “looked at him through his lorgnette, smiling kindly.’” [xii]

© Robert W. Eshbach, 2013

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[1] On August 16, Mendelssohn wrote to Kistner asking whether the “12 year-old” should be left out of the advertisements. [Joachim/BRIEFE I, opp. p. 16.]

[2] Maria (García) Malibran (1808-1836). The García sisters were daughters of the well-known tenor Manuel García (1775-1832), who had created the role of Count Almaviva in Rossini’s Barber of Seville. Maria met and married banker François Eugene Malibran, 43 years her senior, during a sojourn in New York. They separated a year later. Maria and de Bériot lived as common-law partners for six years. In 1833 they had a son, Charles-Wilfrid, the future piano teacher of Ravel and Granados. They married in 1836, after Maria and Malibran divorced. A few months later, Maria died tragically, at the age of 28, the delayed result of a riding accident. Malibran’s death was commemorated in verse by Alfred de Musset (Stances à la Malibran):

Meurs donc! ta mort est douce et ta tâche est remplie.
Ce que l’homme ici-bas appelle le génie,
C’est le besoin d’aimer; hors de là tout est vain.
Et, puisque tôt ou tard l’amour humain s’oublie,
Il est d’une grande âme et d’un heureux destin
D’expirer comme toi pour un amour divin!

Die, then! Thy death is sweet, thy goal is won;
What is called genius by men here below
Is the need to Love; all else is but show;
And since, soon or late, human love is undone,
It is for a great heart, and happy fate like thine
To die as thou didst — for a love divine!

In 1843, the year of Joseph’s Gewandhaus debut, de Bériot was just beginning his tenure as the principal violin instructor at the Brussels Conservatoire. An important pedagogue, de Bériot is considered the founder of the Franco-Belgian school of violin playing. His students included Henri Vieuxtemps, Hubert Léonard and Teresa Milanollo.

[3] The word Gewandhaus means garment house or clothiers’ exchange. The so-called “New Gewandhaus,” built in the 1880’s and destroyed in 1944 contained a chamber music hall built to the proportions of the old Gewandhaussaal.

[4] Steel E-strings had not yet been invented, and gut E’s were particularly susceptible to this problem.

[5] Clara Schumann wrote about this visit in the marriage diary that she and Robert kept: “At the end of July I finally saw my dear Pauline (Viardot) again, and found her as always the old, most kind, and most genial of all female artists. She spent only 2 days with us, and we also liked him [Louis Viardot] very much. He doesn’t seem like a typical Frenchman to me — much more serious and solid and affectionate toward Pauline, who is exactly the same toward him. Pauline has made significant progress as a virtuosa, as she demonstrated in the concert she gave on August 19, yet her choice of pieces did not appeal to us and Robert occasionally found something not noble in her voice (whose range is 3 full octaves, equally strong.) A pity that such a thoroughly musical creature as Pauline, who certainly has the sense for really good music, completely sacrifices her taste to the public, and thus follows in the footseps of all the ordinary Italians. — At our house she sang a Spanish and an Arabic romance for us, which interested me the most; she makes an extraordinary impression with the power of her voice, and I’ve never yet heard a woman’s voice like that. Her concert was very well attended and the audience enthusiastic, only disturbed in the middle of the concert by a fire alarm. I played the D Minor Sonata by Beethoven and with Mendelssohn Robert’s very charming Duo (Andante with variations — formerly accompanied by two celli and a horn, but now set only for two pianos because of the difficulty of performance), which also was well liked and would have been liked even better if the fire alarm hadn’t caused the audience to miss a little of the musical conception and calm, which is exactly what is needed for responding to such an intimate, tender-hearted piece. This piece was gratifying after all the interminable coloratura flourishes that just are not music.

On the 20th Pauline left after giving me a beautiful shawl and taking one of my old ones in exchange. Mendelssohn was indignant that Pauline did not even thank him for all his efforts, but surely that did not happen with any malice on her part — her head and heart were already in Paris.” [Schumann/MARRIAGE, p. 200]

[i] Wikimedia.

[ii] Litzmann incorrectly gives this date as 18 Aug. “…in einem Konzert der Viardot=Garcia am 18. August 1843. [Litzmann/SCHUMANN II, p. 55.]

[iii] Mackinlay/GARCIA, p. 132-133.

[iv] Camille Saint-Saëns, Musical Memories, Edwin Gile Rich (tr.), Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1919,  Chapter XIV:, accessed 10/21/2007.

[v] Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig.

[vi] Mackinlay/GARCIA, p. 133.

[vii] Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig.

[viii] Illustration in Dörffel/GEWANDHAUS, p. 42.

[ix] [Stanford/DIARY, p. 143.]

[x] [% Source]

[xii] Niecks/SCHUMANN, p. 8.