Pauline Viardot (1821–1910)
Louis Fischer, after a drawing from nature by Louis Hector François Allemand, lithograph, [before 1845], 440 x 328.
Collection: Muzeum Fryderyka Chopina, Warsaw [M/1146].
Pauline Viardot, née Garcia, a Spanish singer (mezzo-soprano) with outstanding acting ability, pianist and composer, daughter of the famous Spanish tenor and pedagogue Manuel Garcia, younger sister of Marie Malibran. This exceptionally talented and educated woman was an equally excellent pianist and singer. In the years 1830–1832, she was a pupil of Ferenc Liszt, then from 1838 to 1840 of Fryderyk Chopin. As a singer, she made her debut in London, in 1839, as Desdemona in Rossini’s opera Otello. That same year, she sang for the first time in Paris. Viardot was a close friend of George Sand and Fryderyk Chopin; she was a frequent guest at Sand’s Nohant residence, in the years 1841–43 and 1845. Pauline and Fryderyk were drawn to each other by their similar tastes in music: an adoration of Mozart, a love of bel canto and a fondness for folk music—especially that of Spain. In a letter to his family [Nohant, 18–20 July 1845], Chopin wrote: ‘Mrs Viardot also told me that when she’s passing through your city, she will visit you. She sang me here a Spanish song of her own composition, which she wrote in Vienna last year; she promised me to sing it to you. I like it very much, and I doubt that one could hear or conceive of anything more beautiful of the sort. This song will connect you to me—I have always listened to it in great rapture’ [Sydow, ii, 137]. George Sand recalls Viardot’s visits to Nohant in her letters: ‘I saw Chopin, one of the greatest musicians of our times, and Mme Pauline Viardot, the greatest artist alive, spend hours writing down some melodic phrases of our singers and pipers. […] Chopin particularly liked that bourrée as an example of the dance of a lumberjack in the forest. He did not wish to write it down, but played it often in Paris, with that false trill, in front of masters. They laughed, but bade him repeat it ten times. He played it exceptionally fast and it was all the better for it’ [Eigeldinger 2000, p. 236].
When they were both staying at Nohant, there was plenty of opportunity to play their favourite works together: ‘Pauline reads entire piano scores with Chopin’, noted Sand in 1841. As a singer, Pauline Viardot took part, in the company of Franchomme, in one of Chopin’s most important Paris concerts (21 February 1842). Chopin accompanied her in her own song setting of La Fontaine’s poem ‘Le chêne et le roseau’. Viardot added Spanish or French words to Chopin’s mazurkas, which she sang in London, as Chopin mentions in letters to Wojciech Grzymała: ‘And yesterday in a concert at Covent Garden, Viardot sang my mazurkas and was asked for an encore. London, Saturday, 13 May ’ [Sydow, ii, 245]. ‘Yesterday (7 July) I gave my second matinee at the home of Lord Falmouth. Viardot sang me my mazurkas, among other things. It was very lovely’ [London, 8–17 July 1848] [Sydow, ii, 252].
Pauline Viardot drew two portraits of Chopin, in 1842 and 1844. On 30 October 1849, she took part in the performance of Mozart’s Requiem during the funeral service for Chopin, in the Church of St Magdalene. Saint-Saëns, a regular guest in Pauline Viardot’s salon, wrote: ‘As a great friend of Chopin’s, she preserved very precise recollections of Chopin’s playing and gave the most valuable hints regarding the interpretation of his works. It was from her that I learned that the performance of the great pianist (or rather great musician) was much simpler than we generally imagine it to be, far removed from both mannerism in poor taste and cold correctness. It is also thanks to her that I learned the secrets of true tempo rubato, without which Chopin’s music becomes distorted and which bears no resemblance to the procedures that too often turn it into a caricature’ [Eigeldinger 2000, p. 237].