Pauline Viardot: The forgotten diva

Pauline Viardot inspired Brahms, Berlioz and Turgenev, so why is she forgotten?

Pauline Viardot-Garcia was more than just the greatest diva of the 19th century. The Spanish-born mezzo-soprano transformed 19th-century opera and song, inspiring everyone from Berlioz to Brahms, and Clara Schumann to the young Fauré. Yet her own compositions have been virtually forgotten since her death in 1910.

An evening of words and music at the Wigmore Hall, staged by Opera Rara, is about to recapture the world of Viardot and her music. Such is the significance of Viardot that the American mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade will make her Wigmore Hall debut at the age of 60.

Viardot was born in 1821, the daughter of a singer and teacher, Manuel Garcia. Her elder sister was the legendary soprano Maria Malibran. When the latter died aged 28, the burden of this famed family's reputation fell on Pauline's shoulders.

The poet Alfred de Musset heard Pauline sing when she was 17. He compared her voice to "the taste of a wild fruit... Pauline possesses the secret of great artists: before expressing something, she feels it. She does not listen to her voice, but to her heart." He was the first of many who fell in love with this unlikely-looking woman. Pauline was no beauty, but numbered among her admirers Berlioz, Gounod and Ivan Turgenev.

On the advice of her friend George Sand, Pauline married the theatre director Louis Viardot, 21 years her senior. But aged 22, touring Russia, the superstar met the 25-year-old Turgenev and accepted his offer of Russian lessons. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion against which Pauline fought with all her might. She once declared, "Oh, how many bad things I should have done but for that willpower - the almost inseparable sister of my conscience."

Ultimately the situation was resolved in a highly unconventional way, with Turgenev living in something resembling a ménage-à-trois with Pauline and her husband.

Their love, consummated or not, did not kill Pauline or Turgenev. Instead it stoked some vital creative fires. The pair found subliminal satisfaction in occasional joint efforts, mingling words by Turgenev with music by Pauline, and she inspired some of Turgenev's finest writing. His play A Month in the Country, in which a married woman's admirer is cast aside for a younger man, had more than a little to do with Viardot's brief infatuation with Gounod. And his story "The Song of Triumphant Love" involved the mystical conception of a child through shared dreams and the power of music.

Now Viardot's output has its own chance to shine. In Opera Rara's programme, the actress Fanny Ardant serves as narrator, with Georgia Smith's text binding together three singers, a pianist and a cellist. The performance is the brainchild of the TV producer Judy Flannery. "My first idea was to make a documentary about Viardot, because her life is worth celebrating," she says. "She was a household name throughout Europe and Russia, an artist who helped usher in a new era of operatic singing and whose compositions always serve the texts she set." For Flannery, the involvement of Frederica von Stade is a special delight: "She's rather like Viardot herself in her generosity and the way she has helped young artists."

Von Stade says that she has found Viardot's songs a revelation. "Pauline was part of the great Garcia family, which means a lot to most singers because of their reputation for vocal splendour. The songs are a collage of her world and her fascinating friends. You can always feel her affection for music, words and the voice with all its capabilities."

But why was Viardot's music neglected for so long? Georgia Smith suspects that Viardot's early biographers had barely looked at it. "They didn't bother to find out what her compositions were like. One biographer dismisses the laudatory things said about her by Liszt, Chopin, Sand, Meyerbeer and Berlioz as the compliments of her friends. An English biographer says that Pauline didn't take her composing seriously - this about someone who wrote more than 100 songs, four operettas and various chamber works. Her music was forgotten because she was known as a singer and because she went out of fashion. Also, perhaps because she didn't lift a finger to promote it."

If concerts like this can spread the message, Viardot's works could become more well known, and Flannery is considering making a docu-drama. The Viardot revival may start here, but one senses this is only the beginning of a fascinating journey into the past.

Songs of Pauline Viardot, Wigmore Hall, London W1 (020 7935 2141; 27 February

Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album