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; www.wigmorehall.org.uk) 27 February

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
    ‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

    ‘We knew he was something special’

    Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York