Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

The Garcia Family Part III: Pauline Viardot

Pauline Viardot, the youngest Manuel Garcia’s three children did not grow up aspiring to become an opera singer. Not wanting to compete with her internationally famous sister, she focused on the piano instead. She was too young to have studied with her father (and given the many stories of his abusive treatment of his other two children, that may have been for the best) so instead she mainly studied singing with her mother and brother. She did, however, have many chances to observe her father working with his singing students as she frequently accompanied the lessons, including those of French tenor Adolphe Nourrit. 

Her life was long and her story complicated, which may explain why there are three English language biographies. Unfortunately, all of them are somewhat disappointing for anyone wanting to study her artistry, teaching and compositions in a serious way. April Fitzlyon’s The Price of Genius: The Life of Pauline Viardot (1964) is probably the best of the bunch, although it is a bit outdated. Barbara Kendall Davies’ two-volume The Life and work of Pauline Viardot Garcia is the most extensive. It is well researched but unfortunately does not include any citations making it problematic as a scholarly source. Michael Steen’s Enchantress of Nations: Pauline Viardot: Soprano, Muse and Lover (2007) is well sourced and thorough (he went to the trouble of figuring out exactly where the Viardots’ various homes were located which is not easy since most of them have since been demolished) but he focuses much more on Pauline’s circle of musical and literary luminaries including whole chapters on the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev. He is also dismissive of her compositions and even of her importance as a teacher. There is also an enormous amount of gossip and speculation about her relationships with various men and at least one woman. It all makes for interesting, reading but I could not help wishing that the literature on her life was a little more respectful of her as a singer, composer, and pedagogue. In other words, a little more serious musicology and a little less Real Housewives of Baden-Baden. Considering the number of excellent women in musicology these days, I am optimistic that a volume that takes Viardot (and the many other women who composed and performed) seriously in their own right and not just in terms of their relationships with famous men. 

Viardot’s career spanned much of the 19th century which saw her going from being accompanied by Chopin (singing her own “Le Chêne et le Roseau”) to being accompanied by Saint-Saëns. The latter’s Samson et Dalila was dedicated to her but she only ever sang it once, in a private concert that would be her last operatic performance in 1874. Along the way she inspired many composers, many of whom were also close friends. Meyerbeer created Fidès in Le Prophète for her and Berlioz arranged an edition of Gluck’s Orphée which she performed to great acclaim. 

As for her teaching, we do not have to rely on anyone’s account of her work since she published a volume of exercises with brief advice on singing in 1880. Much of her approach to singing is revealed in her volume of exercises. Une heure d’étude (An Hour of Study) is a practical volume in contrast to her brother’s more theoretical approach. It appears to have been intended for mezzo-sopranos, although it is useful for all voice types. Much of what we advocate at Bel Canto Boot Camp can be found in these pages. The only unusual instruction is an insistence on inhalation through both the mouth and the nose. (This is not the first I have heard of such advice, but this is the earliest example I could find.) The instructions are minimal and practical leaving most of the rest of the 104 pages for vocalizes. As most 19th century treatises do, she begins with her own version of One Note Monday. Then moves to leaps begging with octaves and then back to fifths and increasing by half steps up to the twelfth. Only then does she move to stepwise motion. 

The exercises progress through various melodic and rhythmic patterns. On page 80 she devotes a full page on her instruction on the trill (the most space she devotes to any single subject, followed by her exercises for developing that skill. The final pages are devoted to a Theme and Variations. It is an excellent set of exercises and strongly recommended. An Hour of Study is available online at’%C3%A9tude%2C_VWV_1001_(Viardot%2C_Pauline)

In addition to An Hour of Study, more than a few of her compositions can also be found on Also, the first volume of a new critical edition of her songs (including songs in Russian and Italian) has just been published by Breitkopf & Härtel (Hat tip to Hillary Poriss for tweeting this link just last week.) 

In addition to her own compositions and arrangements, she edited editions of many songs and arias under the title École Classique de Chant. I was only able to locate a few copies of single pieces from this collection in European libraries on I do not know if they were published together or separately and have not been able to view any copies. It would be interesting to see her ornaments, variations, and markings. If anyone has any copies of these or information about them, please let me know.

Pauline Viardot also turns up, thinly fictionalized, in two novels by her longtime friend George Sand Consuelo (1842-43) and its sequel La Comtesse de Rudolstadt (1843). Sand sets her Viardot-inspired character in the 18th century where she is a student of Porpora. I haven’t read either (they are on my very long reading list), but I have included them because they might be of interest. It is also significant to note that in the 18th and 19th century opera was of great cultural significance and that composers and singers had many associations, not just in the opera world but in the artistic worlds of their time. Younger BCBCers whoa re still in college might want to explore this as they study history, literature, and other topics in General Education classes.

Pauline Viardot is such an important person in the history of our art form. I don’t think I had ever even heard of her before being cast in her salon opera Cendrillon at Caramoor in 2004. (That is a charming piece. If it didn’t call for three tenor it might be done more!) Her songs are excellent recital repertoire as well. I’m happy to see that she is finally being given serious study in critical editions of her songs.