Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Pauline Viardot: Traveling Virtuosa

Poriss, Hilary. “Pauline Viardot, travelling virtuosa.” Music and Letters 96, no. 2 (2015): 185-208.

In the 19th century as well as the 21st, a career as a singer meant traveling far and wide. In this article, Hilary Poriss looks at Pauline Viardot’s visit to Warsaw in 1858 and 1859, a trip barely mentioned by Viardot’s biographers. As source material she relies on Viardot’s many letters. Pauline Viardot was a diligent letter-writer starting each day with her correspondence. The letters document not only her activities but her observations about various events. They offer a great deal of detail about her life, providing a detailed chronicle of her life and career, and therefore they make an excellent resource for biographers. 

As plentiful as the letters are, until recently they mostly remained in private collections and unavailable to researchers. However, in April 2011 Harvard University purchased many of her letters along with musical manuscripts (including songs, cadenzas (!) and pedagogical works), costume designs, journals, her own copies of musical scores, and other items. They are found in Harvard University’s Houghton Library in Collection Identifiers MS 232 and MS 264. 

MS 232:

MS 264:

(Note: There are also a number of Viardot’s letters on at 

Viardot’s repertoire in Warsaw included the title role in Bellini’s Norma, Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Azucena in Il trovatore. She also appeared in three concerts consisting of operatic excerpts and two soirées. The opera performances consisted of the traveling troupe performing in Italian with some comprimario roles and the choruses sung (or in the case of recitative, spoken) in Polish by local performers. 

Viardot’s Barbiere performances included an extended lesson scene in which she introduced a set of Marzurkas by Chopin which she had transcribed for her voice and set to popular Spanish lyrics. (Information about these arrangements can be found in Carolyn Jean Shuster, ‘Six mazurkas de Frédéric Chopin transcrits pour chant et piano par Pauline Viardot’, Revue de musicologie, 75 (1989), 265-83.) She then concluded the mini-concert with Chopin’s “Hulanka” (op. 74, no. 4). Viardot’s plan to please a Polish audience with music by their famous composer appears to have worked. “Encored, my knees are shaking from bowing so much. “Certainly, it must have lasted 10 minutes, men, women, everyone applauded, everyone shouted.” At the second performance she performed the same group again, adding one of her own Spanish songs “Jota de los estudiantes.” 

Describing her program for one of the soirées she writes, “Here’s my programme! The aria from l’Italiana, the beggar’s couplets from Prophète (requested), Russian arias by Dargomuiski [sic], and some Spanish arias. How do you like it?” At another less formal gathering “They made me sing, we were entirely among close friends. I sang Plaisir d’amour, Fortunilla, Margoton, Riqui riqui, Contrabandista.’” At the concerts she sang the final scene from La Sonnambula. (Her sister Maria Malibran had sung the role in an edition arranged for her. We may assume that she sang a similar adaptation.) She then repeated the lesson scene so that she could end her run of performances in Warsaw with “Hulanka.” “Plaisir d’amour” remains a well-known song (the only romance to have survived into the modern repertoire). “Fortunilla” is a song in Spanish either composed or arranged by Viardot. “Margoton” is a French folk song. “El riqui riqui” was a song she often performed, and it is often attributed to her, but it was in fact composed by Viardot’s father Manuel Garcia. “El contrabandista” is a Spanish folk song and can be found at in an edition claiming to be as Maria Malibran sang it.

Her time in Warsaw was both a financial and musical success, but was not without a strain on her personally, being so far away from her husband and children. Still, it only added to her reputation as a performer and paved the way for the massive success she would soon have in Paris. (Part of the article is dedicated to this aspect of Viardot’s life. Then as now, performers who travel a lot must find a way to manage their professional and personal lives. Plus ça change….)

Again, the glimpse of the repertoire from an earlier time is interesting. The operas she performed in Warsaw remain popular. The songs, other than “Plaisir d’amour” are not well known. “Hulanka” is a charming song and can be easily found on and YouTube. It is strophic and the few performances I found perform each verse the same, but it is inconceivable that Viardot would not have sung different ornaments and variations for each verse. 

I hope some BCBCers will seek out some of these songs to perform. I also hope others are as intrigued as I am about the treasure trove of Viardot papers available to scholars in Massachusetts. Cadenzas? In Viardot’s own hand? Who wants to plan a trip to the Houghton Library with me? 

Note: I came across another useful Viardot resource in preparing this blog post. It is an online catalog of her compositions.;jsessionid=248BA452F861138350F7C093958DC58B?sequence=3