12 Mazurkas (1864)
Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), born in 1821, lead an extraordinary life as a celebrated operatic performer, vocal pedagogue, and composer. She came of age in mid-19th Century France, a period marked by prevailing Victorian morés. Middle and upper-class men and women were divided into “separate spheres”; men worked in various occupations outside the home, while women were confined entirely to the domestic realm. Women were expected to embody “feminine” traits, defined as modesty, chastity, and refinement, and they were taught to seek personal fulfillment in their duties as mothers and wives, shunning anything deemed to be an “intellectual” pursuit. Throughout Viardot’s lifetime, women were also deined suffrage, which was not granted until 1946, 36 years after her death.
Viardot, however, was born into a remarkable Spanish musical family, who extensively cultivated her talents. Her father, Manuel García, was a tenor and celebrated vocal pedagogue, her mother, Joaquina Sitchez, was a successful soprano, and her older sister, Maria Malibran, was an internationally-renowned mezzo-soprano, whose remarkable career was tragically cut short when she suddenly died at 28 years old.
Viardot’s musical education included piano and voice lessons with her parents, piano studies with Franz Liszt, and composition with Anton Reicha. At 17 years old, she had her professional operatic debut in London as Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello. As a mezzo-soprano with a wide vocal range, Viardot would ultimately specialize in dramatic roles, premiering operas by Charles Gounod, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and Hector Berlioz. From 1843 to 1846, she sang several seasons at the St. Petersburg Opera, and later became an early proponent of Russian music in France. Notably, author Ivan Turgenev, who attended one of Viardot’s performances in 1843 and became instantly enthralled by her, would later write the librettos for three of her own operas, including Le dernier sorcier in 1869.
Viardot’s status as a respected professional musician gained her entry into the leading intellectual and artistic circles of mid-19th Century France. She premiered chansons, written exclusively for her, by Johannes Brahms, Camille Saint-Saëns, Robert Schumann, and Gabriel Fauré. In salon settings, she was also admired for her pianistic skills, playing duets with Frédéric Chopin at the home of Georges Sand.
Pauline Viardot and Frédéric Chopin at the piano
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In 1863, Viardot retired from the operatic stage, focusing on teaching and composition for the remainder of her life. She taught at the prestigious Paris Conservatory, as well as directed a music salon in the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Fluent in Spanish, French, Italian, German, English, and Russian, Viardot composed songs, operas, choral works, and instrumental pieces, although her compositions were often presented in private settings with her students as performers. Women composers were actively discouraged from public performance of their own work, and while Viardot’s compositions were widely respected in her salon, the lack of public acknowledgement of these works in her lifetime has arguably lead to their exclusion from the canon after her death.
Viardot’s marriage to Louis Viardot, founder and director of the Théâtre Italien, produced four children, all who pursued careers as professional musicians. Viardot died in 1910, at the age of 88, leaving behind a rich musical legacy that inspired countless composers, writers, fellow musicians, students, and international audiences. At every turn, she challenged 19th-Century notions about the role of women in contributing and shaping the cultural, artistic, and intellectual landscape of European society.