“Through her Spanish temperament, her French education and her sympathy for Germany, she combines characteristics of differen nationalities in a way that one cannot identify her with a single country. Arts are the fatherland she chose and loves.” It strikes me again how generously Franz Liszt praised female composers of his time and how much he tried to promote their careers. Pauline Viardot-Garcia is the name of the composer that Liszt had in mind when he wrote these lines. She lived between 1821 and 1910 and she worked as a mezzo-soprano opera singer, a pianist, a composer, a music teacher, an editor and a painter, in short, she had multiple talents and of course her career as a composer is of interest to us today.
In 1867 she published a set of six most charming pieces for violin and piano under the title “Six Morceaux” (Six pieces); they were dedicated to her son Paul. The work has been attributed the catalogue number VWV 3003, the catalogue being itself a work in progress, coordinated by the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hamburg. The six pieces are called Romance, Bohémienne, Berceuse, Mazourke, Vieille Chanson and Tarantelle. The six pieces are by no means overly sophisticated or ambitious compositions. They stand in the tradition of the “musique de salon”, short, entertaining piece to be performed in the intimate circle of friends or relatives, the “salons” (living rooms) of the Paris society.
The Spanish temperament becomes apparent in the “Bohémienne” which reminds me of Pablo Sarasate’s dances, and another piece I really like well, is the “Vieille Chanson” (Old Song). A little melancholy set to music, very much to the taste of the French ladies in the middle of the 19th century, well suited as the framework of a reading of let’s say poems by Théophile Gautier. The association with Gautier here is no coincidence. Berlioz was at times inspired by hos works and so was Viardot who set to music some of his poems. “Six Morceaux” has been recorded by Sara Chenal (violin) and Jean-Pierre Ferey (piano).
Songs and stage music
Viardot grew up in a family of musicians, she was a sister of the mezzo-soprano singer Maria Malibran who rose to fame through her appearance in Donizetti’s and Rossini’s operas. She was also a friend of Clara Wieck a student of Liszt. Viardot wrote more than 250 pieces, mainly songs for one or more voices, chamber music, piano solo works and stage music i.e. operettes which she directed herself. She celebrated her own stage debut in 1839 in the role of Desdemona in Rossini’s “Otello”. She ended her opera career in 1863 with the main part Orpheus in Gluck’s opera “Orphée”, rearranged by Hector Berlioz specifically to suit Viardot’s voice.
When she published the sonatas she lived in Baden-Baden, on the border between France and Germany. Her family had left Paris to escape the regime of Napoleon III and returned only after the end of the French-Prussian War in 1870/71 after a brief stint to London. Her latest composition goes back to 1906, a piano piece “Danse populaire espagnole”. She was 75 then and could look back on an important contribution to French music. Her career shows a number of things that did not seem evident at the time and do not seem evident to some in our days: Women can compose. Woman can compose a lot and be successful. Women can have an artistic career on their own without being dependent on a husband. Women can do anything that men can do.
© Charles Thibo