A 1906 recording of Pauline Viardot-Garcia playing Chopin’s Nocturne Op 48, No 1 in C Minor, at the age of 85.
She was one of the 19th Century’s greatest opera singers, but as a girl she wanted to be a pianist. Her mother forced her on stage, to be a singer—after the death of her much older sister, the legendary Maria Malibran. She was the youngest daughter of the Garcia family—her father was a legendary singer as well, and then, after his voice broke, became one of the most important singing teachers in Europe. As did she, when her voice also began to fade. But she also returned to the piano.
Later in life, she became a composer, and was greatly encouraged by her friend and lover Ivan Turgenev, who wrote libretti for three operettas they collaborated on, which she used for her students in Baden to sing, to gain experience for the stage. She held performances at her haustheater that became known as one of the most sought-after of invitations—it wasn’t uncommon for the audience to include Brahms, the Schumanns, the King and Queen of Prussia, and Bismarck. When she returned to Paris in 1872 after the Franco-Prussian War, she became for a time the director of the Conservatoire, and moved her salons to her house, and there’s a fantastic description of those evenings here, which I’ve used as a basis for how I’ve included her in my new novel, The Queen of the Night—my narrator goes to her to study voice in Baden, and then attends her Paris salon many years later.
What we hear in this recording is 80 years of piano technique, in the hands of a woman who knew the greatest composers, singers and musicians of her day. On a more personal level, she knew and loved Chopin dearly, studied with him, collaborated with him, and sang Mozart’s Requiem beside his grave. Here she plays his longest, darkest Nocturne.
Bookmarked forever. I bow down to Pauline Viardot-Garcia.