Alfred de Musset covered Maria Malibran’s tomb with immortal flowers and he also told us the story of Pauline Garcia’s debut. There is also something about it in Theophile Gautier’s writings. It is clear from both accounts that her first appearance was an extraordinary occasion. Natures such as hers reveal themselves at once to those who know and do not have to wait to arrive until they are in full bloom. Pauline was very young at the time, and soon afterwards she married M. Viardot, manager of the Theatre-Italien and one of the finest men of his day. She went abroad to develop her talent, but she returned in 1849 when Meyerbeer named her to create the role of Fides in Le Prophete.
Her voice was tremendously powerful, prodigious in its range, and it overcame all the difficulties in the art of singing. But this marvellous voice did not please everyone, for it was by no means smooth and velvety. Indeed, it was a little harsh and was likened to the taste of a bitter orange. But it was just the voice for a tragedy or an epic, for it was superhuman rather than human. Light things like Spanish songs and Chopin mazurkas, which she used to transpose so that she could sing them, were completely transformed by that voice and became the playthings of an Amazon or of a giantess. She lent an incomparable grandeur to tragic parts and to the severe dignity of the oratorio.
I never had the pleasure of hearing Madame Malibran, but Rossini told me about her. He preferred her sister. Madame Malibran, he said, had the advantage of beauty. In addition, she died young and left a memory of an artist in full possession of all her powers. She was not the equal of her sister as a musician and could not have survived the decline of her voice as the latter did.
Madame Viardot was not beautiful, indeed, she was far from it. The portrait by Ary Scheffer is the only one which shows this unequalled woman truthfully and gives some idea of her strange and powerful fascination. What made her even more captivating than her talent as a singer was her personality—one of the most amazing I have ever known. She spoke and wrote fluently Spanish, French, Italian, English and German. She was in touch with all the current literature of these countries and in correspondence with people all over Europe.
She did not remember when she learned music. In the Garcia family music was in the air they breathed. So she protested against the tradition which represented her father as a tyrant who whipped his daughters to make them sing. I have no idea how she learned the secrets of composition, but save for the management of the orchestra she knew them well. She wrote numerous lieder on Spanish and German texts and all of these show a faultless diction. But contrary to the custom of most composers who like nothing better than to show their compositions, she concealed hers as though they were indiscretions. It was exceedingly difficult to persuade her to let one hear them, although the least were highly creditable. Once she sang a Spanish popular song, a wild haunting thing, with which Rubinstein fell madly in love. It was several years before she would admit that she wrote it herself.