The career of Henrietta Sontag, born at Cob-lenz on the Rhine in 1805, the child of actors, was so picturesque in its chances and changes that had she not been a beautiful and fascinating woman and the greatest German singer of the century, the vicissitudes of her life would have furnished rich material for a romance. Nature gave her a pure soprano voice of rare and delicate quality united with incomparable sweetness. Essentially a singer and not a declamatory artist, the sentiment of grace was carried to such a height in her art, that it became equivalent to the more robust passion and force which distinguished some of her great contemporaries. As years perfected her excellence into its mellow prime, emotion and warmth animated her art work. But at the outset Mile. Sontag did little more than look lovely and pour forth such a flood of silvery and delicious notes, that the Italians called her the “nightingale of the North.” The fanatical enthusiasm of the German youth ran into wild excesses, and we hear of a party of university students drinking her health at a joyous supper in champagne out of one of her satin shoes stolen for the purpose.
When Mile. Sontag commenced her brilliant career the taste of operatic amateurs was excessively fastidious. Nearly all outside of Germany shared Frederick the Great’s prejudice against German singers. Yet when she appeared in Paris, in spite of hostile anticipation, in spite of her reserve, timidity, and coldness on the histrionic side of her art, she soon made good her place by the side of such remarkable artists as Mme. Pasta and Maria Malibran. She never transformed herself into an impassioned tragedienne, but through the spell of great personal attraction, of an exquisite voice, and of exceptional sensibility, taste, and propriety in her art methods, she advanced herself to a high place in public favor.
Her parents designed Henrietta for their own profession, and in her eighth year her voice had acquired such steadiness that she sang minor parts at the theatre. A distinguished traveler relates having heard her sing the grand aria of the Queen of the Night in the “Zauberflote” at this age, “her arms hanging beside her and her eye following the flight of a butterfly, while her voice, pure, penetrating, and of angelic tone, flowed as unconsciously as a limpid rill from the mountain-side.” The year after this Henrietta lost her father, and she went to Prague with her mother, where she played children’s parts under Weber, then chef d’orchestre. When she had attained the proper age she was admitted to the Prague Conservatory, and spent four years studying vocalization, the piano, and the elements of harmony. An accident gave the young singer the chance for a debut in the sudden illness of the prima donna, who was cast to sing the part of the Princesse de Navarre in Boieldieu’s “Jean de