Pauline Viardot-Garcia was born in Paris to a musical family, and from a young age excelled both at singing – she made her opera debut in London at age 16, singing Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello – and as a pianist, studying with both Franz Liszt and Fryderyk Chopin. Under Chopin’s tutelage, she arranged a number of his mazurkas as songs, and she in turn taught him about Spanish music, inspiring him to write his one and only Bolero.
After her marriage to impresario and author Louis Viardot, Pauline continued to perform, teach and compose, and her home was the centre of a vibrant cultural scene that included musicians, poets, artists, and authors Ivan Turgenev and Amantine Aurore Dupin, better known by her pseudonym George Sand. Viardot was a frequent guest at Sand’s home in Nohant, France, which she shared with her lover Chopin. When Chopin and Sand’s relationship fell apart in 1847, it was Viardot who tried, valiantly but unsuccessfully, to reconcile the two, and two years later, it was Viardot who sang the mezzo-soprano solo in Mozart’s Tuba mirum at Chopin’s funeral.
As a composer, Viardot’s songs show a sensitivity to text setting that only an accomplished singer could produce. She manipulates French and Spanish styles at will, incorporating elements of Spanish dance – notably the Bolero, into songs including Madrid and the coquettish Les Filles de Cadix. In the hauntingly beautiful Haï Luli, Viardot turns to the French Romantic chanson tradition, alternating between folksy simplicity, pre-Impressionist musical colour, and dramatic changes in tempo and key. This is taken further in her masterful Le Rêve de Jésus, in which she paints each image in the text with remarkable pianism, from a tender lullaby to angels on the wing to the menacing march of the Roman soldiers, moving from key to key and affect to affect with an uncanny freedom.