Episode 131: Chopin and the Swedish Nightingale

Mazurka in A-flat Major, Op. 24, No. 3

rc-lind-200Here’s a headline worthy of P.T. Barnum himself: Jenny Lind, the most famous singer in all of Europe, spurns marriage proposals from dukes, doctors, artists and bankers, secretly moves to Paris to be with her one true love – Fryderyk Chopin, to nurse him back to health, and elope to America.

Upon meeting Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, Felix Mendelssohn called her “as great an artist as ever lived; the greatest he had known." So moved that he composed this aria from his oratorio Elijah with Lind’s voice in mind… AND was later fingered by Lind’s eventual husband for pursuing a more-than-professional relationship with her.

Mendelssohn had plenty of company on that front. Writer Hans Christian Andersen too, was a failed suitor, but his story, “The Nightingale,” stuck; Lind was ever after known as “The Swedish Nightingale.” One contemporary called her career “quite Napoleonic in its splendid and unbroken success; her conquest of Europe was no less rapid and complete than that of the great world-shaker himself.” Jenny Lind then conquered America; after demanding – and getting – the extraordinary sum of $150,000 in advance from P.T. Barnum, who got all of his money back – and then some. Giving rise to a new nickname: “Barnum’s Bird.” "A visit from such a woman who regards her artistic powers as a gift from Heaven and who helps the afflicted and distressed will be a blessing to America,” bragged Barnum.

But before America came Chopin. In 1847, Jenny Lind took London by storm via her captivating performances in the opera - “Robert le Diable” by Giacomo Meyerbeer. Chopin, too, was in London, and they quickly became friends. Chopin wrote admiringly about her in his letters, but Lind kept their relationship silent. Today, how much they interacted is now the subject of intense speculation. Was Chopin indeed the great love of Jenny Lind’s life? Did they have a secret rendezvous in Paris? The debate rages.

This much we DO know. Jenny Lind returned from America to sing for Queen Victoria in 1855, introducing a work she would sing for on tour all over Russian-occupied Poland. She called it A Folio of Mazurkas by Chopin – a collection of four of the Polish dances “set to Italian words.” The first, set to the Mazurka No. 16 in A-flat Major, contains these lines, “My poor heart, forget the pain…Stay faithful to your love, to the sweet faithful love, that will never die!” - Benjamin K. Roe

Radio Chopin Episode 131: Chopin and the Swedish Nightingale

Mazurka in A-flat Major, Op. 24, No. 3