Turning notes into music … and back: Viardot, Chopin, Liszt

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We have often heard about the music salons in 19th century Europe: indeed, private concerts hosted in salons were quite common before the emergence of the public concert.

One of the most famous musical salons at the time was hosted and presided over by Pauline Viardot, high priestess of the so-called “Viardot cicle”, who began her musical career as a singing sensation and later also became a highly-regarded composer.  She hosted weekly music salons (Thursdays, actually!) at her homes that were attended by the who’s who of European literary and artistic and musical circles, and inspired and contributed to the careers of many composers of the time, including that of Camille Saint-Säens, Jules Massenet, Gabriel Fauré, and Charles Gounod and others.

When Pauline made her home at Baden-Baden, she actually had an organ installed, and Saint-Saens was known to have presided often over the organ at these salons.  In addition to the names already mentioned, Johannes Brahms attended some of the Baden-Baden sessions, and the Queen of Prussia is known to have attended faithfully too, while Edvard Grieg gave a private performance of his piano concerto in A minor at Pauline’s salon in her Parisian home before its first public performance, and so on.

Indeed, Viardot was at the centre of much of Europe’s artistic happenings.  Throughout her career, Pauline attracted, often to the point of passion, the greatest minds of her time.  Some of the foremost composers of the time dedicated works to Pauline, including:

Her Thursday evening music salons – at one point affectionately known as the “Theatre of the Potato” because admission to it was one potato – promoted the music of both established and unknown composers, and hosted important guests.  Her collaborative spirit can be seen prominently through in her relationships with many of the composers already mentioned.  We share below some snippets about her creative collaborations with Chopin and Liszt, two of the biggest names in Parisian salons, with whom Pauline developed long friendships and collaborative partnerships.

Collaboration: playing together with Chopin

Viardot first got to know George Sand in 1839, with the latter basing the heroine of her novel Consuelo on Pauline too.  In the 1840s, Pauline paid frequent visits to Sand’s house in Nohant especially in the summers, when she would play and discuss music with Chopin, sometimes with the latter accompanying her singing, sometimes the two playing duets together, which were some of Chopin’s happiest moments.  She also performed quite often with Chopin in public concerts.  In fact, we have from the archives of George Sand’s letters of her trying, in April 1844, to get Chopin and Viardot to perform together again:

A great, astounding piece of news is that little Chip-Chip is going to give a Grrrand Concert /… He hoped you would come and sing for him.  When I received your letter destroying his hopes, he wanted to put off his concert.  But it couldn’t be done – he had gone too far.”

Her reflections of Pauline’s influence on Frederic is pertinent:

The warmth of feeling that existed between Pauline and Chopin was based on reciprocal esteem and affinity of temperament.  The friendship also happened to be one of mutual artistic benefit.  Pauline was given expert advice by Chopin on her piano playing, her vocal compositions, and her arrangements of some of his Mazurkas as songs. On Chopin’s side, he derived from Pauline some firsthand knowledge about Spanish music. One may also conjecture that he developed through her a keener understanding and appreciation of the human voice as a musical instrument.”

Friendship: Liszt and Viardot try to meet up, advise each other …

It is interesting to note that Pauline had a life-long friendship with Liszt, the virtuoso-extraordinaire who became a prolific composer.  While much less prolific, Pauline perhaps come close to Liszt in that she too led a musical life as a virtuoso-composer except that her main instrument was the voice.  Like Liszt, Pauline also spoke many languages and composed songs on a few of them.

The two first crossed paths when Pauline was a teenager … In fact, Pauline received piano instruction from Liszt as an adolescent, and in fact, many heavyweight musicians have attested to her outstanding pianistic abilities.

The two kept up a collaborative friendship through the decades, exchanging some delightful letters (rough translation in English here):

Liszt to Viardot (Nov 1858, in French):

When will I hear you singing GlukE! [deliberately mispelled], Meyerbeer, and above all yourself because by the imprint you give to beautiful things you actually create them? – Alas! If you continue to measure your time so well I would have little luck, because the task I have undertaken (and which God helping I will accomplish, notwithstanding the saying and the wicked of others) does not lead me to Paris or in London soon. We only have to do now to take care of what I do and what is close to my heart. I know that perfectly well – but that is no reason why you do not have a memory and good affection”.

Viardot to Liszt (December 1858, in French, with the above snippet of a musical-score at the top):

What to do … and how should it be done? This is what I ask myself without coming up with a fully satisfactory answer – Give me some advice and we’ll never talk about it again …. Should I go by following his example, à la Française?  Should I write to him? I wouldn’t want to sound like a dramatic prima donna, and on the other hand the role of turkey is not in my repertoire … See you later, won’t I?

It is interesting to us that Pauline, like Franz, was a virtuoso-turned-composer who built a long career in turning notes into music and later moved onto creating music from ideas, poetry and notes (on top of that, both composers made music from poetry and lyrics in various languages).  That may have been something that created an affinity between these long-time musical friends.

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