Arts Blog

The García Sisters, Part II: Pauline Viardot

Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot were two of the bel canto era’s greatest mezzo sopranos. Sisters, and daughters of the imposing Spanish pedagogue Manuel García, Malibran and Viardot each left an indelible mark on nineteenth-century opera. Each was also a composer, a quality less celebrated during their lifetimes. Malibran, who died tragically young in 1836, was widely lauded for her singing, but her compositions were less noted. Viardot, who lived until 1910, survived long enough for the Western music world to become more accustomed to the notion of a woman composer. Both left exquisite compositions that offer insight into nineteenth century bel canto – and offer fascinating listening for any music lover.

In this two part series, we’ll explore the careers and music of these two remarkable sisters. We began in Part I with the elder sister, Maria Malibran. Here in Part II, we’ll meet the younger sister, Pauline Viardot.

Read Part I: Maria Malibran.

A Family of Resilient Virtuosi

María Joaquina Garcìa-Sitches

Portrait of María Joaquina García-Sitches, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Pauline García, the youngest child of Manuel García (1775-1832) and María Joaquina García-Sitches (1780-1864), was fifteen years old when her sister Maria died. It was not her first loss: Pauline’s father had died in 1832, when she was eleven. Maria Malibran had minimal contact with her family after her first marriage, but after the loss of Manuel García, Pauline and her mother had been welcomed into the home of Maria and her partner Charles de Beriot. So it was that in 1836, teenage Pauline García found herself not only bereaved of a parent, but also of an adult sister she’d lived with for four years.

Pauline’s mother and brother-in-law took her, and her career, under their wing. Until this point, Pauline had taken a few voice lessons with her father, but she had focused on the piano –  Franz Liszt was among her teachers. After Maria’s death, their mother suddenly decided to train Pauline as a singer instead.

Scholars are unsure of the reason for this pivot. María García-Sitches was a singer, and had just lost a daughter who was perhaps Europe’s greatest opera star. Perhaps she hoped to train a successor to Maria Malibran. On the other hand, perhaps Pauline felt comfortable switching to vocal studies now that she didn’t need to compete with her sister. Then again, many young singers’ voices are ready for training in their teens, and it may have been simply a pedagogical decision to begin Pauline’s vocal training in earnest at this particular juncture, rather than a response to Maria Malibran’s death. Whatever the reason, the switch to vocal studies drastically changed the course of Pauline García’s life.

Pauline Viardot: Self-Portrait

Self portrait of a young Pauline Viardot-García. She was a talented artist as well as a singer, pianist, and composer. Courtesy of Paris Musées.

Pauline García had been studying voice with her mother for a year when she made her singing debut in a concert with her brother-in-law Charles de Beriot. The debut was followed by a European tour with de Beriot and her brother Manuel García II. Manuel II was a baritone who never achieved the vocal fame of his sisters, but who went on to become one of the most influential vocal pedagogues of the late nineteenth century.

During this tour, Pauline García met Felix Mendelssohn, Clara Wieck and Robert Schumann, and she frequently performed songs of her own composition, drawing on her piano proficiency to accompany herself at the keyboard. One composition that dates from this period is her German Lied “Die Kapelle,” which Robert Schumann published in his journal Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in 1838. This was one of Pauline Viardot-García’s first compositions to appear in print.

"Die Kapelle" by Pauline Viardot-García

Operas and Lovers

Louis Viardot

Louis Viardot in 1840. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Pauline García made her operatic debut in Rossini’s Otello in May of 1839 in London. During that visit to England, she met Louis Viardot, a friend of her sister Maria and the director of Paris’s Théâtre italien. Despite a significant age gap (Pauline was 18, Louis was 40), the two married the following year, and enjoyed a long and apparently happy marriage.

Viardot retired in order to devote himself to his wife’s career and travel with her. They had four children together, two of whom became musicians in their own right: Louise Héritte Viardot (1841-1918), a contralto and composer, and Paul Viardot (1857-1941), a violinist and conductor.

Portrait of Turgenev by Pauline Viardot

Drawing of Ivan Turgenev by Pauline Viardot. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Pauline Viardot-García built an international singing career, appearing in capitals throughout Europe, including a residency in St. Petersburg. In Russia she met the author Ivan Turgenev, and the two became so close that Turgenev moved to live with or near the Viardots for the rest of his life. The relationship between Viardot-García and Turgenev has been described varyingly a romance and a friendship. Turgenev was probably in love with her, but the exact nature of their relationship seems to have been unique and unconventional. Certainly they enjoyed an artistic collaboration: Viardot-García set several of Turgenev’s poems to music, and Turgenev wrote the libretti for three of the operas she composed.

This delightful little song, with text by Turgenev, is called “The Titmouse.” It was published in 1864 in St. Petersburg as part of Viardot-García’s Russian song cycle: Twelve Poems by Pushkin, Fet, and Turgenev. 

12 mélodies sur des poésies russes, VWV 1042: II. La mésange (The Titmouse), by Pauline Viardot-García

Artistic Friendships

Frederic Chopin and Maurice Sand

A drawing of Frédéric Chopin and Maurice Sand (c. 1841), by Pauline Viardot. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Turgenev was not Pauline Viardot-García’s only collaborator: her artistic circle was large and stimulating. She played duets with Clara Schumann and with Frédéric Chopin; she was the inspiration for the title character of George Sand’s novel Consuelo. Her closeness with the Chopin and Sand family is delightfully visible in this drawing she made of a lanky Chopin (background, reading) and George Sand’s son Maurice (foreground, writing).

Frederic Chopin and Pauline Viardot

Drawing of Pauline Viardot and Frédéric Chopin by Maurice Sand. Courtesy of Teatro Nuovo.

Here is another perspective of the friendship: Maurice Sand drew this vignette of Chopin giving Viardot a piano lesson.

Pauline Viardot-García arranged a number of Chopin’s piano compositions as songs for voice and piano. Chopin enjoyed the arrangements, which is not surprising, considering how much his melodic style was inspired by bel canto singing, of which Viardot-García was a master. This song, “Plainte d’amour,” is Viardot-García’s arrangement of Chopin’s Mazurka No. 1 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 6, No. 1.

"Plainte d'amour," based on Chopin's Mazurka Op. 6, No. 1, arr. Pauline Viardot-García

Pauline Viardot as Orpheus

Pauline Viardot as Orpheus in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Viardot-García’s singing inspired many contemporary composers to write for her. Schumann wrote his Liederkreis, Op. 24, for her in 1840, at the beginning of her career; Brahms wrote his Alto Rhapsody for her almost thirty years later, in 1869. Giacomo Meyerbeer wrote the part of Fidès in Le prophète for Viardot-García in 1849, and it became one of her signature roles. Soon after the opera’s premiere, Meyerbeer wrote of Le prophète, “I owe a great part of the opera’s success to Viardot, who as singer and actress rose to tragic heights such as I have never seen in the theatre before” (Quoted in Laura Macy, The Grove Book of Opera Singers, 520).

Another signature role was Orpheus in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Gluck composed the role for a male castrato in 1762. When Berlioz revived the opera in 1859, Viardot-García founded the tradition of Orpheus as a mezzo soprano trouser role, which continues to this day.

Salon of Pauline Viardot

A view of Pauline Viardot’s salon (with her pipe organ, by legendary 19th-century French organbuilder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll) in Baden-Baden in 1865. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Salon Operas

Viardot-García’s artistic circle continued to flourish after she semi-retired from opera and her family settled in Baden-Baden. The Viardot home became an artistic center, with a private art gallery and a small theatre for performances by Viardot-García’s many students. Like her father, Viardot-García was a sought-after voice teacher. In 1880 she published a vocal manual based on her father’s techniques; the García method also lived on in the teaching of her brother Manuel II and her daughter Louise.

Viardot-García’s operettas, sometimes also referred to as salon operas, were scored for voices and piano. They gave her students a chance to learn their craft with appealing, pedagogically enriching repertoire. One of Viardot-Garcìa’s operas, Le dernier sorcier (The Last Sorceror, 1869), with a libretto by Turgenev, also enjoyed professional orchestrated performances in Riga, Weimar, and Karlsruhe. Today, Viardot-García’s salon operas are finding a place in the repertoire of conservatories and of professional opera companies.

The World Premiere Recording of Pauline Viardot's "Le dernier sorcier"

Vocal works comprise the bulk of Pauline Viardot-García’s compositional output. As a singer and a voice teacher, she had a special insight into writing for voice; besides which, in the mid-19th century, songs or short piano pieces were considered the proper domain of a woman who essayed to compose. Her operas, however, pushed the envelope of women’s composition. She also published a number of instrumental works, including piano pieces, chamber music, and even a military march for brass band. Her 6 morceaux for piano and violin are gracious additions to the chamber music repertory.

6 Morceaux: No. 1, "Romance" by Pauline Viardot

Pauline Viardot in 1908

Pauline Viardot in 1908. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When Pauline Viardot-García died in 1910, she left behind a legacy of teaching, a lifetime of unforgettable performances, and more than one hundred compositions, including songs, operas, choral works and instrumental works. Today, audiences are rediscovering the beauty of her compositions, and her whole family continues to influence students of singing. In 1997, Alfred Publishing released an annotated anthology of songs by Manuel García, Maria Malibran, and Pauline Viardot, edited by Patricia Adkins Chiti. The anthology is especially attuned to the needs of the budding student of bel canto. Malibran and Viardot spent their lives bringing beautiful singing to the world, and through their compositions, they continue to do so.

Pauline Viardot

Portrait of Pauline Viardot by Eugène Pluchart (c.1853). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Learn More about Pauline Viardot-García

Pauline Viardot-García on A Modern Reveal

Profile of Pauline Viardot-García from Hildegard Publishing Company

Scores by Pauline Viardot-García on the International Music Score Library Project

Christin Heitman’s catalogue of Viardot’s compositions


Briscoe, James R. Historical Anthology of Music by Women. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1987.

Emerson, Isabelle Putman. Five Centuries of Women Singers. Westport, CT: Putnam, 2005.

Fitzlyon, April. The Price of Genius: A Life of Pauline Viardot. UK: Calder Publications, 2011.

García, Manuel, Maria Malibran, and Pauline Viardot. Songs and Duets of García, Malibran and Viardot: Rediscovered Songs by Legendary Singers. Ed. Patricia Adkins Chiti. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred, 1997.

Kendall-Davies, Barbara. Life and Work of Pauline Viardot Garcia. 3 vols. UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.

Porliss, Hilary. Changing the Score: Arias, Prima Donnas, and the Authority of Performance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Macy, Laura. The Grove Book of Opera Singers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Sadie, Julie Anne and Rhian Samuel. The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994. 

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