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An essay by George William Curtis

Jenny Lind

Title:     Jenny Lind
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

It is many years ago that the Easy Chair, making the grand tour, was in Dresden, and saw in the newspaper that Jenny Lind, then in the first fulness of her fame, would sing for four nights in Berlin. It was in the autumn, and loitering along the Elbe and through the Saxon Switzerland was a very fascinating prospect. But the chance of hearing the Swedish Nightingale was more alluring than the Bastei and the lovely view from Konigstein, and at once the order of travel was interrupted, and the Easy Chair arrived eagerly in Berlin.

The Berlin of those days was still a city in which the student could live economically, and hear the lectures of great teachers upon the most reasonable terms. But the sole interest of the moment was the Northern singer, and upon reaching the hotel and making prompt inquiry, the Easy Chair learned that chairs for the Lind representations could be secured only at prices which were wholly unprecedented in the staid Hohenzollern capital. The exigency of the case, however, compelled the payment, and the Easy Chair devoted eighteen thaler, or nearly as many American dollars, to obtaining a seat to hear Jenny Lind for the first time. Never for such a sum was bought so rich a treasure of delightful and unfading recollections, always cheering and inspiring--an unwasting music which has murmured and echoed through a life.

The scene was the Royal Opera-house. The audience was the finest society of the court; and even then the musical taste of Berlin, as if forecasting Wagner, used to sneer loftily at that of Vienna, where Flotow was about to produce "Martha," as a taste for _tanzmusik_. The opera was the "Sonnambula," and after the pretty opening choruses and dances, Amina came tripping to the front through the clustering villagers.

She was an ideal peasant maiden, blooming and blithe and fair, of an indefinable simplicity and purity; the genuine peasant of the poetic world, not a fine lady of Marie Antoinette's Petit Trianon playing at rustic artlessness. The voice and the singing were but the natural expression of that charming maidenhood. The full volume, the touching sweetness of tone, the exquisite warble, the amazing skill and the marvellous execution, with the perfect ease and repose of consummate art, and the essential womanliness of the whole impression, were indisputable and supreme. To a person sensitive to music and of a certain ardor of temperament there could be no higher pleasure of the kind. Every such person who heard Jenny Lind in her prime, from 1847 to 1852, whether in opera or concert, can recall no greater delight and satisfaction.

Other famous singers charmed that happy time. But Jenny Lind, rivalling their art, went beyond them all in touching the heart with her personality. Certainly no public singer was ever more invested with a halo of domestic purity. When she stood with her hands quietly crossed before her and tranquilly sang "I know that my Redeemer liveth," the lofty fervor of the tone, the rapt exaltation of the woman, with the splendor of the vocalization, made the hearing an event, and left a memory as of a sublime religious function. This explains Jenny Lind's peculiar hold upon the mass of her audiences in this country, who were honest, sober, industrious, moral American men and women, to most of whom the opera was virtually an unknown, if not a forbidden, delight. Malibran had sung here in the freshness of her voice and charm; Caradori-Allan, Cinti-Damoreau, Alboni, Parepa, and other delightful singers followed her. Grisi came, too, but in her decline. Still others have ruled their hour. But in the general memory of the country Jenny Lind remains unequalled. There was the unquestionable quality in her song which made Mendelssohn say that such a musical genius appears but once in a century.

It was a pleasant little New York to which she came, but it thought itself a very important city. Fanny Ellsler had bewitched the town a few years before; and some graybeards and baldheads, now tottering in the sun upon Broadway, but then the golden youth of Manhattan, took the horses from the Bayadere's carriage and drew her in triumph to her hotel. Ole Bull, also, had come conquering out of the North like a young Viking, charming and subduing, and Vieuxtemps came also, disputing the palm. The town took sides. The virtuosi applauded Vieuxtemps as a true artist, and shrugged at Ole Bull as an eccentric player. If you whispered "Paganini?" they silently shrugged the more. Still the young Viking fascinated young and old. He played like the Pied Piper, and the entranced country danced after. But when Jenny Lind came, the welcome to the singer as yet unheard was more prodigious than that offered to any other European visitor except Dickens. It was managed, of course, by Barnum. It was advertising. But that was only until she sang. After that first evening at Castle Garden the delight advertised itself.

In this day, Wagner _consule_, of the eclipse of Italian opera, the programme of a Lind concert will perhaps win a glance of curiosity even from the lovers of "Tristan und Isolde," who follow with reverence in the parquette the mighty score of the trilogy upon the stage. Here, for instance, is the programme of a charitable concert of Jenny Lind's in Boston on Thursday evening, the both of October, 1850, just a month after her first concert in the country at Castle Garden in New York on the 11th of September. The programme is a pamphlet opening with four marvellous wood-cut likenesses of Jenny Lind, Jules Benedict, her conductor; Signor Belletti, the barytone, and Mr. Barnum. The words or each song in the original and in translation are printed upon separate pages, and the whole concludes with sketches of the lives of Jenny Lind, Signer Benedict, Signor Belletti--and Mr. Barnum. The selection of music comprises Beethoven's overture to "Egmont;" an air from the "Elijah," first time in America, sung by Jenny Lind; "Non piu andrai," from Mozart's "Nozze di Figaro," by Signor Belletti; piano solo, Mendelssohn's "Songs without Words," by Signor Benedict; and, for the first time in America also, "Und ob die Wolke," from "Der Freischutz," by Jenny Lind. This was the first part. The second part began with Reissiger's overture, "Die Felsenmuhle;" Signor Belletti then sang the "Piff Paff," from Meyerbeer's "Huguenots;" Jenny Lind followed with the "Come per me sereno," from the "Sonnambula," for the first time in America; then Belletti with the "Miei rampolli," from Rossini's "Cenerentola;" and the concert ended with the "Dalecarlian Melody" and the "Mountaineer's Song," both for the first time, by Jenny Lind.

It would be still possible even for the devoutest Wagnerian disciple to hear such a concert, perhaps, without leaving the hall in indignation, perhaps even without a protest. All the concerts were of uniform excellence, and the Easy Chair is a competent witness, at least so far as attendance is concerned, for it heard all of the Lind concerts in New York except the first. During the second season an unknown name appeared one evening upon the bill, which announced that Mr. Otto Goldschmidt, a young and unknown pianist, would play for the first time in this country. Tripler Hall, opposite Bond Street upon Broadway, was crowded as usual, and when Jenny Lind had withdrawn after singing one of her "numbers," a slight, dark-haired youth came upon the stage and seated himself at the piano. He was courteously greeted, and just as he was about to begin, the door opened quietly at the back of the stage, and Jenny Lind stood in full view of the audience tranquilly to listen. At a happy point in the performance she clapped heartily, and the whole house, following its lovely leader, burst into a storm of applause. The young man bowed to the audience and to "Miss Lind," and, as he ended, with more hand-clapping and a bright and kindly smile Jenny Lind vanished, having secured the success of Mr. Otto Goldschmidt. It was a pretty scene. Perhaps the _prima donna assoluta_ recalled the famous brava-a-a-a of Lablache on her first evening at her Majesty's Opera-house in London, which satisfied England that she was a great singer, and confirmed her career. To the audience her friendly interest seemed the impulse of her kindly heart for a young neophyte in this profession. To Mr. Otto Goldschmidt--!

Ole Bull returned to the country before Jenny Lind left it, and one evening, when she was staying at the Stevens House, in Broadway by the Bowling Green, she gave a dinner, and Ole Bull was among the guests. After dinner he seated himself at the piano, and running over the keys, struck into some wild minor chords, and began to sing Norwegian songs. They were of a singular melancholy, but very beautiful, and the company listened intently. Jenny Lind especially sat rapt in the music, until, after one of the songs, she rose quietly, and moving steadily across the floor as if carrying a jar of water upon her head and fearing to spill a drop, she pushed Ole Bull from his chair, and seating herself in his place at the piano, reproduced the entire song with exquisite pathos.

Indeed, it was in these characteristic Northern songs, full of strange and romantic tenderness, and suggestive of solitary seas and wide, lonely horizons, of awful mountain heights and secluded valleys of sober and sequestered life, that her voice seemed most extraordinary and her skill most marvellous. Romantic singing, picturesque, mournful, weird, could go no further. She was the spirit of the North singing its hymn, and the audience sat enchanted under the melodious spell. A veteran, as he recalls those days, might well suspect that he is still enthralled by the magician's wand of youth, and that it is not fact, but only its rosy exaggeration, which he describes. But the contemporary records of that astonishing career remain, and they confirm his story. The prices paid for tickets, the enormous receipts, and the generous gifts in charity of Jenny Lind are not fables. Yet the glamour of youth has its part in all recollection of the days of splendor in the flower. Once when the Easy Chair was extolling the melodious Swede to a senior, the hearer listened patiently, with a remote look in his eyes, and replied at last, musingly, "Yes, but you should have heard Malibran."

The series of American concerts which began on the 11th of September, 1850, at Castle Garden ended at the same place on the 24th of May, 1852. The vast space was not well suited for singing, but the magnificent voice filled it completely, and in the fascinated silence of the immense throng every exquisite note of the singer was heard. She sang with evident feeling, and with responsive tenderness the audience listened. Every time that she appeared she carried a fresh bouquet, the sight of which gladdened some ardent young heart. But when at last she came forward to sing the farewell to America, for which Goldschmidt had composed the music, she bore in her hand a bouquet of white rose-buds, with a Maltese cross of deep carnations in the centre. This she held while for the last time in public she sang in America; and the young traveller who, five years before, had turned aside at Dresden to hear Jenny Lind in Berlin, alone in all that great audience at Castle Garden knew who had sent those flowers.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Jenny Lind