Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Kate Dickinson Sweetser > Text of Jenny Lind: The Swedish Nightingale

A short story by Kate Dickinson Sweetser

Jenny Lind: The Swedish Nightingale

Title:     Jenny Lind: The Swedish Nightingale
Author: Kate Dickinson Sweetser [More Titles by Sweetser]

IN the City of Stockholm there is one street leading up to the Church of St. Jacob, on which in years gone by there was a constant succession of pedestrians and vehicles. In fact in 1830, it was one of the most lively streets in the city, and often a passer would stop to look up at a window where every day a little girl sat, holding a big cat decorated with a blue ribbon. To this pet the child sang constantly, sang bits of operas or popular airs which she had heard, and the childish voice was so clear and sweet and true even in very high notes, that it attracted quite a crowd of listeners, and it became a regular habit with many persons to pause for a moment and listen to the song poured out for the benefit of pussy with the blue bow!

Among those who saw the pretty picture and heard the song was the maid of a Mademoiselle Lundberg, a dancer at the Royal Opera House. She was told such an ecstatic story of the child's beautiful voice, that she became deeply interested, and having found out that the little singer's name was Jenny Lind wrote a note asking the child's mother, Fru Lind, to bring Jenny to her home that she might hear her sing.

Fru Lind acceded to the request and when she took Jenny to pay the promised visit, and the child's voice had been tried, Mademoiselle Lundberg clasped her hands in rapture, exclaiming:

"She is a genius. You must have her educated for the stage."

The words meant nothing to Jenny, but they struck terror to the heart of the mother, to whose old-fashioned notions the stage was another name for ruin. In vain the actress pleaded that it would be a sin to allow such talent to be wasted,--still Fru Lind shook her head, and the actress diplomatically argued no more, but by eager questions learned the history of Jenny's family.

Being the wife of an amiable and good-natured man who was unable to support his family, Fru Lind was obliged to keep a small school in Stockholm to eke out expenses, and as she had not time to take care of Jenny as well as teach, the child had for three years been boarded out with a church organist's family not far from the city, but had finally been brought back, to become a pupil in her mother's school, being cared for mainly by her grandmother, to whom Jenny was devotedly attached. All this Mademoiselle Lundberg learned from answers to her questions, and seeing her keen interest, the mother continued her narrative, "It was my mother who first noticed Jenny's voice," she said. "Some street musicians had been playing in front of the house and the child must have heard them and listened closely, for as soon as they were gone, she went to the piano and played and sang the air she had heard. My mother in the next room, hearing the music, thought Jenny's half sister was at the piano, and called out, 'Amalia, is that you?' Jenny, evidently fearing she had done something to be punished for, crept under the piano, where my mother found her and pulling her out, exclaimed, 'Why, child, was that you?'" Jenny said that it was, and as soon as Fru Lind came in, the grandmother gleefully told her daughter the incident, adding, "Mark my words, that child will bring you help," and the mother, struggling so hard to make ends meet, devoutly hoped that the prediction might come true.

Soon after that as her school did not pay, Fru Lind became a governess, and the grandmother went to the Widows' Home, taking Jenny with her. The child, who was too young to realise what such a step meant, was as happy as could be there; as she said afterwards, "I sang with every step I took, and with every jump my feet made," and when she was not jumping or stepping, she sat in the window singing to her big pet pussy cat. All this the mother told Mademoiselle Lundberg, who again begged that Jenny at least be taught to sing correctly, to which Fru Lind agreed, and the actress at once wrote a letter of introduction to Herr Croelius, the court Secretary, and singing master at the Royal Theatre, and gave it to Fru Lind. Off went mother and daughter to present it, but when they reached the Opera House and were about to mount its steps, Fru Lind shook her head, and turned back--she could not launch her child on any such career.

But here Jenny became insistent, for from all the conversation she had heard between her mother and the actress, she had gathered that mounting those steps would mean something new and interesting, and at last she had her way. They sought and found the studio of Croelius, and Jenny sang for him a bit from one of Winter's operas, and the teacher, deeply moved by the purity and strength of the child's voice, at once set a date for her first lesson with him.

After only a few lessons, Croelius became so proud of his pupil that he took her to sing for Count Puecke, manager of the Court Theatre, hoping that this powerful man might be so impressed with the child's voice that he would do something to push her forward quickly into public notice. One can picture the interview between Count Puecke, businesslike and abrupt, and little Jenny, then plainly dressed and awkward, far from pretty, and too bashful even to lift her eyes to meet the keen glance of the Count. Looking coldly from her to Croelius, the Count asked:

"How old is she?"

"Nine years old," answered Croelius.

"Nine!" echoed the Count. "Why, this is not a nursery. It is the king's theatre."

Then with another glance at Jenny he asked coldly, "What should we do with such an ugly creature? See what feet she has, and then her face! She will never be presentable. Certainly we can't take such a scarecrow."

Croelius, indignant at such brutality, put a protecting arm around the girl and said proudly, "If you will not take her, I, poor as I am, will myself have her educated for the stage," and turning, was about to leave the room when the Count commanded him to remain and let him hear what the child could do.

Trembling with fear of the result, Jenny sang the simplest song she knew, and when she finished the Count was silent, for the lovely quality of the voice he had just heard, had deeply moved him. Rising, he shook hands with both teacher and pupil, and as quick in his generosity as in his brusqueness, he at once announced that she was to be admitted into the theatrical school connected with the Royal Theatre, and to be placed under the special instruction of the operatic director, Herr Berg, and his assistant, the Swedish composer, Lindblad.

Small wonder that Jenny left the building in a flutter of excitement, or that Croelius was as beaming now as he had been depressed before, and he lost no time in seeing that his little pupil was placed according to the instructions of the great Count Puecke.

It was the custom of the Royal Theatre to board its pupils out, and as Jenny's mother was no longer a governess and had returned to Stockholm, the girl lived at home, together with several other pupils of the Royal Theatre, and for two years worked so hard and accomplished such wonders in the development of her voice that she became known as a musical prodigy.

During the year she entered the Royal Theatre she acted in a play called "The Polish Mine," and the next year in another, and the press spoke of her acting as showing fire and feeling far beyond her years. She also sang in concerts, in that way helping to pay for her board and clothes.

At the theatre she was taught all branches necessary to her profession, and not only did she have an exquisite voice, but whatever role she undertook was conceived with bold originality of style. Then when a golden future of triumph seemed stretching out before her, came a crushing disaster. All of a sudden her glorious voice was gone!

Whatever may have been the cause, the fact remained, and Jenny at twelve showed her fineness of character by the way she faced the cruel disappointment, and continued with her instrumental work, and with such exercises as were fitted to the remnant of voice she still possessed. Faithfully, persistently, she worked for four long years, only hoping now for smaller rewards instead of the great operatic triumph which had been her earlier ambition, trying to achieve results as conscientiously as before.

Herr Berg was supervising a grand concert to be given at the Court Theatre, and was in a dilemma. The fourth act of Robert le Diable was to be given, but all his singers refused to take the part of Alice, because it included only one solo. The Herr Direktor was distracted, but finally thought of his unlucky pupil, Jenny Lind, whose voice could be trusted in such a minor part, and calling her to his room, he offered her the part. Without demur she accepted it, and practised feverishly, but on the night of the performance she was so nervous for fear her voice would fail, that those near the stage could see her slender form tremble with fright and excitement. Perhaps the tension and the passion with which she was labouring wrought the miracle. At all events, she sang the aria of her part with such wonderful beauty and richness of tone that the audience were beside themselves with admiration. Jenny's voice had come out fuller, finer than ever! The recently despised young singer became instantly the heroine of the hour, while Herr Berg, watching behind the scenes, was spell-bound with surprise and joy.

The next day he called her to his room and offered her the role of Agatha in Weber's Der Freischutz.

Ever since Jenny first began to study and to hear operatic music, this role had been in secret her highest ambition, and one can picture her standing before the Direktor, her blue eyes flashing with excitement, her mobile face expressing a dozen varying degrees of joy while her slender girlish figure looked almost too slight for the task, as she joyfully accepted the responsibility.

At once she began rehearsing, and one day when she put forth every effort to express emotion in the way her dramatic teacher wished, the effort was met with silence.

"Am I then so incapable," she thought. Then glancing at her teacher she saw tears in the eyes of the older woman, who exclaimed:

"My child, I have nothing to teach you--do as nature tells you,"--and Jenny knew that her supreme effort had not been wasted.

It is said that she studied the part of Agatha with all the intensity of her enthusiastic nature and at the last rehearsal sang with such intense feeling and fire that the orchestra, to a man, laid down their instruments and applauded loudly. The next day, before the performance, she was very nervous and worried, but the moment she appeared on the stage every bit of apprehension vanished, and as Fredrika Bremer said, "She was fresh, bright and serene as a morning in May, peculiarly graceful and lovely in her whole appearance. She seemed to move, speak and sing without effort or art. Her singing was distinguished especially by its purity and the power of soul which seemed to swell in her tones." Jenny herself said afterwards, "I got up that morning one creature. I went to bed another creature. I had found my power."

During her entire after life she kept that anniversary, the seventh of March, in grateful remembrance of her triumph, as a sort of second birthday.

For the next year and a half she worked indefatigably, and her success as an operatic singer seemed assured; she became the star of the Stockholm opera, as well as the most popular singer in Sweden, and was called the "Swedish Nightingale."

After singing without rest for months, she was able to take a short holiday in the summer of 1839, and Fru Lind, who accompanied her, wrote back to her husband, "Our Jenny recruits herself daily, now in the hay-stacks, now on the sea, or in the swing, in perfect tranquillity, while the town people are said to be longing for her concert, and greatly wondering when it will come off. Once or twice she has been singing the divine air of Isabella from Robert le Diable. Nearly everybody was crying. One lady actually went into hysterics from sheer rapture. Yes, she captivates all, all! It is a great happiness to be a mother under such conditions!"

Poor Fru Lind was at last receiving her compensation for the hardships of her life!

But Jenny's trials were not yet over. Her voice, though pure and clear, was wanting in flexibility, and she could not easily hold a tone or sing even a slight cadence. These defects she worked constantly to overcome, but saw that she was not thrilling her audiences as before, and yet she was conscious of possessing a God-given power of which she must make the most. She felt sure that she needed teaching of a kind not to be gained in Sweden. In Paris was Manuel Garcia, the greatest singing teacher in the world, and to him she felt she must now go. But this could only be achieved by her own effort, as the trip and the teaching would necessitate spending a large sum of money.

At once, before her star had grown any less dim, the plucky girl persuaded her father to go with her on a concert tour of cities in Norway and Sweden. By this she earned the necessary amount, but the trip was very exhausting, including as it did, so much travelling, in all kinds of weather, and after singing twenty-three times in Lucia, fourteen times in Robert le Diable, nine times in Freischutz, seven times in Norma, not to mention other plays and concerts, also appearing for the four hundred and forty-seventh time at the Royal Theatre, where she had first played in the Polish Mine, as a child of ten, she was pretty well tired out. Two weeks later, however, she went to Paris and called on the great singing teacher, Signor Garcia. The opera she sang was Lucia, and she broke down before she was half way through the part, to her intense mortification. The great teacher, approaching the trembling girl, put a hand on her shoulder, saying brusquely, "It would be useless to teach you, Mademoiselle. You have no voice left. You are worn out. I advise you not to sing a note for six months. At the end of that time come to me and I will see what I can do for you."

Poor Jenny! The words were a death knell to her, and she said afterwards that what she suffered in that moment was beyond all the other agony of her life.

But it was not like her to give way even under such a blow as this. Leaving the great teacher she went to a quiet spot and spent the six months of enforced rest studying French, and at the end of the time went back to Garcia, who to her unspeakable relief said at once, "It is better, far better! I have now something to work on. I will give you two lessons a week!"

In rapture Jenny flew home that day, and in the following months practised scales and exercises, four hours daily, gaining a great deal from Garcia's method, but always conscious that her real power came from another source, as she said years later, "The greater part of what I can do in my art, I have myself acquired by incredible labour, in spite of astonishing difficulties. By Garcia alone have I been taught some few important things. God had so plainly written within me what I had to study; my ideal was and is so high that I could find no mortal who could in the least degree satisfy my demands. Therefore I sing after no one's methods, only as far as I am able, after that of the birds, for their Master was the only one who came up to my demands for truth, clearness, and expression."

After a year under Garcia's tuition, Jenny went back to the Stockholm Theatre, where she met Myerbeer, the composer, who at once declared her voice was "one of the finest pearls in the world's chaplet of song," and immediately arranged to hear her under conditions which would put her voice to a severe test. He arranged a full orchestral rehearsal and Jenny sang in the salon of the Grand Opera, the three great scenes from Robert le Diable, Norma and Der Freischutz so successfully that the young singer returned to her native city a new creature, at last assured of her genius and of her ability to use it rightly, and thrilled with joy at the knowledge of her power.

At her first appearance in Robert le Diable, the welcome was almost a frenzy of enthusiasm as her clear rich voice rang out. At once she received an offer from a Danish manager, but dreaded to accept it, saying, "Everybody in my native land is so kind. I fear if I made my appearance in Copenhagen, I should be hissed. I dare not venture it."

Her objection, however, was overruled. She went to Copenhagen and sang Alice in Robert le Diable so marvellously that the whole city was in a state of rapture, and it is said the youthful, fresh voice forced itself into every heart. At a later concert she sang Swedish songs and in her manner of singing them there was something so peculiar, so bewitching that the audience were swayed by intense emotion, the young singer was at once so feminine and so great a genius. The Danish students for the first time in their history, gave a serenade in her honour, torches blazed around the villa where the serenade was sung, and Jenny responded to it by singing some of her Swedish songs, for which she was famous, then, overcome with emotion, she hurried to a dark room where no one could see the tears with which her eyes were filled, and exclaimed modestly, "Yes, yes, I will exert myself. I will endeavour. I will be better qualified than I now am when I again come to Copenhagen!"

The wonderful courage and perseverance of Jenny's girlhood in the face of almost insuperable obstacles was now rewarded. She was the great artist of Sweden, never again to be taken from the pedestal on which she was placed by an adoring public, both for her wonderful singing and for her lovely character.

Once on a disengaged night, she gave a benefit performance for unfortunate children, and when informed of the large sum raised by it, exclaimed, "How beautiful that I can sing so!" She felt that both the voice and the money which poured in now in a golden flood, were God-given responsibilities which she assumed with all the earnestness of her sweet, religious nature, and her first pleasure was to buy a little home in the country for her mother and father.

As we leave her on the threshold of mature womanhood, serene in her poise of body and spirit, with a noble purpose and a wonderful gift, we can but feel that Jenny Lind, the girl, was responsible for the marvellous achievements of the great artist of later years, who believed as she said, that "to develop every talent, however small, and use it to the fullest extent possible, is the duty of every human being. Indolence makes thousands of mediocre lives."

The verses written of her by Topelius of Finland sum up the feeling of those who knew her in her girlhood:

"I saw thee once, so young and fair
In thy sweet spring-tide, long ago,
A myrtle wreath was in thy hair
And at thy breast a rose did blow.

"Poor was thy purse, yet gold thy gift,
All music's golden boons were thine,
And yet, through all the wealth of art
It was thy soul which sang to mine.

"Yea, sang as no one else has sung
So subtly skilled, so simply good,
So brilliant! yet as pure and true
As birds that warble in the wood."

[The end]
Kate Dickinson Sweetser's short story: Jenny Lind: The Swedish Nightingale