Today is the birthday (1820) of Johanna Maria Lind, better known as Jenny Lind, a Swedish opera singer, often known as the “Swedish Nightingale.” She was one of the most highly regarded singers of the 19th century, performing in soprano roles in opera in Sweden and across Europe, and undertaking an extraordinarily popular concert tour of North America beginning in 1850. She was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music from 1840. For me one of the most interesting things about Lind is that it seems clear that she was not necessarily the most accomplished of singers, and there were certainly better sopranos than her in her day (now forgotten). This is not to say that she was mediocre by any means. She had great singing qualities. But she had some serious flaws which critics of the day noted. However, what she did have was great PR, especially when she was under contract to P.T. Barnum in North America. Maybe she is the first singing superstar to have had her reputation created by publicity? Unfortunately there are no recordings of her voice so it is now impossible to tell. We must rely on contemporary critics – not the safest of bets – whose statements do, to me at least, seem to the point and balanced.
Lind was born in Klara, in central Stockholm, the illegitimate daughter of Niclas Jonas Lind (1798–1858), a bookkeeper, and Anne-Marie Fellborg (1793–1856), a schoolteacher. Lind’s mother had divorced her first husband for adultery but, for religious reasons, refused to remarry until after his death in 1834. Her parents married when she was fourteen.
Lind’s mother ran a day school for girls out of her home. When Lind was about nine years old, her singing was overheard by the maid of Mademoiselle Lundberg, the principal dancer at the Royal Swedish Opera. The maid, astounded by Lind’s extraordinary voice, returned the next day with Lundberg, who arranged an audition and helped her gain admission to the acting school of the Royal Dramatic Theatre, where she studied with Karl Magnus Craelius, the singing master at the theatre.
Lind began to sing on stage when she was ten. She had a vocal crisis at the age of 12 and had to stop singing for a time, but recovered. Her first great role was Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischütz in 1838 at the Royal Swedish Opera. At age 20 she was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music and court singer to the King of Sweden and Norway. Her voice became seriously damaged by overuse and untrained singing technique, but her career was saved by the singing teacher Manuel García, with whom she studied in Paris from 1841 to 1843. So damaged was her voice that he insisted that she should not sing at all for three months, to allow her vocal cords to recover, before he started to teach her a secure vocal technique.
After Lind had been with García for a year, the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, an early and faithful admirer of her talent, arranged an audition for her at the Opéra in Paris, but she was rejected. The biographer Francis Rogers concludes that Lind strongly resented the rebuff; when she became an international star, she always refused invitations to sing at the Paris Opéra. Lind returned to the Royal Swedish Opera, greatly improved as a singer by García’s training. She toured Denmark where, in 1843, Hans Christian Andersen met and fell in love with her. Although the two became good friends, she did not reciprocate his romantic feelings. She is believed to have inspired three of his fairy tales: “Beneath the Pillar”, “The Angel” and “The Nightingale.” He wrote, “No book or personality whatever has exerted a more ennobling influence on me, as a poet, than Jenny Lind. For me she opened the sanctuary of art.” The biographer Carol Rosen believes that after Lind rejected Andersen as a suitor, he portrayed her as The Snow Queen with a heart of ice. Curiously, music critics often described her singing as cold.
In December 1844, through Meyerbeer’s influence, Lind was engaged to sing the title role in Bellini’s opera Norma in Berlin. This led to more engagements in opera houses throughout Germany and Austria, although such was her success in Berlin that she continued there for four months before leaving for other cities. Among her admirers were Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz and, most importantly for her, Felix Mendelssohn. Ignaz Moscheles wrote: “Jenny Lind has fairly enchanted me … her song with two concertante flutes is perhaps the most incredible feat in the way of bravura singing that can possibly be heard.” This piece, from Meyerbeer’s Ein Feldlager in Schlesien (The Camp of Silesia, 1844; a role written for Lind but not premiered by her) became one of the songs most associated with Lind, and she was called on to sing it wherever she performed in concert. Her operatic repertoire consisted of the title roles in Lucia di Lammermoor, Maria di Rohan, Norma, La sonnambula and La vestale, as well as Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, Adina in L’elisir d’amore and Alice in Robert le diable. About this time she became known as “the Swedish Nightingale.” In December 1845, the day after her debut at the Leipzig Gewandhaus under the baton of Mendelssohn, she sang without fee for a charity concert in aid of the Orchestra Widows’ Fund. Her devotion and generosity to charitable causes remained a key aspect of her career and greatly enhanced her international popularity even among the unmusical.
At the Royal Swedish Opera, Lind had been friends with the tenor Julius Günther. They sang together both in opera and on the concert stage, becoming romantically linked by 1844. Their schedules separated them, however, as Günther remained in Stockholm and then became a student of García’s in Paris in 1846–1847. Reunited after this in Sweden, according to Lind’s 1891 Memoir, they became engaged to marry in the spring of 1848 just before Lind returned to England. However, the two broke off the engagement in October of the same year.
After a successful season in Vienna, where she was mobbed by admirers and feted by the Imperial Family, Lind travelled to London in 1847, where her first performance, at Her Majesty’s Theatre on 4 May, was attended by Queen Victoria. The Times wrote the next day, “We have had frequent experience of the excitement appertaining to “first nights”, but we may safely say, and our opinion will be backed by several hundreds of Her Majesty’s subjects, that we never witnessed such a scene of enthusiasm as that displayed last night on the occasion of Mademoiselle Jenny Lind’s début as Alice in an Italian version of Robert le Diable.”
During her two years on the operatic stage in London, Lind appeared in most of the standard opera repertory. Early in 1849, still in her twenties, Lind announced her permanent retirement from opera. Her last opera performance was on 10 May 1849 in Robert le diable; Queen Victoria and other members of the Royal Family were present. Lind’s biographer Francis Rogers has written, “The reasons for her early retirement have been much discussed for nearly a century, but remain today a matter of mystery. Many possible explanations have been advanced, but not one of them has been verified.”
In London, Lind’s close friendship with Mendelssohn continued. There has been strong speculation that their relationship was more than friendship. Papers confirming this were alleged to exist, although their contents had not been made public. However, in 2013 George Biddlecombe confirmed in the Journal of the Royal Musical Association that “The Committee of the Mendelssohn Scholarship Foundation possesses material indicating that Mendelssohn wrote passionate love letters to Jenny Lind entreating her to join him in an adulterous relationship and threatening suicide as a means of exerting pressure upon her, and that these letters were destroyed on being discovered after her death.”
Mendelssohn was present at Lind’s London debut, and his friend, the critic H. F. Chorley, who was with him, wrote “I see as I write the smile with which Mendelssohn, whose enjoyment of Mdlle. Lind’s talent was unlimited, turned round and looked at me, as if a load of anxiety had been taken off his mind. His attachment to Mlle. Lind’s genius as a singer was unbounded, as was his desire for her success.” Mendelssohn worked with Lind on many occasions and wrote the beginnings of an opera, Lorelei, for her, based on the legend of the Lorelei Rhine maidens; the opera was unfinished at his death. He included a high F sharp in his oratorio Elijah (“Hear Ye Israel”) with Lind’s voice in mind, and even though this was technically outside of her range.
In July 1847, Lind starred in the world première of Verdi’s opera I masnadieri at Her Majesty’s, under the baton of the composer. Four months later, she was devastated by the premature death of Mendelssohn in November 1847. She did not at first feel able to sing the soprano part in Elijah, which he had written for her. She finally did so at a performance in London’s Exeter Hall in late 1848, which raised £1,000 to fund a musical scholarship as a memorial to him; it was her first appearance in oratorio. The original intention had been to found a school of music in Mendelssohn’s name in Leipzig, but there was not enough support for that in Leipzig, and with the help of Sir George Smart, Julius Benedict and others, Lind eventually raised enough money to fund a scholarship “to receive pupils of all nations and promote their musical training.” The first recipient of the Mendelssohn Scholarship was the 14-year-old Arthur Sullivan, whom Lind encouraged in his career.
In 1849, Lind was approached by the American showman P.T. Barnum with a proposal to tour throughout the United States for more than a year. Realizing that this would yield large sums for her favored charities, particularly the endowment of free schools in her native Sweden, Lind agreed. Her financial demands were stringent, but Barnum met them, and in 1850 they reached agreement.
Together with a supporting baritone, Giovanni Belletti, and her London colleague Julius Benedict as pianist, arranger and conductor, Lind sailed to America in September 1850. Barnum’s advance publicity made her a celebrity even before she arrived in the U.S., and she received a wild reception on arriving in New York. Tickets for some of her concerts were in such demand that Barnum sold them by auction. The enthusiasm of the public was so strong that the U.S. press coined the term “Lind mania.”
After New York, Lind’s party toured the east coast of the U.S., with continued success, and later took in Cuba, the southern states of the U.S., and Canada. By early 1851, Lind had become uncomfortable with Barnum’s relentless marketing of the tour, and she invoked a contractual right to sever her ties with him; they parted amicably. She continued the tour for nearly a year, under her own management, until May 1852, and donated all her earnings to charity.
In July 1851, the 20-year-old poet Emily Dickinson gave an account of a Lind concert:
…how bouquets fell in showers, and the roof was rent with applause – how it thundered outside, and inside with the thunder of God and of men – judge ye which was the loudest; how we all loved Jennie Lind, but not accustomed oft to her manner of singing didn’t fancy that so well as we did her. No doubt it was very fine, but take some notes from her Echo, the bird sounds from the Bird Song, and some of her curious trills, and I’d rather have a Yankee. Herself and not her music was what we seemed to love – she has an air of exile in her mild blue eyes, and a something sweet and touching in her native accent which charms her many friends. … as she sang she grew so earnest she seemed half lost in song. …
Benedict left the party in 1851 to return to England, and Lind invited Otto Goldschmidt to replace him as pianist and conductor. Lind and Goldschmidt were married on February 5, 1852, near the end of the tour, in Boston. She took the name “Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt” both privately and professionally.
Lind and Goldschmidt returned to Europe together in May 1852. They lived first in Dresden, Germany, and, from 1855, in England for the rest of their lives. They had three children: Otto, born September 1853 in Germany, Jenny, born March 1857 in England, and Ernest, born January 1861 in England.
Although she refused all requests to appear in opera after her return to Europe, Lind continued to perform in the concert hall. In 1856, at the invitation of the Philharmonic Society conducted by William Sterndale Bennett she sang the chief soprano part in the first English performance of the cantata Paradise and the Peri by Robert Schumann. In 1866, she gave a concert with Arthur Sullivan at St James’s Hall. The Times reported, “there is magic still in that voice … the most perfect singing – perfect alike in expression and in vocalization. … Nothing more engaging, nothing more earnest, nothing more dramatic can be imagined.” At Düsseldorf in January 1870, she sang in Ruth, an oratorio composed by her husband. When Goldschmidt formed the Bach Choir in 1875, Lind trained the soprano choristers for the first English performance of Bach’s B minor Mass, in April 1876, and performed in the mass. Her concerts decreased in frequency until she retired from singing in 1883.
From 1879–1887 Lind worked with Frederick Niecks on his biography of Chopin. In 1882, she was appointed professor of singing at the newly founded Royal College of Music. She believed in an all-round musical training for her pupils, insisting that, in addition to their vocal studies, they were instructed in solfège, piano, harmony, diction, deportment and at least one foreign language.
She lived her final years at Wynd’s Point, Herefordshire, on the Malvern Hills near the British Camp. Her last public appearance was at a charity concert at Royal Malvern Spa in 1883. She died, aged 67, at Wynd’s Point on 2 November 1887 and was buried in the Great Malvern Cemetery to the music of Chopin’s Funeral March.
There is a once popular tune, Jenny Lind Polka (composed by Anton Wallerstein c. 1850), the first two parts of which are used for morris dancing. On a morris tour of the Malverns several years ago, my friends and I danced the Jenny Lind at her grave. Here’s the tune (the vid does go on a bit). Sorry, the photos of the dancing are on my HD in New York.
There are no recordings of Lind’s voice. She is believed to have made an early phonograph recording for Thomas Edison, but in the words of the critic Philip L. Miller, “Even had the fabled Edison cylinder survived, it would have been too primitive, and she too long retired, to tell us much.” The biographer Francis Rogers concludes that although Lind was much admired by Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, the Schumanns, Berlioz and others, “In voice and in dramatic talent she was undoubtedly inferior to her predecessors, Malibran and Pasta, and to her contemporaries, Sontag and Grisi.” He notes that because of her expert promoters, including Barnum, “almost all that was written about her was undoubtedly biased by an almost overwhelming propaganda in her favor, bought and paid for.” Rogers says of Mendelssohn and Lind’s other admirers, that their tastes were “essentially Teutonic” and, except for Meyerbeer, they were not expert in Italian opera, Lind’s early specialty. He quotes a critic of the New York Herald, who noted “little deficiencies in execution, in ascending the scale, which even enthusiasm cannot deprive of their sharpness.” The American press agreed that Lind’s presentation was more typical of Germanic “cold, untouching, icy purity of tone and style,” rather than the passionate expression characteristic of Italian opera of her time, and the Herald wrote that her style was “suited to please the people of our cold climate. She will have triumphs here that would never attend her progress through France or Italy.”
The critic H. F. Chorley, who admired Lind, described her voice as having “two octaves in compass – from D to D – having a higher possible note or two, available on rare occasions; and that the lower half of the register and the upper one were of two distinct qualities. The former was not strong – veiled, if not husky; and apt to be out of tune. The latter was rich, brilliant and powerful – finest in its highest portions.” Chorley praised her breath management, her use of pianissimo, her taste in ornament and her intelligent use of technique to conceal the differences between her upper and lower registers. He thought her “execution was great” and that she was a “skilled and careful musician”, but felt that “many of her effects on the stage appeared overcalculated” and that singing in foreign languages impeded her ability to give expression to the text. He felt, however, that her concert singing was more admirable than her operatic performances, although he praised some of her roles. Chorley judged her finest work to be in the German repertoire, citing Mozart, Haydn and Mendelssohn’s Elijah as best suited to her. Miller concluded that although connoisseurs of the voice preferred other singers, her wider appeal to the public at large was not merely a legend created by Barnum, but was a mixture of “a uniquely pure (some called it celestial) quality in her voice, consistent with her well-known generosity and charity.”
In the culinary field, a new variety of potato with blue ‘eyes’ was named for her, as was a melon (the association here was not recorded) a cake, and her famous soup with sago and eggs – which “have always been deemed very beneficial to the chest and throat.” Singer’s soup!
Here’s the soup from A Cyclopaedia of Domestic Economy” (1857)
JENNY LIND’S SOUP.
Make about three quarts of stock, which strain through a fine sieve into a middle-size stewpan; set it to boil; add to it three ounces of sago; boil gently twenty minutes; skim; just previous to serving break four fresh eggs, and place the yolk, entirely free from the white, into a basin, beat them well with a spoon; add to it a gill of cream; take the pan from the fire, pour in the yolks, stir quickly for one minute, serve immediately; do not let it boil, or it will curdle, and would not be fit to be partaken of. The stock being previously seasoned, it only requires the addition of half a teaspoonful of sugar, a little more salt, pepper, nutmeg; also thyme, parsley, and bay-leaf will agreeably vary the flavor without interfering with the quality.
The cake is a bit more of an enigma because there seems to be a number of recipes available. I gather, however, that the original was a plain cake made in three layers. Two of the layers (top and bottom) are plain, and the middle one is flavored with a mix of sweet spices such as cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon and contains raisins. The layers are held together with a puree of brandied peaches.