The Swedish Nightingale

3D cover image of Memoir of Madame Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt 1820–1851 Volume 1 by Henry Scott Holland and William Smith RockstroWe have recently reissued a two-volume biography of Jenny Lind (1820–87), published in 1891, and (somewhat to my surprise), not apparently superseded, in English at any rate, though there were two twentieth-century biographies, one published in the UK and one in the USA, in 1956 and 1962 respectively.

The authors of ‘our’ biography were themselves both interesting people. Henry Scott Holland (1847–1918), priest and theologian, wrote the words of one of the great Victorian hymns, ‘Judge eternal, throned in splendour’ (several possible tunes, of which ‘Rhuddlan’, by the Welsh composer John Evans is (in my opinion) the best). He also preached a sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral, of which he was a canon, in May 1910, part of which has become a favourite reading at Anglican funerals – ‘Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room …’

Scott Holland knew Jenny Lind as a friend; William S. Rockstro (1823–95), composer, music critic and teacher, had followed her career almost since her debut, and was a fellow student in Leipzig of Otto Goldschmidt, who was frequently her accompanist in recitals, and later became her husband (and inter alia was the founder of the Bach Choir). The collaborators went to great lengths to find ‘primary material’ for the biography, copying letters lent by her friends (including several Crowned Heads of Europe) and quoting extensively from reviews of her performances. The factual content of the book cannot therefore be impugned, and it is a wonderful read: the hagiographic style can grate a little, but it does seem to be the case that no-one (with the possible exception of Mr Bunn of the Covent Garden Theatre) ever had a bad word to say about Lind, either as an artist or as a human being.

The only frustration is that the work stops abruptly at the point where (aged only thirty-one), she ceased to perform in opera, restricting her appearances to concert recitals and oratorios, many of which were designed to raise funds for the large numbers of charities with which she actively involved herself. Her triumphant subsequent progress around the concert halls of Europe and America, her influence as a teacher, and her work for music academies, including the Royal College of Music, and music students, are hinted at, but the last thirty-seven years of her life are unexplored – which makes it all the more extraordinary that there seems to have been no major biography for over a century. Let me know if you know of one!

Lind’s voice was of course never recorded, so that we have to imagine the silver purity of tone, the almost unbelievable breath control, the ability to sing a high A or even C pianissimo. But even if we did have recordings, we would still miss the other feature of her performances which brought her universal praise and adulation – her ability to live the role. She was acclaimed for her musicality in Bellini’s Norma, but not all critics agreed with her interpretation – they were used to the melodramatic style of Giuditta Pasta, who had created the role, and whose Norma was apparently demonic in her jealous fury – think of that very bizarre film with Callas as Medea? Lind portrayed a human being, and the critics failed to get it.

Her sensational Swedish debut was as Agathe in Der Freischutz, but it was as the vulnerable Amina in La Somnambula, the sprightly Marie in La Fille du Regiment and the tragic Lucia de Lammermoor that Lind sprang to her unrivalled European fame – though what would one not give to have heard her as Susanna, Donna Anna or Pamina, rather than all this overblown Donizetti/Bellini/Meyerbeer stuff? However, she hated the theatre – the intrigues, the offstage melodramas, the make-up – and from the time of her earliest successes she looked forward to the day when she would be financially secure enough to ‘retire’ and devote herself to non-operatic music. Financial security included the capacity to donate money to charities – especially those involving children and struggling musicians. When still a student herself she was sending money back from Germany to a sick artist she knew in Sweden, and later in her career she would take no fee herself, and often persuade her fellow performers to waive or reduce theirs too.

Pop psychology would put this self-effacement and generosity down to a difficult childhood, and it might even be right. She was illegitimate: her mother had divorced her adulterous husband some years before Jenny’s birth, but refused to marry her father, the feckless and frequently absent Niclas Lind, until after her ex-husband’s death when Jenny was fourteen. Maintaining respectability and making a living might explain why Jenny’s mother behaved so coldly towards her. The story given here is that when the nine-year-old girl’s amazing voice was first noticed – she was singing to her pet cat when the maid to the principal dancer at the Royal Swedish Opera overheard her – her mother had no qualms at all in handing her over to the guardianship of the Opera Theatre, which had a training school for talented children.

Jenny made her debut as an actress at the age of ten, and triumphed as Agathe aged seventeen, but her career was nearly ruined before it had begun by inadequate vocal training and overwork. She was saved by the extraordinary singer and teacher Manuel Garcia (the brother of Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot), who imposed two months of complete silence on her, and then trained her rigorously for ten months, leaving her with a restored voice and an incomparable technique, which led Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn among many others to write music specifically for her.

Lind was torn between the need to perform – she believed that her voice was a gift of God which she was morally compelled to use – and her intense dislike of the fuss, the lionizing, and the sense of being public property which resulted inevitably from her fame. She tried to keep out of the public eye as far as possible, and the sobriety of her private life and the diligence with which she pursued her charitable objectives brought her at first the admiration and then the friendship of many people for whom ‘the stage’ and its performers were beyond the pale of polite society.

For example, on her first tour of England, she visited Norwich, and was invited to stay by the bishop – who, with his family, was enchanted by her modest, pious and unassuming demeanour. She sang on many occasions for Queen Victoria (the queen’s singing teacher, Luigi Lablache, performed with her very frequently in both operas and recitals), and kings, queens and other highnesses in Germany queued up to make much of her. (The authors’ delight at their gracious condescension is one of the more irritating aspects of the book.)

I knew that Lind had lived near Malvern for many years in her old age (she and her husband are buried in the cemetery at Great Malvern, off the Madresfield Road). I hadn’t realized, however, that her house is just below British Camp, one of the most beautiful spots anywhere in England (and a stone or so’s throw from the estimable Malvern Hills hotel), with the most wonderful view across Herefordshire into Wales – a secluded house surrounded by a garden, and the fulfillment of her dream of a retired and quiet life.


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12 Responses to The Swedish Nightingale

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  4. The above biographical summary of Jenny Lind is inaccurate. New research reveals a different story:

  5. Thanks for this useful link. Of course an almost contemporary biography, written within the constraints of its period, is bound to be inaccurate to some extent. I am delighted to hear that research is progressing and that a modern biography will result from it!

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