The legacy of the García family
Manuel del Pópulo Vicente García was born in Seville in 1775. His origins were humble and not very auspicious. His iron will, an unlimited aspiration for excellence and an ambition matched to his bravery led him to the highest level of art in his time and, through his legacy and that of his sons Manuel Patricio García, María Malibrán and Pauline Viardot, to play a key role in the history of music and the art of singing.
He began his musical education in counterpoint, keyboard and violin in Seville. He moved to Cádiz to begin his professional career as a singer of tonadillas, short theatrical pieces with singing and spoken dialogue, based on popular Andalusian folklore rhythms and airs such as boleras, seguidillas, tiranas and polos. For fifteen years he was employed as a singer in Cadiz, Madrid and Málaga, moving from the smallest roles to the primary singing roles. He was artistic director in Madrid for several theatrical seasons and developed as a composer, first of tonadillas and later of operetas. In 1807, he left Spain forever and went to Paris, where he managed to make a place for himself as a tenor in the Italian opera of the time. There he presented his most famous composition: the monologue opera El poeta calculista and the premiere was so successful that García had to repeat four of the ten musical numbers. The famous critic and teacher François-Joseph Fétis said that it was the first time that Spanish music was heard in Paris. The opera’s polo del contrabandista became so popular that, over the years, Victor Hugo, Franz Liszt, George Sand, Robert Schumann and even Federico García Lorca drew on its musical theme or included it in their creations.
In search of knowledge and experience, he settled with his family in Naples, where he educated his voice under the guidance of the tenor Giovanni Anzani, who had triumphed in the seventies and eighties of the previous century and had developed as a pedagogue in the school of the castrati. The old master passed on to him the legacy of the Italian school of the 18th century and Manuel expressed that he required from his students a dedication “that no professional singer can really imagine.” A few years later, García had become one of the most famous and highly paid singers in Italy and worked assiduously with Rossini, who wrote for him the role of the Count of Almaviva in The Barber of Seville. In an interview a few months before his death, Rossini said: “I have really savored Spanish music. García, the father of La Malibrán, my dear friend, he took the guitar and strummed the strings with such art and such warmth that he seemed to be playing on the strings of my heart. […] Of this worship that I have for Spanish music and of this friendship for García there are some memories in the Barbiere.”
From then on, García’s career was on the rise, and the critics of the time highlighted his virtuosity in the florid style, his ability to improvise, his musical sensitivity and his dramatic commitment. Vocally, he was a true representative of bel canto. In the words of one critic: “His style is the most florid you can find, even to the point of exaggeration. However, we hear a balanced voice that rarely, if ever, produces an unpleasant sound. Even in the most passionate moments and transitions […] he never sings a bar without giving it the emphasis and seriousness equally liked by the layman in the matter, the expert or the demanding amateur. I’ve heard García many times and I don’t remember a bad role or a false note, in spite of his excessive and overwhelming tone of voice.”
The great tenor Adolphe Nourrit, García’s pupil and creator of all the main roles in Rossini’s French operas, gave his testimony to the writer Ernest Legouvé: “Garcia brought together the knowledge of a true composer and the talent of a wonderful virtuoso. Nourrit told me that before his debut he went to ask him for some advice.” García asked Nourrit to sing the aria Pria che spunti, from Cimarosa’s opera Il matrimonio segreto: “When he reached the cadenza, Nourrit performed a florid line of good taste. “All right, sing me another one,” asked Garcia. Nourrit sang a second one. “Sing me one more.” Nourrit sang for the third time. “Sing me another one.” “I have no more ideas,” replied Nourrit. “After three cadenzas? A true singer must be able to improvise at least ten or twenty. The only true singer is the one who is a true musician.”
Eager for new horizons, García took Italian opera for the first time to the United States, where he directed an artistic company made up of his family and several Italian singers. There, with scarce means, they premiered The Barber of Seville, Otello and Don Giovanni, among other titles, and his daughter, María Malibrán, the legendary singer who was to make history in European theatres, consolidated herself as an artist. Edmund Kean, the most famous English tragedian of the time, attended a performance of Rossini’s Otello in New York and praised García’s work. According to the press: “After the second act, when García left the stage, he was approached by Mr. Kean, who introduced himself and expressed his admiration for the excellent way in which he had played the role of Otello and the perfection with which he had embroidered one of the most difficult characters. The answer was that the approval of a master in this art was one of the most valuable compliments and the most pleasant reward he could receive.”
After working for several seasons at the theatre in Mexico City, García finished his career in Paris, the city where he had achieved his greatest success and where, after years of absence, his performances of Don Giovanni, Otello and Almaviva were still regarded as models. When he retired from the stage, he devoted himself fully to pedagogy and composition, duties that he had always carried out during his career as a singer, like the tireless worker of the art that he was throughout his life. In his last days he was recognized by his contemporaries as an artist, a teacher and a composer, a pioneer in the popularization of Spanish music in Europe. García died in 1832 and at that time, his legacy was already being embodied in the brilliant success of the daughter he had taught as a musician and singer: María Malibrán.
In 1828, a year after the arrival of María in Paris, the critics of the journal Le globe wrote: “Decadence is everywhere complete, we no longer see schools, there are no more conservatories: lack of preliminary studies, of originality and inspiration, this is what you find in all the so-called singers who are running around the world today. […] On the one hand, an unbearable monotony has invaded the musical scene: the uniformity of ornaments has become such that we imagine ourselves always hearing the same piece and the same singer. On the other hand, the preliminary studies have been completely abandoned. Who would be so foolish nowadays that he would devote six years of his life only to practice diatonic and chromatic scales, jumps of third, fourth, fifth, etc., trills, appoggiatura and so on, as the Caffarellis, the Farinellis, the Marchesis did in their youth? There is a much quicker way to become a singer: one learns how to vocalize, doing Rossini’s passages and fermatas ‘comme ci, comme ça’ and, provided that one misses only two notes out of three, one knows enough to get 40,000 francs’ worth of pay. It must be admitted that such a procedure is more convenient; but what becomes of art, what becomes of poor music? […] Never has a prophet come more in time to revive the dying faith and to make the word of life bloom. She is like the last offspring of that great family of true singers that we already saw as extinct: one could say that she has been granted to us so that the chain of musical traditions would not be broken. Daughter of a true artist, Madame Malibran has passed through the test of those long preliminary exercises that Porpora and Scarlatti imposed mercilessly on their disciples. The beautiful proportions of phrasing, this science so essential for a singer, vocalization, accentuation, pronunciation, all these mysteries of art, it has not been by routine that she has been initiated in them, but by means of severe studies. In a word, her education has been that of the singers of the old school […]”
George Sand wrote: “I have seen Madame Malibran in Otello. She made me weep, shudder, in a word, suffer as if I were present in a real life scene. This woman is the premiere genius of Europe, beautiful as one of Raphael’s virgins, simple, energetic, naive, she is the foremost singer and the foremost tragedienne. I am crazy about her.” Frédéric Chopin, dazzled by the stars of the opera —Rubini, Lablache, Pasta, Schröder-Devrient, Cinti-Damoreau— wrote: “Today, unquestionably, it is not Pasta, but Malibran who is the leading European prima donna— she is fabulous!”
After conquering Paris, María went to Italy. Francesco Florimo, Bellini’s great friend, recalled that when she performed La sonnambula in Naples, “the impression she produced was so deep that one could wonder whether the honours of the triumph belonged to Bellini or to the exceptional artist who had known how to perform it in this way. […] The famous Crescentini […] said, after hearing Malibrán in this opera, that the singers of earlier times, Farinelli, Gizzielli, Caffarelli, Marchesi, Velluti, La Conti, La Pasquali, La Gabrielli and himself, could have sung the andante of the scene: Ah! non credea mirarti, as well as Malibrán, but not better than her. And as for the next allegro, no one, not even some of these past celebrities, would have accentuated with greater feeling, with more intense passion, particularly the phrase Ah, m’abbracia, unmatched, and which transported the audience to the ultimate degree of enthusiasm.”
In ten years of career, María had sown a legend. While making the most important roles of the operatic repertoire of her time her own, Maria presented her own compositions in the musical evenings that were an essential part of the cultural life of European cities and published four collections of songs, as well as many individual pieces, which were released in London, Naples, Milan, Leipzig and Paris, from 1828 until her untimely death in 1836.
It was then the turn of the youngest daughter, Pauline. Her musical training had begun in Mexico and continued in Paris, where she studied composition and piano. At the age of ten, Pauline was in charge of accompanying her father’s singing lessons on the piano and he directed her vocal training. After her father’s death, she continued her education with her brother Manuel Patricio, was Franz Liszt’s piano student and refined her skills with Chopin. In 1837 she began her career as a singer, with great success. For the critic and famous teacher Heinrich Panofka, the young woman’s debut in London was “undoubtedly the most important event of the London season.” A season in which the first figures had been none other than Giulia Grisi, Fanny Persiani, Mario and Rubini.
Pauline built her own artistic personality and succeeded in roles where the glory of her sister was still remembered. She performed with great success in Europe and triumphed in St. Petersburg and Moscow for several seasons. In concert in London she was directed by Berlioz and performed with Chopin performing her adaptations of the composer’s mazurkas for voice and piano. In 1849 she premiered The Prophet by Meyerbeer, the undisputed master of French opera of his time. The role of Fidés had been written to suit the voice and talents of Pauline, who performed one hundred performances of Meyerbeer’s work in French, Italian and German throughout Europe.
Evenings at Pauline’s house were a meeting point for the artists and intellectuals she encouraged and supported: Dickens, Bakunin, Berlioz, Rossini, Delacroix, Doré, Reynaldo Hahn, Chaikovski, Bizet (who nourished his opera Carmen with the Spanish music that Pauline regularly performed), Gabriel Fauré, who dedicated several works to the Viardot family, Massenet, Gounod, Brahms, among many others, frequented her home over several decades.
In 1859, Paris’ Théâtre-Lyrique undertook a revival of the 1774 French version of Gluck’s opera Orpheus ed Euridice under the direction of Berlioz, assigning the role of Orpheus to Pauline, who collaborated with the composer in the revision of the score. It was a great artistic and popular success and critics praised Pauline’s performance as her greatest dramatic creation. Berlioz decided to revive another work by Gluck, Alceste, which premiered in 1861 and was the last success of Pauline’s career as a singer which, after twenty-five years, came to an end in 1863. Since then, she devoted her time to teaching and composing works for voice and piano (in French, Italian, German and Spanish), chamber music and several operettas. Musical sessions at her house were the center of cultural life wherever she lived. Pauline was the most prolific composer in her family; her talent, her capacity for work and her longevity allowed her to develop her compositional style throughout more than six decades of evolution of musical art in Europe.
The legacy of Manuel García, senior, lived to the full through his children, who were true protagonists of their time. Outside the stage, his son Manuel Patricio began his independent pedagogical career in 1831. An enthusiast of anatomical and physiological knowledge, he presented his Memory of the Human Voice at the French Academy of Sciences in 1840 and published the first part of his famous Treatise on the Art of Song in which he crystallised the teachings of the school founded by his father, building a generational bridge from the scientific research of the 19th century to the original source of the art of Italian singing that the father had received from his teacher. Manuel Patricio later settled in London, invented the laryngoscope and delivered his most famous students: Jenny Lind, Julius Stockhausen, Charles Santley, Mathilde Marchesi, among many others. Richard Wagner sent his niece Johanna to London to study with him and, noting the young woman’s progress, congratulated him on being “the best teacher of the Italian singing school.”
The musical creations of Manuel García, María Malibrán and Pauline Viardot bring us closer to the expression of three outstanding artists of their respective periods, three distinct personalities in a century of vertiginous transformations. Creations that were born in the light of the aesthetic principles of the bel canto, which prevailed through seven decades of musical evolution in the work of three artists that were Spanish, European and of the whole world.
Renée Doria and unidentified singer.
Pauline Viardot, adaptation of F. Chopin’s Mazurka in D major op. 33 no. 2.
Pauline Viardot, adaptation of F. Chopin’s Mazurka in D major op. 33 no. 2.
- Alto: The Voice of Bel Canto, Dan H. Marek, New York, 2016.
- Bellini, memorie e lettere, Francesco Florimo, Florence, 1882.
- Dernières représentations de madame Malibran, Le globe, recueil philosophique et littéraire, Tome VI. Nº 69, Paris, June 21 1828.
- Life and Work of Pauline Viardot Garcia, Vol. I and II, Barbara Kendall-Davies, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2012 – 2013.
- Los García, una familia para el canto, Andrés Moreno Mengíbar, Sevilla, 2018.
- Manuel García (1775-1832), James Radomski, Madrid, 2002.
- María Malibran, Carmen de Reparaz, Madrid, 1976.
- Semblanzas contemporáneas: Rossini, Emilio Castelar, Havana, 1872.