There will never again be a musician as universally adored and adulated as soprano Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale. Everywhere she went, even facing down crowds that had resolved ahead of time that they would boo her into submission, she drew deep on her artistry, opened her mouth, and produced sounds that left hostile audiences awash in tears, their hands raw from applauding the music that their hearts could not stand against.
It was music that wed deep technical ability to profound psychological insight. Lind lived the characters she played, and won the explosive esteem of two continents through her art. Hans Christian Andersen fell in love with her, Queen Victoria personally threw flowers at her feet, Felix Mendelssohn rhapsodized over her gifts, and in city after city the public swamped her residences, singing songs in her honor, waiting hours for just a glimpse of her, and freeing her horses from their reins so that they could personally haul her carriage to the theater in triumph. From the young who were affected by the pure beauty of her music to the old who combined a love of the artist with a deep respect for her unprecedented devotion to charity, from the poor children who saw her name emblazoned on the hospital wards that she established to the mightiest heads of state who fell over themselves to honor her, Lind was a phenomenon, a universal force in an age throttling towards disunion and strife.
We shall never hear a Jenny Lind performance. Born in 1820 in Sweden, and dying in 1887 in England, she missed by a couple of thin decades the chance to put her voice to cylinder and gift us a living memory of her technique. All we have are volumes upon volumes of ecstatic accounts of her concerts and theater performances, all declaring with one voice: this is music we have not heard before, and cannot conceive of hearing again. Once I get my hands on a time machine, my very first act will be to go back to December 5, 1845 and hear the famous concert where Jenny Lind shared a stage with Felix Mendelssohn at the height of their mutual powers, tape recorder in hand, but until then the best we can do to understand her impact is to learn her story, a story well known by her public and which added to the magic of her allure.
Jenny Lind’s youth was not a happy one. She was born with what was then the stigma of ‘illegitimacy’ to 21-year-old bookkeeper Niclas Lind and 29-year-old Anna Maria Fellborg, recently divorced from her first husband. Whether to avoid scandal or simply because she lacked the resources to raise the child herself, Anna Maria placed young Jenny in the care of a parish clerk who lived a dozen or so miles outside of Stockholm. There the child lived for the first five years of her life until Anna Maria had an explosive argument with the clerk and dragged Jenny back to live with her, and her emotionally abusive temper. To pay the bills, the family took on boarders but after the space of a single year, the family’s financial situation was still dire, and Jenny was sent away again, to become a foster child of the steward at a widows’ home where her grandmother lived.
Rejected, reclaimed, and cast out again, young Jenny Lind spent her time singing songs to her cat to while away the lonely hours. That cat, as it turned out, held her destiny in its little paws, as one day a maid to the Royal Opera dancer Mademoiselle Lumberg happened to be passing by Lind’s window when she heard the child innocently singing to her cat, and was struck by the beauty of her voice. She ran to tell her mistress of the child, who in turn sent for Jenny and declared her to be a musical genius and passed her along to the Singing-master of the Royal Theater, Herr Croelius, who visibly wept as this untrained nine year old performed for him the simple songs she had been singing to her cat. Astounded, he insisted that the head of the Royal Theatre himself, Count Puke (I know, but let’s try and be adults about it), hear the foster child with the divine voice. Reluctant at first to waste his time on such a young child, Croelius eventually wore him down and at that performance the Count too began crying and declared that she must be trained at government expense.
Her future was decided, but she was not yet free from hardship. The Royal Theatre gave her mother a stipend to provide lodging and food for Lind and a couple of other students, which her mother proceeded to mostly pocket while providing the bare minimum of food and comfort for her young charges. Scandalized by the conditions they found upon visiting Lind’s lodgings, with students sleeping on camp beds in an area of town that smelled of garbage and stagnant water while sharing a small fish between five people by way of nourishment, the Royal Theatre took away her lodging students. Soon thereafter, Jenny ran away, begging the Theatre to allow her to board with the rest of the students and not force her to go back to the misery of her mother’s cold home.
Having seen her living conditions, they agreed, and Anna Maria sued for the return of her daughter. She was in breach of several contracts with the Royal Theatre, and since Jenny Lind’s birth certificate was blank as to her parents (which was standard in the case of ‘illegitimate’ children in Sweden), Anna Maria couldn’t definitively prove that she was indeed Jenny’s mother, and all of the evidence of how she treated Jenny spoke against the authenticity of her claim. It was not until 1835, when Anna Maria married Jenny’s father at long last, that their claim to Jenny was validated by the court and the rising star of Swedish opera returned home, a situation which lasted for four years until Anna Maria and Jenny fell out over how the proceeds from her Theatre salary were to be used. Jenny believed her talents represented a divine gift that needed to be used for the common good, and Anna Maria believed all the money should go to raising the prosperity and standing of her family.
In 1839, matters came to a head, and Jenny moved out for good. After nineteen years of being dropped and reclaimed by a family that only seemed to want her when she was gone or famous, she was now in control of her life and prepared to set the world aflame with her voice. On March 8, 1838, she had made her debut as Agathe in Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischutz, and Sweden responded with rapturous enthusiasm to this new musical genius in their midst. The Royal Theatre responded by severely over-working Lind, scheduling nearly 70 performances a year in a move that filled their coffers but left her exhausted and her voice faltering by 1841, when she retreated to France to learn from revolutionary voice instructor Manuel Garcia.
When she first went to see Garcia, her voice was in such a state and her nerves so raw she could barely produce the requested notes, and Garcia insisted she take an extended no-singing break before auditioning for him again. He was not optimistic that the damage done by her overwork could be undone, but at that second session he saw that there was so much pure talent there, that the attempt must be made. He pressed Lind hard to refine her technique and approach to vocal production, and she responded by devoting herself entirely to perfecting her instrument.
The precise clarity of her trills earned her the moniker of Nightingale while her ability to throw herself into her characters, to be them rather than to merely play them, while personally exhausting to her, entranced audiences.
Within a year, Lind was back on stage and all accounts agreed that the performer now before them had elevated her already high standard to something otherworldly in its effect. Her Norma (Norma), Agathe (Der Freischutz), Amina (La Sonnambula), and Marie (La Fille du Regiment) all became definitive interpretations which, if not technically as perfect as those of a Giuditta Pasta or Giulia Grisi, were emotionally hypnotic to an unparalleled degree. The precise clarity of her trills earned her the moniker of Nightingale while her ability to throw herself into her characters, to be them rather than to merely play them, while personally exhausting to her, entranced audiences. She shone equally accompanying herself on piano to simple Swedish folk tunes as when framed by an orchestra in her great dramatic roles, and after her triumph in Sweden it was inevitable that she must tour the wider world.
Germany, Denmark, and England, try as they might to resist the spell of her craft, ended by giving themselves over entirely to Lindmania. Tickets for her concerts commanded unheard of fees, while her willingness and even demand to give benefit concerts in the name of local charities wherever she went made her into a walking folk hero. By merely appearing in a town, she became the catalyst for the funding of hospitals and schools, fire departments and retirement pensions, many of which still bear her name today in gratitude.
There were difficult times. When she entered a new country, she routinely cast herself into a pit of wallowing self-doubt, unable to bring herself to the theater or produce a note until shamed into it by the entreaties of her host conductors and promoters. No matter her success, a new audience always prompted nervous fears that she wasn’t good enough, and would only bring disappointment to those counting on her.
In addition to her inner demons, which she never entirely conquered, there was one very external demon whose grip she just evaded. While in England, she was nearly snared in a marriage to a man who insisted that, in marrying him she must give up the theater altogether and cede all decisions about her career to him in accord with the Biblical prescription that women were to be submissive to the wishes of their husbands. Her friends urged her to drop the self-righteous dullard, but his family appealed to her, saying that he would surely die of heartbreak if she didn’t marry him, and that she would have to live with his death on her conscience. Distressed at the thought of doing harm to a religious soul, she very nearly threw herself sacrificially into a marriage she knew would be the end of her happiness when her friends rallied around her and prevented the union.
The man did not, as it happened, die of heartbreak.
Lind’s unparalleled conquering of the European musical scene, however, did not leave her satisfied. She had expansive plans for large scale charity including the construction of a series of schools to serve underprivileged children such as she had once been, but they required funding on an entirely new level. At just this moment an offer appeared from none other than America’s greatest promoter of the unusual, P.T. Barnum. He had long wanted to raise the tone of his attractions, to be known for something other than well-publicized monkey heads sewn onto fish bodies, and when he heard of the superlative-laden accounts of Lind’s voice, he conceived a sweeping American tour to begin in 1850 that would make both Lind and himself wealthy beyond reckoning.
Lind saw Barnum’s offer as the means by which to achieve her charitable goals, and accepted eagerly. That legendary tour was, if anything, an even more triumphal march than her progress through Europe had been. People were paying as much as $600 per ticket (in mid 19th century dollars, mind you, representing about $19,000 today) just to get a glimpse of the Swedish Nightingale. Lind-themed merchandise of every description was available, and the people who were wowed by her voice were entirely floored by her willingness to give additional concerts for the sake of local charities, raising as much in a day as had been raised in the previous decade. She performed over a hundred times in venues stretching from Boston to Havana and most points in between, and along the way fell in love with her accompanist, Otto Goldschmidt, a man nine years her junior who was devoted heart and soul to supporting her as a musician and force for social good.
When the tour was over she had netted $176,675.09, or about six million in today’s currency. That money was entirely set aside as the basis of the charitable projects that would occupy her energies in between concertizing for the next three decades of her life. She returned to Europe in 1852 having married a man that respected her talents and devoted his business skills to organizing the details of her concert tours so that she could concentrate on her artistic and charitable visions, and having raised enough money to begin endowing the Swedish schools she had dreamed of. She would continue to perform until 1883, though with markedly decreasing frequency, turning slowly from performer to a formidable singing instructor and curator of music’s past (she worked for some time as an advisor on a biography of composer Frederic Chopin and partnered with Otto to develop London’s Bach Choir, still existent today). From 1855 she and Otto lived in England, where they raised three girls and enjoyed the easy friendship of a wide circle of friends and admirers.
By 1886 Lind’s health was on the decline, prey to a cancer for which a difficult operation was available, but which Lind was unwilling to undergo. In 1887 she suffered a stroke that for some months affected her speech, but not so much that, on her final day of life, watching the sun rise from her bed, she was prevented from pushing out from her lips some of the lines of Robert Schumman’s song “Sonnenschein” in gratitude for the bittersweet sight. They were the last notes ever sung by Jenny Lind:
O Sonnenschein, o Sonnenschein!
Wie scheinst du mir in Herz hinein,
Weckst drinnen lauter Liebeslust,
Dass mir so enge wird die Brust!
FURTHER LISTENING: There are no recordings of Jenny Lind, but if you want to walk in her shoes a bit here are some recordings of parts that she was most famous for playing:
“Ah! Non credo mirarti” from Act 2, Scene 2 of La Sonnambula as performed by Maria Callas and Georges Pretre:
“Chacun le sait, chacun le dit” from Act I of La Fille du Regiment as performed by Joan Sutherland
“Il faut partir” from Act I of La Fille du Regiment as performed by Pretty Yende
“Deh! Non volerli vittime” from Norma as performed by Maria Callas in 1960.
“Sonnenschein” by Robert Schumann. Performed by Ursula van Diemen in 1927.
Lead image of Jenny Lind: Original belongs to the Archives at Bergen Public Library, uploaded to flickr by Bergen Public Library Norway, no known copyright restrictions