Monday, October 6, 2014

The First Star in America—The Swedish Nightingale

Jenny Lind, 1851 NYC daguerreotype

Before 1850 when showman P. T. Barnum brought  the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind to these shores for a legendary and triumphant tour, the young United States had celebrities, but no stars in the sense of a performing artist of such renown as to be a household word to millions who might never see her in person.
Entertainment itself was suspect as a gateway to sin and sloth in much of the country, especially if indulged in by the lower classes who should not be tempted from their 10-12 hours a day, six days a week labor for their employees and a Sabbath dedicated to pointing out to them what sinful, undeserving wretches they were.
So who were American celebrities?  Well, preachers for one.  Famous evangelists and revivalists like George Whitefield and his heirs, or heady intellectuals like William Ellery Channing.  Collections of sermons were the bestselling books in the country and a really fine preacher could attract huge audiences to outdoor camp meetings or keep parishioners  coming back week after week to large and prosperous churches while being welcomed everywhere in pulpit exchanges.
In fact orators of all stripes were famous.  The mid-week lecture platform rivaled the Sunday morning pulpit as a showcase for verbal dexterity.  Crowds plunked down good money to hear the nation’s leading intellectual and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, a touring literary lion like Charles Dickens, or even the unbelievable—a female reformer like abolitionist and women’s rights advocate like Lucretia Mott.
Of course politicians and statesmen were avidly followed.  Their speeches were widely printed in the press and the political rally and stump speech were popular mass entertainment.  Eloquent speakers like Daniel Webster or fiery ones like John C. Calhoun attracted devoted followings.  The proration of Webster’s Second Reply to Haynes was so popular that generations of school boys would be forced to memorize and recite it.
Portraits of military and naval heroes as well as prints depicting their noble deeds line the Marquis de Lafayette, Oliver Hazard Perry, Andrew Jackson, or Winfield Scott hung on parlor walls or over bars across the country.
Finally there were what we would now call folk heroes—Sam Patch, The Yankee Leaper who became the first famous American daredevil after successfully jumping from a raised platform into the Niagara River near the base of the Falls, or Davy Crockett whose exaggerated exploits were chronicled in the early predecessors of the dime novel.  
But outside local notoriety there were no singers, musician, or actors. 
There were as yet no great civic orchestras.  At best chamber ensembles would perform for a small educated elite in cultural centers like Boston.  Small bands performed for the balls elite, or where dancing was not outlawed for the more moderate classes.  Most musicians were amateurs or part timers.  Similarly, theaters had been allowed to open in some cities with Puritan roots only with in recent decades.  Some actors had established resident troops in a handful of cities, and bands of actors toured the country performing Shakespeare and popular melodramas, but the play was the advertised attraction and few actors were widely known by name.  The Englishman Julius Brutus Booth would be one of the first to promote himself by name.
Minstrel Shows, which would become the leading musical entertainment of the second half of the 19th Century, were just in the beginning of their formative stages.
Traveling menageries, dog and pony shows, and small circuses were popular, but individual acts were hardly household names.
Enter Phineas T. Barnum, who had been associated with early circuses, and had found a niche exhibiting curiosities.  His first was George Washington’s alleged childhood slave nurse.  By the 1840’s he had established his American Museum in New York City which featured performances by dwarf General Tom Thumb and his troops as well as musical acts, and native dancers.  Barnum, an ardent Universalist as well as a promoter, publicly advanced the shocking notion that ordinary working men and women deserved leisure and entertainment as much as the wealthy.  He was essentially inventing American show business.
In 1844 and ’45 Barnum toured Europe with Tom Thumb, who created a sensation and was introduced to Queen Victoria and the Russian Tsar.  It was then that he became aware of the enormous popularity of Jenny Lind, a lovely Swedish opera singer noted for her pure crystalline voice, humility, and Christian piety.  Then still in her mid-20’s she was at the height of her fame triumphing in London, Berlin, and Vienna as well as in the Scandinavian capitals.  Barnum, who was personally tone deaf, never went to see her, but he took note of her popularity.
Lind was born on October 6, 1820 in Stockholm.  She was the illegitimate daughter of a bookkeeper and the proprietress of a day school for girls.  Despite her situation, her mother was quite religious and would not allow her lover to divorce.  Finally, when her father’s wife died, her parents were able to wed when she was 14.  By that time she was already an established wonder child singer.
Little Jenny had been singing around her home all of her life with no training.  When she was nine years the maid of Mademoiselle Lundberg, the principal dancer at the Royal Swedish Opera happened to hear her on a visit to her mother’s school.  The next day she returned the with Lundberg, who arranged for her attend to the acting school of the Royal Dramatic Theatre.  The Lind studied with Karl Magnus Craelius, the singing master at the theater.
She was successfully singing on the stage by age 10.  But due to inadequate training, she severely damaged her vocal chords at age 12 and nearly lost her fledgling career.  After recovering, in 1838, she got her first great role as Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischütz at the Royal Swedish Opera.  She was soon after honored as court singer to King Oscar I of Sweden and Norway.   
But her vocal trouble returned due to over-use.  She turned herself over to teacher Manuel Garcia in Paris in 1841-’42.  Garcia prescribed total vocal rest, even from speaking, for three months to allow her voice to heal, and then completely retrained her in techniques for preserving her magnificent instrument. 
When she recovered, Lind was dealt one of the few disappointments of her career.  She auditioned for the Paris Opera—and was turned down.  The French did not believe her voice was “warm enough” and that she had shaky control in her lower register.  She would occasionally hear these complaints throughout her career voiced by those used to singers trained first in Italian opera.  Lind was hurt enough that a few years later when she was the most famous singer in the world, she rejected offers to sing at the Paris Opera.  In fact she rejected most dates of any kind in Paris.
She rejoined the Stockholm Opera and toured regularly.  In 1843 she had an extensive tour of Denmark where Hans Christian Anderson fell in love with her.  She admired him and enjoyed his company, but soon found his obsessive attentions alarming.  Anderson was said to have based some of his fairy tales on her—Beneath the Pillar, The Angel, and The Nightingale.  After she definitively rejected him and returned to Sweden, Anderson got revenge by making her the model of the Snow Queen—beautiful but with a heart of ice.
Lind’s international reputation soared in 1844 when she was invited to Berlin to sing Norma. Her success in the part was so great that she remained in the city for month performing in many of the most popular operas, both German and Italian.  She drew the professional adoration of composers Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz, and Felix Mendelssohn.  Giacomo Meyerbeer wrote the leading soprano role for his paean opera to the Prussian Royal House of Hohenzollern.  Although she was not able to premier the part, when she did it in Berlin in January 1845 audiences went wild.  One critic described an aria, “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.”  The song became a signature peace that she included by request in her later concerts.
Mendelssohn, who conducted her personally in Leipzig, was more than professionally interested.  He, like Anderson, fell in love.  Lind was slender and fair skinned with shining light brown hair.  She had a sweet disposition, modesty, and was noted for her lack of diva pretentions.  Still in her mid-20’s men found it easy to fall in love with her.  She evidently returned the married Mendelssohn’s affections, but her strict Lutheran morality made her reject his pleading to consummate an adulterous relationship.  He evidently composed passionate love letters in which he threatened suicide if she did not give herself to him.  These letters were destroyed after his death, but their existence was confirmed by those who saw copies.  Despite the pressure, Lind remained close to the composer.  He frequently conducted for her and started an opera, Lorelei, for her, based on the legend of the Lorelei Rhine Maidens which was unfinished at his death. He also tailored the aria Hear Ye Israel in his oratorio Elijah to Lind’s voice.
After extending her German stay with a tour of other cities, Lind returned for her season with the Stockholm Opera and seems to have had a romantic relationship with her frequent co-star there, tenor Julius Günther.  They may have even become engaged, but their tour schedules—and Lind’s far greater fame and acclaim, separated them and made marriage impossible.
In 1846 Lind spent the season in Vienna which she conquered just as she had Berlin.   She was feted by the Imperial Family. 
The following year she extended her triumph to London where she enjoyed her greatest success yet.  Mendelssohn attended her English début as Alice in an Italian version of Robert le Diable.  Queen Victoria was also in attendance.   She would work in London for the next two years.  That summer she sang the world premiere of Verdi’s I masnadieri with the composer himself conducting.
Lind was devastated by the news of Mendelssohn’s death in November 1847.  The following year she made her first appearance in an oratorio to sing the soprano part in Elijah to raise money for a memorial to the composer.  The single performance raised more than £1,000, an astonishing amount.  With that a subsequent benefit performances Lind raised the money to create the Mendelssohn Scholarship for “pupils of all nations and [to] promote their musical training.”  The first recipient was 14 year old Arthur Sullivan, a prodigy in whom Lind had taken an interest. 
Barnum had been in London for all of this and had noted the adulation accorded the woman now acclaimed as the Swedish Nightingale and took due note.
Although she never explained, Lynd socked the music world early in early 1848 by announcing her planned retirement from the opera.  She was not yet 28 years old and still at the height of her powers.  She never explained her motivation and there has been much speculation as to why.  The timing suggests it might have something to do with her continued mourning of Mendelssohn.  Her last performance in an opera was on May 10, 1849 with Queen Victoria once again in attendance.
Although she retired from the opera, Lind did not fade into oblivion.  She continued to perform on the concert stage, mostly for her favorite charities including the Mendelssohn Scholarship and a project to build free public schools back home in Sweden.  She also made herself available to other good causes.  In the process she helped create the tradition of benefit performances.  And her generosity only endeared her more than ever to her adoring fans.
Back in New York City, when Barnum heard the news he made arrangements for an agent to make an offer the Swedish Nightingale could not refuse.  He was prepared to risk everything to bring her to America. 
At first reluctant, Lind could indeed not turn down the astonishing opportunity Barnum offered—$1,000 each for 150 American performance plus full expenses.  This was at a time when many Americans—subsistence farmers and laborers—did not earn $1000 in cash money over a life time and when that amount of money over a year would sustain a very comfortable middle class life in a large home with multiple servants and carriage.
Lind was a smart business woman.  She first checked Barnum’s credit and found it solid.  She made a counter offer—that her whole fee be paid in advance and deposited in her London Bank and that a singing partner and musical director/pianist each of her own choosing be included.  That brought Barnum’s total upfront cost to $187,500, far more cash than the showman had.  No banks would finance a loan secured by the gate of the concerts.  The would-be impresario had to mortgage his Bridgeport, Connecticut home, the American Museum, and all of his other holdings.  And he was still $5,000 short and in danger of having the deal fall through.  Finally he was able to tap a wealthy Philadelphia minister for the balance by convincing him that Lind’s well known Christian piety and charity would elevate the public morals. 
The deal was done, with the inclusion of an escape clause that allowed Lind to withdraw from the tour after sixty or one hundred concerts, paying Barnum a $25,000 penalty.
While Lind prepared to make the voyage to the States, Barnum swung into action.  Few Americans except the small class rich enough to make the Grand Tour of Europe or visit on business had ever heard of Jenny Lind.  Opera music was not yet popular entertainment.  Luckily no one in America was better prepared to overcome that than Barnum who added the words ballyhoo, hoopla, and press agent to the American vocabulary.
He built his initial blitz of publicity on the eye-popping size of Lind’s contract, her reputation for charity, and effusive praise for her voice and beauty.  “If I knew I should not raise a farthing profit I would yet ratify the engagement,” Barnum modestly told the New York Herald, “so anxious I am that the United States should be visited by a lady whose vocal powers have never been approached by any other human being, and whose character is charity, simplicity and goodness personified.”
He flooded the country with engraved portraits and glowing biographical pamphlets.  As the date of her arrival drew closer he arranged to have her image to be printed on commemorative plates, costume jewelry pins, and that most American of all salutes—a cigar box.  designated by Lind for her efforts were widely circulated. Before Lind set foot in the country she was famous and the respectable middle class was convinced that, at all costs, they must see her.
In August of 1850 Lind, Italian baritone Giovanni Belletti, German conductor and pianist Julius Benedict, plus Miss Alimanzioni, her Italian traveling companion and he Swedish secretary Max Hjortsberg arrived in Liverpool to embark.  Lind gave to hugely successful farewell concerts for charity.  Thousands jammed the docks to see her board the reigning queen of trans-Atlantic packets the side paddle SS Atlantic.  Even faster sailing clipper ships sped accounts of the departure scene to New York, where Barnum made sure they were front page news.

Lind's American debut at Castle Garden in New York.

The Atlantic docked in New York on September 1.  A mob scene greeted Lind and her party at the dock and there were several minor injuries in the pushing and shoving to get close to her.  When she came down the gang plank, Lind kissed her hand and laid it on an American flag telling the crowd in flawless but charmingly accented English, “There is the beautiful standard of freedom, which is worshipped by the oppressed of all nations.”  It seems that Miss Lind was no slouch as a promoter herself.
Her first two concerts were scheduled at Castle Gardens and were charity affairs for local causes.  Barnum sold tickets by auction.  4,476 tickets were sold at a total price of $24,753.  The program included Lynd’s most famous set pieces, Casta diva from Norma, a duet with Belletti, the trio for two flutes and voice composed for her by Meyerbeer, and Swedish songs.  She also sang a piece composed by her music director to words by New York poet Bayard Taylor called Greeting to America.  After she left the stage to riotous applause, Barnum stepped out and announced that Miss Lind would donate her $1000 fee for the evening’s performance to the local charity beneficiaries. 
These concerts open Lind’s eyes to how lucrative the concert tour would be.  Once again she insisted on re-negotiating her contract.  In addition to her flat fee, she would now receive all of the proceeds from the gate of each show beyond a $5,500 per concert management fee was paid.  She also insisted that at each concert at least some $1 and $2 seats be reserved for the less fortunate.
The first New York appearances set the stage for what amounted to a triumphant procession.  Lynd worked her up and down the East Coast with multiple concerts in most cities—Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Virginia and by ship to Charleston, South Carolina.  On the way to Charleston, her ship nearly was lost in a gale.  There was a side trip for concerts in Havana, Cuba.
From Cuba Lind sailed to New Orleans where the sophisticated and cosmopolitan population turned out in droves for several concerts where seats were in such demand that Barnum was able to sell tickets for the ticket auction.  Then up the Mississippi by riverboat to Natchez, Mississippi, Memphis, Tennessee, and St. Louis, Missouri then off to Louisville, Kentucky, Cincinnati, Ohio, Pittsburgh, and again to Philadelphia.  

Barnum, center, introducing Lind to a man who paid $650 at auction for a ticket to a concert.

By then it was July of 1851 and Lind had completed her minimum obligation to Barnum under their contract.  She was uncomfortable with Barnum’s aggressive marketing—and by now was so famous that she did not need it.  She exercised the escape clause and continued the tour under her own management.  The parting was not acrimonious and Barnum and Lind remained friendly.  During their association Lind had raised $350,000 for her charities and Barnum raked in at least $500,000.  Plenty of reason for good cheer all around.
Next Lind was off to New England where 20 year old Emily Dickinson recoded in a letter: 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.
Shortly after that concert Benedict left the tour to become musical director at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London.  Lynd invited a young friend, Otto Goldschmidt to replace him.  Despite his being nine years younger than the singer, romance bloomed.  When the young Jew publicly converted to Episcopalianism it was a sign of how intense his feelings were.  The couple was wed in Boston on February 2, 1852.  Afterwards Lind made sure that she was publicly billed as Madam Jenny Lind Goldschmidt.
The tour continued with added stops in Canada before returning to New York for farewell performances featuring a new song, Farewell to America with words by C.P. Cranch and music by Goldschmidt.  Then the couple sailed away back to England on May 29, 1853.
They left behind a country that had been changed, fired with a new enthusiasm for opera and classical music—and indeed for all of the performing arts now that Lind had demonstrated that they could not only be respectable, but uplifting.  A mania for building concert halls and opera houses was launched.  Many of the most noted European musicians and actors became alerted to the possibilities of the American audience and launched their own tours, broadening the American cultural experience.  Other promoters learned from Barnum who to promote new attractions.  Other stars shown in American skies, but for many years none matched the super nova that was Jenny Lind.
Lind and Goldschmidt first lived in Dresden, Germany before relocating permanently to England in 1855.  The couple had three children and by all accounts were devoted and happy.  Lind continued to make charity concert appearances, although with declining regularity as years went on.  Goldschmidt’s own career as a pianist, composer, conductor, and teacher flourished. He became a professor in 1863 and later vocal director at the Royal Academy of Music.  When her husband formed the Bach Choir in 1875, Lind trained the sopranos and sang in the début concert.  In 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.
In 1883 Lind announced her permanent retirement from the stage.  Her farewell appearance was a benefit concert at Royal Malvern Spa near her retirement home at Wynd’s Point, Herefordshire, on the Malvern Hills.  She was in increasingly frail health and died on November 7, 1887 at the age of 67.  She was buried in a local cemetery but a memorial plaque with a profile cameo was installed in Poets Corner, Westminster Abby.
Goldschmidt wrote a biography of his wife, Jenny Lind: Her Career as an Artist originally published in German but soon translated into English.  He died in 1907 at age 77 in London.
Lind has been commemorated in numerous ways, including being represented on Swedish bank notes and having had several ships named for her.  She has appeared as a character in novels based on her relationships with Hans Christian Anderson, Mendelsohn, and as a muse for Fredrick Chopin.  She has been portrayed in films including the 1930 Hollywood picture A Lady’s Morals, with Grace Moore as Lind and Wallace Beery as Barnum; a 1941 German musical biography, The Swedish Nightingale; and  Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairytale, featuring Flora Montgomery as Lind in 2005.
Elvis Costello is said to be composing an opera based on Lind’s life with lyrics taken from some of Andersons love poetry to her.

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