Reframing the “ugly beauty” of composer-singer Pauline Viardot


When critics praised the music of Pauline Viardot, it was never the end of the story.

Viardot was a contemporary to 19th Century composers such as Saint-Saëns, Brahms, and Chopin — but Viardot was also a woman.

As Australian singer Hannah Lee Tungate observes, commentators would exclaim that Viardot was “marvellous” — but with a voice like “the taste of a bitter orange”. Viardot was “ugly” — but in a “noble” way.

Now, Hannah is preparing to show Australian audiences that Viardot was a woman — and she was marvellous. But.

Ugly Beauty: Celebrating 200 Years of Pauline Viardot is a concert featuring the rarely performed music of this composer-singer. The program also includes works from Clara Schumman, Fanny Hensel, and Viardot’s own sister Maria Malibran.

West Australian Opera/Wesfarmers Arts Young Artist Chelsea Kluga will sing at the event. In this story, we chat with Chelsea and Hannah about Viardot, and why these compositions are worth listening to.

The concert is a Tenth Muse Initiative, of which Hannah (pictured below) is founder and artistic director.

Hannah, who was Pauline Viardot, and why doesn’t the world know much about her?

HANNAH: Pauline Viardot was an extremely successful mezzo-soprano in her lifetime, but also composed, and was recognised by people like Chopin and Liszt for her compositional talent. She moved in influential circles, and was quite a celebrated and influential figure herself.

Viardot was also one of the first women to teach at the Paris Conservatoire, in the 1870s. Despite all of this, Pauline Viardot has been pretty much ignored by history. When and if she is discussed, it is often as a singer, not a composer.

She wrote more than a hundred songs, arranged vocal versions of Chopin mazurkas, and she even published a manual that sheds much light on 19th-Century vocal performance practice.

When you hear some of her works, like Hai Luli, Havanaise, and Die Sterne, you begin to appreciate what a fantastic composer she was, and start to feel appalled that you have not heard these pieces before.

I’d like to ask about the name of this event. What does ‘Ugly Beauty’ mean?

H: The name ‘Ugly Beauty’ came out of a research session into Pauline Viardot. We came across this phrase a few times in different articles written about Viardot. When her appearance is mentioned, she’s often described as having an ‘ugly beauty’, or captivating presence and not appearance. This struck us as an excellent place to begin a discussion about how, why, and for what women are remembered, especially women in music.

Viardot had a dynamic and interesting career in performance, composition, and pedagogy. Why was it necessary for people to discuss her appearance?

Heinrich Heine wrote in an 1844 article on the Parisian musical season:

‘There is nobody to replace [Pauline Viardot], and nobody can replace her. This is no nightingale, who has only the talent of her species and admirably sobs and trills her regular spring routine; nor is she a rose – she is ugly, yet ugly in a way that is noble – beautiful I might almost say.’

Heine describes a talented, popular, arresting musician, who he seems to admire and is attempting to compliment. While doing this, he dismisses all the women singing professionally at the time, and reduces Viardot to being ugly, but in a ‘noble’ way.

Camille Saint-Saëns wrote: ‘[Viardot’s] voice was enormously powerful, had a prodigious range and was equal to every technical difficulty but, marvellous as it was, it did not please everybody. It was not a velvet or crystalline voice, but rather rough, compared by someone to the taste of a bitter orange.’

So even in describing her voice, we found these odd back-handed compliments.

To us, this really summed up the contradictory and often problematic ways women in the arts are discussed, remembered, and valued. So instead, Tenth Muse Initiative’s concert will explore Viardot as a multifaceted person, because we believe everybody should be treated in this way.

It matters, because this is so often not the case for women throughout history — and still today. We want to be part of setting the record straight.

Chelsea, what do you feel to be the significance of this concert?

CHELSEA: The classical music industry has had an incredibly narrow scope for far too long. The programming has not been representative of the culture we exist within, being limited to celebrating and performing the works of dead, white men. This concert shouldn’t be significant merely for the fact that it celebrates the life and works of a female artist, but it is.

Chelsea will sing in this Tenth Muse Initiative.

What has been your experience with the music of Viardot? And why do you think she’s such an underrepresented composer?

C: She is an underrepresented composer because she is a woman. It begins and ends with this fact.

Her lack of representation had nothing to do with her skill or prowess, and everything to do with her diminutive status in the context of history.

I have heard a small number of her pieces performed in recitals, but I was fortunate to discover a lot of new repertoire when asked to participate in this concert.

What’s something that inspires you about Viardot or her works?

C: Not only was she an incredible performer with a famously wide vocal range whose resume is packed with virtuosic dramatic roles, her compositions were complex and beautiful, offering a totally unique perspective on the world.

They are so varied in their scope of emotions, and her background led to a unique understanding of how to set the voice.

Why are you excited to sing this music?

C: Because I get to contribute to a policy of affirmative action. I get to broaden the scope of the music industry, and shed light on some incredible works by a tragically undersold composer and performer.

Because, regardless of her physical beauty, her voice deserves to be heard. Because she is a human who created art to communicate with the world around her.

We can learn so much from her, and I feel privileged to be a part of that process.

See Chelsea perform in Tenth Muse initiative Ugly Beauty: Celebrating 200 Years of Pauline Viardot at the Callaway Music Auditorium, University of Western Australia, 2pm July 18.

READ NEXT: The significance of singing Pauline Viardot “in this time of awakening”. Blog by soprano Lisa Harper-Brown, who will also sing at this event.

Images supplied.