Composers sought her out for important premieres: She was the first Fidès in Meyerbeer’s “Le Prophète” and Charles Gounod’s first Sapho. When Berlioz resurrected Gluck’s “Orfeo” for the Parisian stage in 1859, Viardot was the diva for whom he rewrote the title role. A decade later, Brahms chose her as the soloist for the premiere of his Alto Rhapsody.
After retiring from the opera stage in 1863, Viardot continued singing in concerts and being what we’d call today a macher. She owned the original manuscript of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” which composers including Fauré and Tchaikovsky made pilgrimages to see. In 1869, she wrote an effusive letter to Richard Wagner congratulating him on a performance of “Die Meistersinger.” But his notorious anti-Semitic essay, “Judaism in Music,” published under his name the following month, soured the relationship, and Wagner and his wife, Cosima, began referring derisively to Viardot as a “Jewess.” (She was not Jewish.)
Following her father, who was a gifted composer as well as a brilliant singer, Viardot put significant time and energy into composing. Her work is not nearly as widely known as that of Robert Schumann, Liszt, Saint-Saëns or others in her social circle. But her music was deeply appreciated by her contemporaries, with one person going so far as to compare her talent to Schubert’s. Clara Schumann referred to her as “the greatest woman of genius I have ever known.” A fierce advocate for her students, she died, just a month shy of her 89th birthday, in 1910.
Today, her works are enjoying a resurgence among scholars and performers — part of a wave of interest in long-neglected composers like Amy Beach, Florence Price, Clara Schumann and others.
Viardot wrote hundreds of pieces, the majority of them songs for solo voice and piano. Her first was “L’Enfant de la montagne,” published when she was just 19 in a collection organized by Meyerbeer, Paganini and Cherubini. Like so many of her songs, she was its major advocate, using it to show off her vocal skills in concerts in Leipzig, Germany, and other cities.