She visited composers for important world 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 Paris 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 world premiere of his alto rhapsody.
After retiring from the opera stage in 1863, Viardot continued to sing in concerts and was what we would call a doer today. She owned the original manuscript of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, to which composers such as Fauré and Tchaikovsky made a pilgrimage. In 1869 she wrote an exuberant letter to Richard Wagner in which she congratulated him on a performance of “Die Meistersinger”. But his infamous anti-Semitic essay, “Judaism in Music,” published under his name the following month, spoiled the relationship, and Wagner and his wife Cosima began to deride Viardot as a “Jewess.” (She wasn’t Jewish.)
After her father, who was both a gifted composer and a brilliant singer, Viardot invested a lot of time and energy in composing. Her work is nowhere near as well known as that of Robert Schumann, Liszt, Saint-Saëns or others in her social circle. But her music was highly valued by her contemporaries, and one person even went so far as to compare her talent with that of Schubert. Clara Schumann described her as “the greatest brilliant woman I have ever known”. A passionate advocate of her students, she died in 1910 just a month before her 89th birthday.
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, most of them songs for solo voice and piano. Her first was “L’Enfant de la montagne”, which was published at the age of just 19 in a collection organized by Meyerbeer, Paganini and Cherubini. Like so many of her songs, she was her main advocate and used her to demonstrate her vocal skills at concerts in Leipzig and other cities.