Malibran, mezzo soprano, was one of the most thrilling operatic
the early nineteenth century. In her singing and acting, as well as in
her life, she embodied the spirit of Romanticism. She was the daughter
del Pópulo Vicente García, sister of Manuel
Patricio Garcia and Pauline
Maria was born on 24 March 1808 at No. 3, rue de Condé in Paris
(a plaque today marks the location), only one month after her father's
debut in Paer's Griselda
at the Opera Buffa in Paris on 11 February 1808.
In 1811 García travelled to Italy to further his operatic
career. But García was a born pedagogue and so was solicitous
for the musical education of his children. In Naples, therefore, he
initiated Maria's studies in theory and piano with Ferdinand
Hérold (1791-1833) and Auguste Panseron (1796-1859).
Hérold had won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1812 but left
Rome in September 1813 and settled in Naples where, apart from teaching
Maria, he also taught the daughters of Joachim Murat (brother-in-law of
Napoleon Bonaparte), the King of Naples. Hérold's first opera, La gioventù di Enrico quinto,
was premiered at the Teatro del Fondo on 5 January 1815 with Manuel
García in the title role. If this marked the first connection
between the Garcías and Hérold, then Maria was probably
six or seven when she began her lessons. Panseron also was in Italy as
a result of having won the Prix de Rome in 1813. He studied in various
cities in Italy, including Naples, until he returned to Paris in 1818.
Since Hérold left Naples shortly after the premiere of La gioventù di Enrico quinto,
probably Panseron replaced him as Maria's tutor until the
Garcías left Naples for the premiere of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia in February
of 1816 in Rome. After that historic event, García
was briefly in London (where he wrote a "Terzetto di soprano, tenore, e
basso" on 24 August 1816"). During this time (around March-October
1816) he placed Maria in a boarding
Hammersmith, England, run by French Benedictine nuns. Thus, Maria's
international upbringing provided her with skills in Spanish (spoken at
home), Italian (learned in Naples), French (probably also spoken at
home and used in her lessons with Hérold and Panseron and at the
Hammersmith boarding school) and, now,
English (probably not the medium of instruction, but picked up from
schoolmates at Hammersmith). Knowledge of the latter language was to
serve her (and her
when she made her New York debut with his troupe in 1825.
Maria probably began regular study with her father in 1818 or 1819 in
Paris. His teaching, as evidenced in his Exercises and Method (Boosey, 1824)
would have begun with slow mesa di
(gradual crescendo and
decrescendo on long held notes) throughout her range and then
progressed to increasingly florid exercises on scales and arpeggios
finally, extended vocalises. He would also have instructed her in
improvisation and embellishment—an essential component of the bel canto style. According to the
Countess Merlin (a close family friend and biographer of Maria), a
special trait of García's teaching was his
ability to develop the chest register in female voices (Merlin, Maria Malibran, 29-33; quoted in
Radomski, Manuel García,
p. 272). Thus, Maria, at
the height of her career, had command of the alto through soprano
This can be clearly seen in the last operatic role that
García wrote for her, Rosita in El
gitano por amor: the part demands high C's down to low E's
below middle C!
Maria made her professional debut in London at the age of 16, singing
the very difficult "Nacqui al'affano" from Rossini's La Cenerentola in a concert at
Almack's Rooms on 9 June 1824. A year later she made her London
operatic debut as Rosina
in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia
at the King's Theatre on 11 June 1825. The review noted already the
artistic traits that were part of the Garcia tradition: beauty of voice
and stunning agility:
[Mademoiselle Garcia] is a very agreeable
young lady. Her figure is good—her features rather expressive than
handsome—her action free yet modest. Her voice is very pleasing, but it
is not of extensive power. She, however, manages it with infinite
skill. Her opening air, a composition of great difficulty, was
beautifully sung, and was rapturously encored. She here displayed all
the florid, yet delicate execution, for which her father is so
remarkable. [The Times, 15 June 1825, quoted in Radomski, Manuel García, p. 183.]
At this time García was
engaged by the wealthy New York wine merchant Dominick Lynch (acting on
behalf of manager Stephen Price) to direct opera performances at the
Theatre in New York. This provided an excellent opportunity for him to
present Maria before an undiscriminating public, giving her invaluable
experience upon which to build a professional career. She opened, in Il
barbiere di Siviglia, on 29 November 1825. All of New York's
elite including the likes of Joseph Bonaparte (brother of
Bonaparte and former king of Spain), James Fenimore Cooper (author
of The Last of the Mohicans),
Fitz-Greene Halleck (American poet) and Lorenzo Da Ponte (librettist
for Mozart's Don Giovanni)
flocked to the García troupe's performances over the next few
In New York Maria sang the leads of other Rossini operas (Il Tancredi, Il turco in Italia, Otello),
Zerlina in Mozart's Don Giovanni,
Romeo in Zingarelli's Romeo e
to libretto) and also premiered works by her father: L'amante astuto and La figlia dell'aria (an aria from
the latter work, "Non
lo vedo...Son regina", has been recorded by Cecilia Bartoli).
On 23 March 1826 Maria, against her father's wishes, married the
wealthy Eugène Malibran (1781-1836). When García sailed
from New York to
Veracruz on 16 October 1826, therefore, Maria remained behind for one
more season in New York. She was by now the darling of New York
society. With her English skills she was able to please the American
public in a way that her father could not. During the lesson scene in
Il barbiere di Siviglia, for
example, she had accompanied
herself at the piano singing "Home Sweet Home". In 1827 she sang in The Devil's Bridge by John Braham
(1774-1856) and Love in a Village
by Thomas Arne (1710-1788) . But such light
fare was too far beneath the level of Maria's talents. Feeling herself
stagnating professionally in the United States, she decided, despite
the protests of her husband, to return to Paris in November 1827.
On 14 January 1828 Maria made a sensational operatic debut in Paris in
the title role of Rossini's Semiramide
as part of a benefit performance for the bass Filippo Galli
(1783-1853). At first, due to nervousness, she was received with
indifference. But as she regained confidence during the performance she
began to shine and then to thrill: "The audience was conquered," said
[François-Joesph] Fétis, "and passed from the most
disdainful coldness to the most immoderate enthusiasm." (Revue et gazette musicale, II,
1827-8, p. 589; quoted in April Fitzlyon, Maria Malibran, p. 70).
From this moment on Maria, known as La
Malibran, was a star—as well as a household word—in Paris and,
eventually, all of Europe.
Apart from Rossini roles, she went on to be a sensation in operas of
Vincenzo Bellini (Norma, La
Sonnambula, I Capuleti e i Montecchi) and Gaetano Donizetti (L'elisir d'amore, Maria
Stuarda). In London she also sang, in English, Beethoven's Fidelio, and in 1836 premiered
Michael Balfe's The Maid of
Artois. Despite the fact that the latter work has been long
forgotten (although it was revived and recorded in 2005: The
Maid of Artois), according to conductor and composer Julius
"Nothing has ever exceeded the effect she produced in Balfe's Maid of
Artois." (Willert Beale, The
of Other Days, (London, 1890) vol. 2, p. 201; quoted in
Fitzlyon, p. 210).
After returning to Paris in 1827, Maria's relation with Eugene Malibran
quickly declined. By 1829 she was in love with the Belgian violinist
Charles de Bériot (1802-1870) and seeking a means (either by
Church annulment or divorce) to end her marriage with Malibran. After
endless efforts, including, for a while, the help of her friend, the
Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), an annulment was granted by a Paris
court in February of 1835 (Fitzlyon, p. 199). She thereupon married de
Bériot on 29 March 1836.
On 5 July 1836 Maria was
riding with friends in Regent's Park in London when she suffered an
accident that led to her untimely death at the age of 28. The incident
was remembered by one of her companions, Lord William Lennox:
setting off at a canter, she plied her light riding-whip too severely
upon the horse's neck. The animal, usually quiet, got his mettle up,
suddenly increased his pace. A clatter of some horses behind added to
his excitement, and in a few seconds the rider had lost all control
over her steed.
I was a few paces in the rear, and
called upon Mr and Mrs Clayton to check their speed at once. Bounding
round the inner circle of Regent's Park at an awful pace, Malibran,
feeling herself lost, shouted for help, when a policeman rushed forward
and seized the horse by the bridle. Unprepared for this sudden
movement, the rider was precipitated against the wooden paling, and
fell exhausted to the ground. (Lord William Pitt Lennox, Fifty Years' Biographical Reminiscences,
(London 1863) vol. 2, p. 207-9; quoted in Fitzlyon, p. 211)
Despite the seriousness of her injury and the pain she suffered, Maria
immediately followed through with a series of four performances at
Drury Lane in London: The Maid of
Artois (July 5th and 7th), Fidelio
and the second act of La sonnambula
(July 6th), and the complete La
sonnambula (July 8th). Her last operatic performance was on 16
July 1836, when she sang The Maid of
Artois and the last act of La
sonnambula at Drury Lane. She received thunderous applause and
ended the evening's performance singing God Save the King.
Two months later Maria was engaged to sing at a festival in Manchester.
Despite her terrible indisposition, resulting from the July 5th
accident, she sang in concerts on September 13th and 14th. Her final
performance was a duet from Mercadante's Andronico: "Vanne se alberghi in
petto," sung with Maria Caradori-Allan (1800-1865) on the evening of
the 14th. According to conductor Sir George Smart's account, Maria
remained a fiery prima donna
to the end:
Caradori-Allan made some deviation; this prompted Malibran to do the
same, in which she displayed most wonderful execution. During the
well-deserved encore she turned to me and said: "If I sing it again it
will kill me." "Then do not," I replied, "let me address the audience."
"No," said she, "I will sing it and annihilate her." (Sir George Smart, Leaves from the Journals of Sir George
Smart, ed. H. B. and C.E.E. Cox, (London 1907) p. 283; quoted
in Fitzlyon, p. 221)
The next day Maria was so ill that she at first decided to cancel her
morning performance. Then, fearing criticism for the cancellation, she
insisted on going to the church where the concert was to take place,
despite the fact that she was too weak to dress herself and was
experiencing vomiting and convulsions. When the seriousness of her
condition became apparent she was taken back to her hotel where she
died at twenty-five minutes to midnight on 23 September 1836 (Fitzlyon,
With her early demise, Maria Malibran, as so many artists before and
after her, attained a legendary status. Her total commitment in
performance, both vocally and dramatically, exemplified the Romantic
diva and, in the twentieth century inspired singers such as Maria
Callas and, in the twenty-first century, Cecilia Bartoli.
Bushnell, Howard. Maria Malibran: A
Biography of the Singer (University Park: Pennsylvania
University Press, 1980).
it relies too heavily on the Countess Merlin, this is one of the best recent
much previously unknown material .
Fitzlyon, April. Maria Malibran:
Diva of the Romantic Age (London: Souvenir Press, 1987).
Fitzlyon aims not to write a conventional biography
but to present Malibran as "a product and symbol of French Romanticism,
an expression of Romantic attitudes." Although this
makes for interesting reading, Fitzlyon often too heavily mixes her
Merlin, Countess María de los Mercedes. Madame Malibran (Brussels;
Société Typographique Belge, 1838).
A good friend of Maria's, the countess provides
fascinating anecdotes but is not reliable for historical accuracy.
various English editions.
Pougin, Arthur. Marie Malibran:
Histoire d'une cantatrice (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1911).
A fine work, for its time, by an important French
conductor, music critic and writer; available in English translation.
Reparaz, Carmen de. María
Malibrán 1808-1836: Estudio Biográfico (Madrid:
Servicio de Publicaciones del
Ministerio de Educación y Ciencia, 1976).
As with the Fitzlyon, this work also studies
Malibran in the Romantic context. Useful for numerous illustrations,
letters and other documents.
definitive study of Malibran's life remains to be
Cecilia Bartoli - Maria [LIMITED
EDITION]. Decca 2006.
A beautiful exploration of Maria Malibran's
repertoire. Includes a substantial book with the CD.
Published Works by Maria Malibran
Album Lyrique; and Dernières Pensées, edited
by Charlotte Greenspan [facsimile of two collections originally
published in Paris 1831 and 1839 respectively] (New
York: Da Capo Press, 1984).
Includes: (from Album
lyrique: "Le Reveil d'un beau jour," "La Voix qui dit: Je
t'aime," "Le village,"
"La Tarantelle," "Les Refrains," "Rataplan," "La
Bayadère," "La Résignation," "Le Ménestrel, Row,
"Enfants, ramez," "La Batelier," "Le Rendez-
vous," "Belle, viens à moi," "Le Lutin).
Pensées: "La Fiancée du brigand," "Le Message,"
"Prière à la Madone," "Hymne des matelots,"
"Les Noces d'un marin," "Au bord de la mer," "Adieu
à Laure," "Addio a Nice," "Le Montagnard," "Les Brigands,"
"La Morte," "Le Moribond").
Arie, Ariette e Romanze. Edited
by Riccardo Allorto.
Includes three songs ("Rataplan, tamour habile," "La
visita della morte," and
"No chiu lo guarracino") by Malibran.
Nel cor piu non mi sento by
Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816). Variations by M. Malibran. (Fayatteville,
Vocal Reprints), Catalog No. CVR 3200.
Songs and Duets of García,
Malibran and Viardot, ed. Patricia Adkins Chiti, (Alfred
Publishing Co., 1997).
Includes three songs ("Il Mattino," "La voix qui
dit: je t'aime," and "Le prisonnier") by Malibran.
Women Composers: A Heritage of Song.
Arr. Carol Kimball, (Hal Leonard, 2005).
Includes two songs ("Les Brigands" and "La voix qui
dit: Je t'aime") by Malibran.
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