Malibran, mezzo soprano, was one of the most
thrilling operatic divas of 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 of Manuel 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 school in
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 father) well 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 voce exercises
(gradual crescendo and decrescendo on long held notes)
throughout her range and then progressed to increasingly
florid exercises on scales and arpeggios and, 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 ranges. 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:
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 Park 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 Napoleon Bonaparte
and former king of Spain), James Fenimore Cooper (author of The Last of the Mohicans),
Halleck (American poet) and Lorenzo Da Ponte (librettist for
Mozart's Don Giovanni)
flocked to the García troupe's performances over the next few
months. 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
libretto) and also premiered works by her father: L'amante astuto and La figlia dell'aria (an
aria from the latter work, "Non
vedo...Son regina", has been recorded by Cecilia
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
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
of Artois), according to conductor and composer Julius
Benedict, "Nothing has ever exceeded the effect she produced
in Balfe's Maid of Artois."
(Willert Beale, The Light
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:
On 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, and 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:
Madame 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, p. 227).
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).
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
Fitzlyon aims not to write a conventional
biography but to present Malibran as "a product and symbol of
an expression of Romantic attitudes."
Although this makes for interesting reading, Fitzlyon often
too heavily mixes her opinions with facts.
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. Available in
various English editions.
Pougin, Arthur. Marie
Malibran: Histoire d'une cantatrice (Paris: Librairie
A fine work, for its time, by an important
French conductor, music critic and writer; available in
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, quotes from
letters and other documents.
definitive study of Malibran's life remains to be written!
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
Album Lyrique; and
Dernières Pensées, edited
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,
"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
"La Morte," "Le Moribond").
Arie, Ariette e Romanze. Edited by Riccardo Allorto. (Ricordi).
Includes three songs ("Rataplan, tamour
habile," "La visita della morte," and
"No chiu lo guarracino") by Malibran.
Nel cor piu non mi sento by
Paisiello (1740-1816). Variations by M. Malibran. (Fayatteville, Arkansas:
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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