Maria Malibran (1808–36), the most famous opera star of her day, suffered a violent, protracted, and gory death. Although the story of her final days has been told time and again, this article offers a new reading, focusing on the abuse that she sustained as a child at the hands of her father, Manuel Garcia, and the subsequent trauma that followed her for the rest of her life. This rereading of Malibran’s death draws on the growing body of scholarship dedicated to understanding the daily life and contributions of performers, especially prima donnas. In reevaluating some of the key moments of her development as an artist and person, I nevertheless take a largely biographical approach, adding elements to her story while casting new light on other established narratives. In so doing, my aim is not only to correct long-standing assumptions surrounding the causes of her illnesses and death but also to illustrate that many of the pressures Malibran faced throughout her career reveal a set of burdens shared by many other prima donnas as well as some leading men. By exploring how Malibran responded to these pressures, I expand the picture of the conditions in which nineteenth-century prima donnas were trained and worked, and suggest that their heroism can be taken at face value, without the guise of mythical Romanticism.

Maria Malibran (1808–36), the most famous opera star of her day, suffered a violent, protracted, and gory death. What began as a pleasant afternoon horseback outing in early July 1836 ended in horror: Malibran’s mount turned wild, throwing her off, tangling her in the stirrups, and dragging her behind as he bolted. She was able to extricate herself, but the resulting injuries were dire. Rather than resting and recuperating, the diva famously tried to hide her injuries from her husband, from the impresarios who employed her, and from the audiences for whom she continued to perform, carrying on as if all were normal for several months. The internal damages she sustained, which may have included intracranial hemorrhaging and subdural hematomas, slowly eroded her health and depleted her physical and emotional resources.1 Paradoxically, her ability to sing gloriously remained firmly intact until the end. As a result, in her final appearance—a concert in Manchester, England, on September 14, 1836—the macabre combination of Malibran’s withering body and mighty voice was on full display, a spectacle recounted by a critic for the Morning Post:

We write this with her shrieks and groans resounding in our ears, for they can be heard distinctly through the hotel. She sang in the quartet from Fidelio, and acquiesced in the encore for the duet with [Maria] Caradori Allan. In this last piece her exertions were prodigious, taking a fearful shake at the top of her voice with her customary daring enthusiasm. The storm of cheering which followed the stupendous essay was still unabated when the unfortunate idol of an enraptured audience, who but a moment before was lighted up with fire and animation, sank in an exhausted state under the effect of her excitement.2

In the days between this concert and Malibran’s death on September 23, local and international newspapers chronicled her decline in detail, describing how she was bled by well-intentioned, if misguided doctors in the greenroom following her collapse; how she spent the next few days and nights at her hotel, the Mosely Arms, drifting in and out of consciousness; how, in an attempt to alleviate her pain, her hair was shorn; and how, in an advanced stage of pregnancy, she suffered a miscarriage.3 The critic for the Manchester Times described her final moments in serene terms: “Death stole upon her as the shadowy clouds of a summer’s evening spread along a bright and unruffled sky.”4 As contemporary readers would have observed, however, Malibran’s end was anything but peaceful. The detailed descriptions of the indignities she experienced highlighted the clash between her failing body and the idealized model of femininity depicted, for example, in the illustration reproduced in figure 1 in which her waist appears smaller than her head.

Figure 1.

Engraving: “Madam [Maria] Malibran as The Maid of Artois.” Undated, but presumably before 1836. Theatrical Portrait Prints (Visual Works) of Women, ca. 1700–1900 (TCS 45), Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Figure 1.

Engraving: “Madam [Maria] Malibran as The Maid of Artois.” Undated, but presumably before 1836. Theatrical Portrait Prints (Visual Works) of Women, ca. 1700–1900 (TCS 45), Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

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In the days and months that followed, Malibran’s death remained a source of obsession, a fascination anchored in one question: how could the inexplicable loss of Europe’s shiniest theatrical jewel be understood? Initially, Malibran’s grieving fans targeted the doctors who failed to heal her and her second husband, Charles-Auguste de Bériot, whom they saw as an accomplice for having brought in homeopaths rather than conventional physicians.5 The explanation that evolved over time and that proved most enduring was a blurring of truth and imagination. French critic and writer Jules Janin was among the first to weave this narrative into Malibran’s story: “Her soul killed her, as a hidden fire kills a noble oak tree.…She burned with an inner fire which no one suspected, she was consumed by a double passion, drama and song, which she obeyed unto death.”6 In other words, Malibran’s artistic passion burned too feverishly with the result that her early demise was somehow preordained. Biographers reiterated this narrative time and again, many expanding to build the case that longevity for Malibran was never in the cards. The Countess de Merlin, one of the earliest chroniclers of Malibran’s life, commented that “one of the most remarkable traits in [her] character was her presentiment of early death.”7 Merlin and numerous others also tallied up Malibran’s idiosyncratic, “unwomanly” behaviors (dressing as a man, exerting herself beyond her physical limits, not getting sufficient rest), presenting them as collective foreshadowing of the diva’s inevitable premature end.8 The French dramatist Ernest Legouvé, an acquaintance of Malibran, drew a direct link: “She not only had the contempt for, but the love of danger,” he wrote, concluding, “Poor woman, it was that passion that killed her.”9 As April FitzLyon observed in her 1987 biography, the explanation that Malibran’s passion and recklessness were directly responsible for her death, and that her inner fire was at fault, “satisfied everyone; it was poetic, Romantic, and it stopped people from feeling guilty.”10

The understanding of Malibran’s death only thinly disguises the powerful cultural work underlying the narrative: resounding throughout this episode of her biography is the trope of the Romantic hero, the tragic figure destined to die young. The French critic and writer Théophile Gautier, for example, described her as one who “had the genius to die very young, at the height of her talent and beauty, before a pearl could fall from her crown, a ray from her halo.”11 In this formulation, her dramatic and painful early death is spun as a fitting end, an outcome reserved only for the most intelligent.

The ideal type of the Romantic hero conjures up myriad artistic personalities both fictional and historical, beginning with the most agonized of all, Goethe’s Werther, and encompassing a broad array of poets, painters, composers, and performers.12 The trope is common in biographies of nineteenth-century icons and would hardly be worth remarking on in the context of Malibran were it not for one glaring issue: in weaving it through Malibran’s biography and into the narrative of her death, biographers and critics were, intentionally or not, stamping a distinctly male identity onto the prima donna’s posthumous image. In so doing, they indicated an entrée for Malibran into the uppermost echelon of nineteenth-century artistic personalities, a realm in which women were rarely welcomed. This trend continued in biographies of the singer throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.13 Thus, while FitzLyon identified the Romantic hero fantasy as a fiction, she nevertheless declined to reject it, mobilizing it instead to frame and conclude her biography (her final gesture is to label Malibran a “secular cult figure”) and to elevate Malibran to the ranks of Mozart, Schubert, Byron, and Keats.14 Malibran, through the auspices of the very public pain she sustained and her premature death, was able to claim a space within the (male) realm of the genius.

The identification of Malibran as a Romantic hero did not, however, grant her equal status with her male counterparts. Mary Ann Smart, in her study of Malibran’s compositions, for instance, observes that the “heroic” behaviors shared between Malibran and male contemporary composers were used to inflate the worth of her male peers’ accomplishments while simultaneously deflating her own.15 By the same token, Malibran has never entered the historical discourse, ignored in general surveys and specialized music history books (a fate, it is worth pointing out, shared by most opera singers, both male and female). The trope of the Romantic artist and the narrative of inevitable death has served only one function: to conceal the darker background to her demise. The mythos that as a Romantic hero she had to die for her art, in other words, undercut the trauma she experienced throughout her life and sealed it from view.

Lifting the veil on the trope of the Romantic hero that has shrouded Malibran’s death exposes a disturbing reality. Long before the horse threw and dragged her along a rocky road in the English countryside, and long before her harrowing final days at the Mosely Arms Hotel in Manchester, Malibran had sustained a history of violence as a child at the hands of her father. As Malibran’s memoirists hint, this history haunted her throughout adulthood. It persisted even after she severed links with her family at age seventeen, developing into what today might be understood as post-traumatic stress disorder.

This article interrogates this childhood trauma and examines its long-term effects, particularly with regard to Malibran’s final days. This rereading of her life and career, in which I focus on the abuse she experienced, draws on the growing body of scholarship dedicated to understanding the daily life and contributions of performers, especially prima donnas.16 In reevaluating some of the key moments of Malibran’s development as an artist and person, I nevertheless take a largely biographical approach, adding elements to her story while shining new light on certain established narratives. In so doing, my aim is not only to correct long-standing assumptions surrounding the causes of her illnesses and death but also to illustrate that many of the pressures Malibran faced throughout her career reveal a set of burdens shared by many other prima donnas as well as some leading men. By exploring how Malibran responded to these pressures, I hope to expand the picture of the conditions in which nineteenth-century prima donnas were trained and worked, and to suggest that their heroism can be taken at face value, without the guise of mythical Romanticism.

Malibran was born into a family of musical royalty. Her mother, Maria Joaquina Sitches Garcia (1780–1864), was a distinguished Spanish actress, pedagogue, and dramatic soprano, known onstage as Joaquina Briones. Her older brother, Manuel Patricio Rodríguez Garcia (1805–1906), was one of the most famous vocal pedagogues of the nineteenth century,17 and her younger sister, Pauline Viardot (1821–1910), took up the performing mantle following Malibran’s death, dazzling audiences on Europe’s most important opera stages for nearly three decades.18 At the helm of this powerful musical family was Malibran’s father, Manuel del Pópulo Vicente Rodríguez Garcia (1775–1832), a celebrated tenor and opera composer, as well as his children’s vocal instructor.19

Garcia senior racked up an impressive array of achievements during his lifetime. He served as one of Gioachino Rossini’s muses, creating roles in some of the composer’s most important operas, including Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia and the title role in Otello (see fig. 2).20 Garcia was also a showrunner, the first to import, direct, and perform Italian opera in the original language in the United States and Mexico. In his spare time, he composed prolifically, writing operettas, tonadillas, choruses with orchestra, and songs. Garcia’s enduring legacy is rooted most firmly in his pedagogical accomplishments. Known as “the father of modern singing,” his students included Adolphe Nourrit, Henriette Méric-Lalande, and his three children.21 All told, his reputation as one of the most important contributors to the bel canto tradition has helped disguise the darker sides of his personality. Specifically, he harbored a violent temper, signs of which appeared as early as October 1799, when he was briefly jailed following a fight with a military guard at the Teatro del Príncipe in Madrid.22

Figure 2.

“Garcia, role d’Otello,” lith. de [Pierre] Langlumé (Paris: Pacini, [c. 1822]). Permission courtesy of Bridgeman Images.

Figure 2.

“Garcia, role d’Otello,” lith. de [Pierre] Langlumé (Paris: Pacini, [c. 1822]). Permission courtesy of Bridgeman Images.

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Garcia’s hostility was directed primarily toward members of his own family and most frequently in the context of music lessons where his cruelty achieved its fullest expression. Accounts of his and his children’s lives do not, however, reveal the full scope of his abuses; on the contrary, some even provide him cover.23 The Escudier brothers, Marie and Léon, for example, characterized rumors of Garcia’s cruelty to his children as “an abominable lie.”24 More recently, in his otherwise excellent biography of Garcia, James Radomski relies on the Escudiers’ denial to discount rumors of violence and to argue that Garcia was merely a demanding teacher, his strict methods misunderstood.25 Indeed, when biographers and critics raise the topic of Garcia’s violent behavior, they tend to frame it in terms of a pedagogical imperative: unpleasant, perhaps, but necessary. A recent example by Orlando Figes is illustrative:

From an early age the Garcia children were taught to sing by their father. He was a hard taskmaster and was said to hit them when they did not get their repetition right. Maria, who was as fiery as her father, suffered most on this account.…He was in any case a first-class teacher and had his tried-and-tested pedagogic methods—based on hard work, discipline and exercises for the training of the voice—which he passed down to his children, enabling them to become famous singing teachers in their turn.26

Rather than holding him to account, Figes romanticizes Garcia’s pedagogical techniques, excusing his harmful behavior, even infusing it with its own hint of heroism—without this strict instruction, he implies, there would have been no Malibran.

Among Garcia’s staunchest defenders was his youngest daughter, Pauline Viardot. By many accounts, he was far easier on her than he was on her siblings—as the baby of the family, only eleven when he died, she perhaps escaped the worst of his wrath. FitzLyon writes that Garcia was “cruel and even violent with his two elder children,” but “he never ill-treated Pauline, and she reciprocated his adoration.”27 Garcia himself was vocal about his preference for Viardot, allegedly describing the sisters in terms that simmer with violent undertones: “Pauline…can be guided by a thread of silk; Maria needs a hand of iron.”28 Overall, the relationship between Viardot and her father seems to have been harmonious. Camille Saint-Saëns, a close friend of and collaborator with Viardot, reported after her death that she had once confided in him that neither she nor her sister had ever been “brutalized by their father.”29 Yet, on at least one occasion, she admitted that she was unable to escape Garcia’s violent pedagogical impulses entirely. Tucked into the memoir of the sculptor Gustave Crauk, the vignette begins with Viardot making a mistake while practicing her scales. Repeating the scales a second time, she made a similar error at which point Garcia grew angry and yelled at her. Taking his admonishments to heart, she sang the notes again, this third time perfectly. Expecting to be praised for a job well done, Viardot was met instead with her father forcefully slapping her, declaring: “In the future you will know that you must do things right the first time.” According to Crauk, Viardot recounted this tale frequently with her own students, begging them to “remember her father’s blows.”30

Given Viardot’s reluctance to cast aspersions on her father and her inclination to frame his cruelty as instructional, a letter she wrote to her husband, Louis Viardot, from Berlin in 1867 is significant. Garcia, who had died in 1835, was long gone by this time, perhaps freeing Viardot to speak openly.31 The main subject of this missive was her eldest daughter, Louise Héritte, who had recently abandoned her diplomat husband, Ernest Héritte, in South Africa, returning along with their three-year-old son to her parents’ home in Baden-Baden. From the moment of her arrival, Louise acted capriciously toward her parents. In a letter to Louis, Pauline’s frustration boiled over, and in her impatience with her daughter, combined with sympathetic feelings for her son-in-law, she drew an unsettling comparison:

My God, when I think about what a man of my father’s character, for example, would have done in his [Ernest’s] place! someone like Manuel! ah certainly, on the one hand is a man (papa) who was violent, compared to whom, Ernest is a lamb. How many times was my mother mistreated, bullied, brutalized by him! and yet she sacrificed her good reputation to him for many years…! Has she suffered enough in any case, my poor mother, has she secretly swallowed enough tears! And yet, where has one ever seen a more dedicated, more courageous woman, more ready for any circumstance, for all the hardships of a tormented life?32

This excerpt is arresting. Not only does Viardot provide a firsthand account of the violence that Garcia inflicted on his wife. She also inflects her letter with a disturbing undertone, drawing a connection between her father’s mistreatment and her mother’s unwavering dedication, between brutality and noble acceptance. Although Viardot stopped short of advocating domestic violence, a trace of wishful thinking might be detected in her words: if Ernest would take a stronger hand, as her father might have, perhaps Louise’s flighty nature could be tamed. This notion of wrangling with, and diffusing, a wild personality through strict “discipline” was by no means a new concept for the Garcias and their heirs, as Figes’s summation (quoted above) implied. It is this very narrative that saturates accounts of Malibran’s life.

Nineteenth-century accounts of Malibran’s childhood frequently euphemized Garcia’s violence as a necessary tool to tame her tempestuous spirit and shape her into a world-class musician. A description penned in 1856 by the Escudiers, the same pair who had earlier denied Garcia’s violence outright as an “abominable lie,” is typical:

It was under the direction of her father, the tenor Garcia, composer and voice teacher of the highest reputation, that [Malibran’s] musical education was pursued. From her earliest childhood, Maria exhibited the happiest faculties. However, an extreme vivacity and petulance distracted her from her musical studies. Only the most bizarre and perilous activities appealed to her imagination; running on rooftops, climbing ladders, climbing rocks, such were her favorite pastimes. These eccentricities greatly irritated Garcia, whose anger manifested itself in somewhat brutal corrections.33

Entwined here are two themes that would come to characterize both mundane and pivotal moments throughout Malibran’s life and career: musical perfection and violence. Notably, in the Escudiers’ narrative, the abuse committed by Garcia is linked directly to Malibran’s ability to sing well.

This alignment of violence with instruction is consistent throughout other contemporary accounts of the father-daughter pair. Garcia’s brutality is always situated in the context of lessons or performance, implying a pedagogical technique employed as a matter of course. An article published in the influential French music journal Le Ménestrel in 1863, for instance, includes a description by Garcia junior of lessons he and Malibran endured with their father when they were young. According to this account, Garcia senior would position himself behind his terrified children as they sang and slap them across the cheek “with mathematical precision” whenever they hit a wrong note or slipped out of time. If they cried or failed to correct their mistake the cuffing would continue more fiercely than before: “Garcia had muscles of steel, which no exercise ever tired.”34

This description helps place Malibran’s terrified reaction, described in another anecdote, into perspective. In Memoirs of Madame Malibran, her friend and eventual biographer, the Countess de Merlin, recalled an evening when she and Malibran were rehearsing a duet in Garcia’s presence. Malibran, who struggled with some of the ornaments her father had written for her, whispered, “I cannot.” In response, “he fixed his large eyes sternly upon her and said, ‘Did I hear aright?’” Coming face-to-face with his fury, she corrected herself quickly and “sang the passage perfectly,” later confiding in Merlin, “such is the effect of an angry look from my father, that I am sure it would make me jump from the roof of the house without hurting myself.”35

More details of Garcia’s pedagogical brutality are provided in an account by Arthur Pougin, one of nineteenth-century France’s principal musical and dramatic critics. Pougin comments that Garcia “beat” Malibran “pitilessly, in order to correct an involuntary slip, or to get the effect he wanted,” and concludes his account with a vignette demonstrating general acceptance of Garcia’s actions:

They say that one day Paër with a friend was passing by beneath the windows of Garcia’s house just when agonizing screams became audible; and, in reply to the friend’s questions, Paër said with a smile: “It’s only Garcia beating his daughter to teach her to get her beats and trills right; don’t be frightened.”36

The sense of menace woven throughout these stories is amplified further in the memoirs of the librettist Jean-Nicolas Bouilly. In the early 1820s Bouilly visited Garcia at home in Paris to discuss plans for collaborating on an opera. When he arrived at the apartment, he was greeted by a servant in an anteroom where he overheard “the plaintive cries of a child”:

“It’s little Maria,” said the servant to me, in a tone of commiseration, “whom the gentleman is correcting for having sung a few notes out of tune…” At these words, the child’s cries redoubled; I run to the door and open it, saying to Garcia, “A thousand pardons, my dear! But wherever a young girl cries, I show up.” The father, disconcerted by my sudden appearance, releases the poor little one, who runs away to a corner of the room, attaching a glance to her unknown liberator, an expression so profound that I shudder in spite of myself. Garcia escorts me into his study, and I accompany him, throwing a final glance back at the child, still motionless, but staring at me with her two large flaming eyes, as if I were a divine angel who came to her rescue.37

Significantly, Bouilly’s account stands apart from those discussed above—he neither euphemizes nor condones Garcia’s violence. Nevertheless, although he may have managed to extricate Malibran from her plight during that singular moment, he went no further; he did not report the experience to friends, family members, or the authorities. Bouilly’s inaction may have been rooted in a wider cultural milieu that accepted, even expected, the use of harsh language and behavior between family members and within pedagogical contexts. “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” as the adage goes. This context may have conditioned Bouilly to question the severity of what he heard: Garcia was probably speaking to (or yelling at) his daughter in Spanish, and thus Bouilly may not have felt entirely confident about what he was hearing behind closed doors.38

The connection between musical instruction and corporal punishment was by no means limited to Malibran’s experience, nor was Garcia the only instructor who employed strict discipline. Anecdotal accounts are littered with examples of parents who hit their children in the name of achieving greatness. Johann van Beethoven, father of Ludwig van Beethoven, displayed bursts of violence in his attempt to fashion his young son into a child prodigy;39 Friedrick Wieck, the renowned nineteenth-century piano instructor whose most famous student was his daughter, Clara Schumann, was notoriously tyrannical, employing both physical and emotional abuse to produce the desired results from his daughter and other children;40 and the violist and composer Rebecca Clarke described the cruelty her father inflicted on her and her siblings, recalling, “we were all of us whipped, sometimes really painfully.”41

Moreover, the link between musical instruction and “poisonous pedagogy,” the employment of brute force and emotional manipulation to achieve results, was never exclusively a family affair.42 In her memoirs, Boston-based pianist Amy Fay described the group piano lessons she attended in Berlin with Carl Tausig during which he heaped verbal and emotional abuse on his pupils; similarly, Emi di Bidoli documented the cruel techniques employed by her vocal teacher, Aglaja Orgeni; and Birgit Nilsson describes her first lessons with her teacher Joseph Hislop as equivalent to being placed in a “torture chamber.”43

Instances of cruelty as a function of musical training have a long history—one need only think of the abuse of young boys conscripted as castrati to understand how closely linked are the concepts of brutalism and musical perfection.44 As musicologist David Gramit has explored, however, the nineteenth century witnessed a flourishing of music pedagogy techniques rooted in “coercion, manipulation, and breaking down” the will of the pupil—the development of a system of control aimed not only at yielding excellent musicians but also geared toward developing an obedient citizenry.45 Although cruelty was by no means a measure universally adopted by music instructors, there have been few, if any, corners of classical music training in which the use of harsh techniques to achieve results has been entirely absent.46 Some students emerge from this type of training unscathed, even proud of what they endured in the name of art. Malibran herself seems to have harbored this very sentiment, something Viardot noted in a letter she wrote to the critic Henri de Curzon: “My father has been unworthily slandered as a father and as a man. How many times have I heard my sister say, ‘If my father hadn’t been so harsh with me, I wouldn’t have done any good; I was lazy and rebellious.’”47 As scandalous revelations surrounding the conductor James Levine have revealed, however, the tendency to overlook and forgive abuse because of the abuser’s musical status or the results achieved is dangerous ground.48 The ends do not justify the means. Despite Malibran’s protestations that she “needed” her father’s cruelty to transform her into a great musician, the damaging effects were long-lasting.

There is no medical evidence of trauma that Malibran may have suffered as a result of her childhood treatment. The possibility of long-term effects can be deduced only from hints left behind in contemporary biographies and newspaper reviews. The clues are vague, but revealing nevertheless. In one of the earliest biographies of Malibran, published only three months following her death, Isaac Nathan noted that her vocal studies were “associated with the most painful remembrances…occasioned by the unnecessary and incessant severity which her father exercised while engaged in developing her unequalled capabilities.”49 Without making the connection explicit, Nathan alludes to the long-term effects of Garcia’s behavior, commenting that those who knew Malibran best, “knew that no woman on earth ever suffered greater agony of mental torture than she did from the age of fifteen.…The effects these sufferings produced can never be forgotten by those who saw them. She would remain sometimes for hours in a state of unmovable ecstasy, gazing on vacancy, beautiful as Pygmalion’s Venus before it descended from the pedestal.”50

A similar vignette appears in Countess de Merlin’s Memoirs of Madame Malibran published two years later: “During her early years Maria Garcia showed symptoms of that delicacy of health which characterized her after life.…She would frequently swoon when overcome by the violent conflict which ever raged within her—the struggle between the mental energy and the delicate constitution with which nature had endowed her.” Merlin’s description of Malibran’s mental and emotional state concludes: “Whilst suffering to her utmost powers of endurance, and struggling against pain and debility, this inimitable songstress has often won her brightest laurels.”51 The trope of the Romantic hero emerges in Merlin’s and Nathan’s accounts: Nathan repeatedly applies the term “genius” to Malibran’s abilities, and both authors imply that the more intense Malibran’s suffering became, the greater were her artistic triumphs. Neither author compares her situation to Beethoven (the most iconic of Romantic heroes) and his gradual loss of hearing, but his story of loss and pain echoes faintly in hers. For Malibran, moreover, the trope takes on a particularly poignant tone that parallels Beethoven’s situation: the singer is not quite able-bodied. Paradoxically, this state of disability is perceived as intrinsic to her performative success.52 In this reading, the more concentrated her pain becomes, the more extreme her compulsion to sing, to transform herself into a spectacle that delighted audiences.53 Long-term trauma, in other words, was linked inextricably to an imperative to perform, to please audiences, just as she was once forced to appease her father. Hints of the consequences of this mindset began to appear in the late 1820s and early 1830s, the years during which she reached the heights of fame and found herself in constant demand in theaters across Europe.

Malibran emancipated herself from her family in New York City in 1826, following one final act of physical violence committed against her by her father, this time on stage and in full view of the opera-going public. The Garcia Troupe, led by its patriarch, had traveled to the United States one year earlier to introduce Italian opera to the new world. During these months, Malibran dazzled audiences in works by Mozart, Rossini, her father, and others.54 On the docket for the end of February 1826 was Rossini’s Otello with Malibran performing Desdemona to Garcia’s Otello. Malibran, having had less than a week to prepare this challenging role, was apprehensive, fearing she would not be able to execute Rossini’s music properly. Her trepidation came to a head at the conclusion of the opening-night performance when Garcia, as Otello, came at her with a real dagger instead of the prop that was supposed to be used as the murder weapon. Malibran panicked, believing that her father truly meant to kill her, and screamed, a realistic turn that the audience assumed was part of the production. Garcia later denied any malintent, explaining that he had misplaced the prop dagger and out of necessity used a real one instead.55 Unclear, however, is whether this explanation sufficed for Malibran, or whether it represented a final straw, a clear warning of the violence her father might inflict on her if she continued to live and perform with him.

Around this same time, she met and became enamored with a French-born businessman, François Eugene Malibran, twenty-eight years her senior, whom she married against her father’s wishes.56 Garcia and his troupe left New York shortly thereafter for Mexico City, leaving his daughter behind. Finding herself alone in a foreign land, ensconced in a relationship in which an older man once again held emotional and financial authority over her, Malibran fled, arriving in Europe without her husband at the end of 1827.57 Even though she had successfully escaped her father, his presence nevertheless lingered in the traumatic after-effects of her childhood. These were years of explosive fame, but they were by no means free. Instead, they were marred by frequent illness and injury, so much so that the impression Malibran sometimes left on critics and audiences was of a young woman who was not fully able-bodied.

As reviews of her performances indicate, Malibran was exceptionally, almost mysteriously, accident-prone, her list of injuries piling up one after another between 1829 and her death in 1836. While biographers note some of these injuries, none explore them collectively. In late June 1829 she hurt her arm at the King’s Theatre, London, during a production of Zingarelli’s Romeo e Giulietta, perhaps the result of a curtain falling too early and landing on her and her co-star.58 A more serious incident occurred around nine months later, on April 3, 1830, when she either fell down a flight of stairs or slipped through a trapdoor left open by negligent stagehands at the Théâtre Italien, Paris.59 While in Naples only one year before the horse-riding accident that would ultimately lead to her death, she was in a serious collision involving horses—an ominous harbinger. According to a press account from March 1835, “The horses ran away with her carriage, the wheels of which were dashed against the curb-stone, and broken in pieces. She was thrown out, had her wrists sprained, her whole body bruised, and received many severe contusions.”60 Finally, later that same year she suffered from “chilled feet,” a condition that caused her so much pain that she had to appear on stage at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples, in slippers and on crutches.61 Scattered among these reported injuries are other notices containing vague hints that she suffered from a series of other, undisclosed “indispositions,” some of which included pregnancies.62

Almost without exception, Malibran continued to perform through these injuries, illnesses, and indispositions, feats of which critics kept careful track. Tucked into each of these notices were echoes of the feedback loop between suffering and artistic success that had been drilled into the diva as a child by her father. A few weeks following her first arm injury, in 1829, for example, she reappeared as Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at the King’s Theatre. At that performance, one critic observed: “Her vocal execution was not at all impaired by the effects of her recent confinement, nor was her acting ever more animated; but she wore her left arm, which appeared to have been the object of the late injury, in a sling.”63 An unidentified “indisposition” (possibly a pregnancy) affecting her at the end of 1830, moreover, prompted these remarks: “The indisposition of this young and admirable artiste has much augmented the feebleness of her body; but it has, at the same time, increased the passion and energy of her soul.”64

While Malibran maintained this delicate balance between injury and performance throughout much of her career, there were a few instances when the indulgence of her critics was supplanted by speculation, and even cruelty. On hearing a report of her “chilled feet” in Naples, one critic grumbled that her appearance on stage with slippers and crutches could mark the beginning of a slippery slope toward full invalidism: “We suppose we shall next hear that the lady is wheeled on the stage in bed, and that the curtains were drawn; that she sung a bravura on the broad of her back, and wheeled off again amid still more outrageous expressions of admiration!” Woven into this disdainful remark is a clear recognition of the link between Malibran’s infirmity and spectators’ joyful reception of her performances. So entrenched was this connection, in fact, that at the conclusion of this review, the critic accused Malibran of deliberately attempting to manipulate her audience by faking her injury: “Perhaps, however, it was a ruse of Madame herself to show what she could do with her captivated audience. Oh, vanity! vanity!”65

This was not the first time she had been suspected of faking illness or injury to gain favor. A similar allegation was leveled at her in June 1830 when she appeared in the lead role in Rossini’s La Cenerentola at the King’s Theatre, London. As reported in the press, an announcement was made midway through the performance that Malibran was too sick to complete the opera and that she was to be replaced.66 When the curtain rose on the second half, however, that crowd was astonished to see that she was back on stage, singing as divinely as ever. This drew a savage response from one critic, who in condemning her for supposedly feigning illness made an extremely invidious comparison:

The plan of frightening admirers with the idea of privation, and then agreeably surprising them, is extremely effective, though not quite original, for, in the History of Mother Hubbard, we remember that her dog, so ill-berated for his tricks, professed to be dead; and

  She went to the undertaker’s to buy him a coffin,

  But when she came back, the dog was laughing.67

To compare Malibran to a fictional dog strips her not just of her integrity but also of her humanity. While the creature in the nursery rhyme is gendered male, the behavior inscribed by the comparison drew on inherently female stereotypes: the assertion that Malibran’s actions were not “original” appealed directly to assumptions about the figure of the prima donna as spoiled, whimsical, and most importantly, lacking in both intelligence and imagination.68 If Malibran had, in fact, been trying to fool her audience, her actions backfired, at least as far as this critic was concerned.

Whereas Malibran faced accusations of faking illnesses, her male counterparts were rarely blamed when they were too sick to perform. To take an example, Luigi Lablache, the great bass singer known for his brilliance in both comic and serious operas, was under the weather during the 1840 season at the Théâtre Italien, Paris.69 As a result, a scheduled performance of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, in which he was to perform the role of Bartolo, had to be replaced with Donizetti’s much less popular Linda di Chamounix. Disappointed at this turn of events, one audience member took matters into her own hands and, approaching Lablache in public, demanded to know when he would return to the stage. According to a press account, “Lablache replied that he really could not determine at the moment; all he could say was, that he had still a terrible cold, and that if they forced him to sing in despite of his cold, he might be laid up for fifteen days longer.”70 This explanation sufficed for Lablache’s fan, but likely would not have for fans and critics of Malibran, or any other prima donna. As Kimberly White has observed in her sweeping study of singers active in the early decades of the nineteenth century, “Female singers were stereotyped as the worst offenders for feigning illness, usually for reasons of amour-propre.”71

If Malibran was sometimes forced to defend herself against accusations of feigning illness, more often the spectacle of her visible suffering seemed to evoke pleasure in her critics and audiences. This voyeuristic tendency was on full display on the evening of June 4, 1833, during a production of a new operetta, The Students of Jena, by Hippolyte Chelard. Although the work was poorly received, there was one “bright” spot for spectators, when Malibran fell while singing one of her arias. According to a review printed the next day, this event occasioned the only encore of the evening, generated by “some wags of the Gallery, with [a] most philosophical want of sympathy for bodily pain.”72 It was not, however, just the spectacle of suffering to which audiences responded. A persistent theme in press reviews was the perception that the emotional effects of Malibran’s performances were directly linked to the level of pain she experienced. As one reviewer commented in June 1836:

Indeed so violent are Madame Malibran’s personal efforts, that she becomes completely blown, and renders the music a tissue of unmelodious screams, which would do honour to St Luke’s. We must add, that the audience do seem, to use the favourite cant phraseology, very much excited by this display, and shout in return with great unction.73

The more intense Malibran’s pain and the more she appeared to be engaging in what Céline Frigau Manning has described as moments of “excess,” the greater was her reception by her audiences.74

Malibran carried the correlation between pain and success to a tragic extreme in September 1836. Weakened and in physical decline from her horse-riding accident several months earlier, she spent most of the summer resting, canceling some performances, and appearing onstage only occasionally in August.75 When she arrived in Manchester in September, she participated in a dress rehearsal on the twelfth of that month, in two concerts on the thirteenth, and in yet another concert on the morning of the fourteenth. Notes of concern regarding her health peppered daily newspaper accounts, but no critic raised any serious red flags. On the contrary, they praised her singing, as an article recalling her performance on the morning of September 14 illustrates. This review notes that when Malibran performed Pergolesi’s aptly named “O Lord have mercy upon me, for I am in trouble,” she “seemed to have almost entirely recovered from her indisposition. She was in excellent spirits.” The article affirms her performative strength, despite her condition: “The audience hung upon her tones with breathless attention, and nothing but the solemnity of the subject, and the sacred character of the place prevented them from testifying their approbation by a unanimous burst of applause.”76 Readers keeping tabs on her well-being through such reports would have had little reason to suspect that anything was amiss.

In truth, however, she had not recovered at all as those witnessing her performances in person may have noticed. Sir George Smart, the conductor overseeing the festival, was certainly aware, jotting down his impressions on the morning of September 13 in his copy of the program booklet (see fig. 3): “Madame de Bériot was very unwell but she sang well tho she commenced feebly.”77 That Malibran refused to rest is all the more remarkable given one additional fact: she was pregnant, well enough along that one critic described her as “far advanced.”78 In opting to perform rather than face the wrath of her audience and accusations of fakery, therefore, she must have understood the extreme duress under which she was placing her body.79

Figure 3.

“Private. Manchester Festival. 1836. George Smart.” British Library, C.61.g.13. © British Library Board.

Figure 3.

“Private. Manchester Festival. 1836. George Smart.” British Library, C.61.g.13. © British Library Board.

Close modal

Malibran’s final appearance occurred on the evening of Wednesday, September 14. The concert was divided into two halves, opening with a “Sinfonia in D” by Mozart, and followed by individual arias and ensembles featuring singers including Clara Novello, Nicola Ivanoff, Luigi Lablache, Maria Caradori-Allan, Mrs. H. R. Bishop, and John Braham.80 Malibran’s first appearance of the night occurred midway through part one, in the quartet from Beethoven’s Fidelio, “Mir ist so wunderbar.” The ensemble was reportedly “given with beautiful effect, from the amalgamation of the voices, independently of the transcendent merits of the composition.”81 A short break for Malibran followed, during which Mrs. Bishop sang “Rose Softly Blooming” from Spohr’s Azor and Zemira, and Braham performed “Mad Tom” by Purcell. After they finished, it was Malibran’s turn again.

She stepped onto the stage to perform the duet “Vanne se alberghi in petto” from Mercadante’s Andronica with Caradori-Allan.82 During the course of this duet, her partner, unaware of how ill Malibran was, challenged her to a vocal duel, singing newly elaborated fioriture in an attempt to compel Malibran to compete in turn. Despite her weakened condition, Malibran responded magnificently, eliciting an encore from the audience. Sir George Smart recounts what happened next:

During the well-deserved encore [Malibran] 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 again and annihilate her [Caradori-Allan].”83

The audience was thrilled by the performance, showering both prima donnas with applause that resounded through the theater, even as Malibran collapsed and was carried backstage, never to sing again. Notably, one critic present described her singing as a manifestation of her imminent death: “The fearful shake at the top of her voice will never be forgotten by those who heard it. It was a desperate struggle against sinking nature; it was the last vivid glare of the expiring lamp.”84

One of Malibran’s biographers, Howard Bushnell, takes the opportunity to infuse a sense of victimhood into this story, linking this pivotal moment directly back to her harrowing childhood experiences with her father. After Smart offered to “address the audience,” Bushnell embellishes the narrative:

For a moment she considered excusing herself. But had her father ever allowed her the unforgivable words “I cannot”? She had carved the most brilliant operatic career in the world through disregard of the impossible, through an absolute refusal to admit physical limitations. The cheers and applause continued. Her cheeks flushed and her tired eyes shone feverishly. “I will sing it again,” she declared with determination. “I will annihilate her!”85

This rewriting of this pivotal moment reduces Malibran’s actions to her relationship with her father and places her in the role of the victim. In this interpretation, she manifests the soul of a Romantic hero, but she is also shorn of her own agency, eternally beholden to the will of her father.

But to accept this interpretation without question would perpetuate the myth of the Romantic hero that Malibran’s fans and early biographers once found so comforting. A different, more empowering, explanation of this event is possible, one that situates Malibran as the aggressor. Perhaps when Malibran responded to Smart, telling him that she would annihilate her rival, she was manifesting a desire to turn the tables on past experiences, embracing the role of the fighter. In doing so, she reached for the one “weapon” at her disposal: her superior virtuosic technique, gained at the hands of her father’s instruction. Just as Garcia had once come at her onstage with a knife in Otello, in this final appearance in Manchester, England, she mobilized her energy to overpower Caradori-Allan. In this interpretation, Malibran is in complete control, placing her unparalleled talents on full display in order to maintain her reputation as one of Europe’s finest performers.

Rather than placing Malibran on the unstable pedestal of the Romantic hero, in other words, one could construe her actions more literally, as evidence that she possessed the characteristics of a genuine hero. After all, not only did she survive a childhood of abuse and a set of physical and mental hardships throughout her career, but she also thrived despite the accumulating and ongoing traumas she sustained. In this formulation, her actions during her final days need not be interpreted as the result of a passive mindset but instead can be interpreted as a series of deliberate choices motivated by her desire to entertain her public, and, importantly, to sustain and even augment her reputation as one of the nineteenth century’s most famous divas.

In this sense, it is worth emphasizing that despite the specificity of Malibran’s individual traumas, the general hardships she suffered as a performer mirrored the experiences of many of her contemporaries. She was just one of many prima donnas who felt compelled to perform, despite poor working conditions and while ill. To advocate for oneself was to open oneself up to accusations of fakery and retaliation. While Malibran may have suffered deeply during her life, in other words, hers was not the mythical anguish of the Romantic hero; instead, she was subject to a typical, even mundane byproduct of the cruelty embedded in the training and careers of many young artists from the nineteenth century onward, followed by unrelenting pressure by audiences and impresarios. The normalization of the types of abuse she underwent must be recognized, but at the same time, acknowledging her past experiences need not render Malibran a victim. Once she freed herself from her father and first husband, she transformed herself into one of Europe’s most powerful stars. Her early death, thus, was a tragedy of immense proportion, but it was never preordained.

Earlier versions of this paper were presented at colloquium series sponsored by the departments of music at Northwestern University and the University of York, at the “Music and Power” conference in Siena (December 2021), and at the “Music, Sound, and Trauma” conference, Indiana University (February 2021). My thanks to the colleagues and students who attended those talks and provided feedback, especially Linda Austern, Drew Edward Davies, Jesse Rosenberg, Andrew Talle, and Rachel Cowgill. I am also grateful to Julia Grella, George Biddlecombe, Patrick Waddington, Arman Schwartz, Micaela Baranello, Mark Everist, and the anonymous reviewers who provided truly invaluable feedback and ideas.


For a diagnosis of Malibran’s injuries, see Federico Mainardi, Giorgio Zanchin, Francesco Paladin, and Ferdinando Maggioni, “Acute-on-Chronic Subdural Hematoma: The Death of the Famous XIX Century Soprano Maria Malibran—A Study of the Sources,” Neurological Sciences 39 (2018): 1819–21.


“Manchester Festival (from our own Correspondent),” Morning Post, September 16, 1836.


See, for instance, “The Last Moments of Madame Malibran de Beriot,” Manchester Times, October 1, 1836.


“Last Moments of Madame Malibran de Beriot.”


Both Malibran’s second husband and she were devout believers in homeopathic medicine. In a diary entry written three days after her death, the Irish writer and painter William Archer Shee commented that “the public being beside themselves at the calamity, and grieved at the loss of one whom they so lately delighted to honour…characteristically look about to see ‘whom they can hang.’ They find that she was attended by Dr. Belluomini (the celebrated Italian homœopathist), ergo she was killed by a quack doctor, and they are crying out for a coroner’s inquest and a verdict of ‘wilful murder’ against the doctor, and against the poor afflicted husband as an accessory.” See William Archer Shee, My Contemporaries: 1830–1870 (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1893), 41.


Jules Janin, “Mort de Madame Malibran,” Revue et gazette musicale de Paris, October 2, 1836; cited and translated in April FitzLyon, Maria Malibran: Diva of the Romantic Age (London: Souvenir Press, 1987), 246.


Maria de las Mercedes Merlin, Memoirs of Madame Malibran, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (London: Henry Colburn, 1844), 1:261. Presentiments of early death supposedly haunted many luminous musical, literary, and theatrical figures of the past. For a discussion of how Mozart was reputedly afflicted by such premonitions, for example, see Simon P. Keefe, Mozart’s Requiem: Reception, Work, Completion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 11–43.


Early biographies of Maria Malibran in which these types of stories were told include Merlin, Memoirs of Madame Malibran; Isaac Nathan, Memoirs of Madame Malibran de Beriot, 3rd ed. (London: Joseph Thomas, 1836); W. H. Wontner and William Sharp, Memoirs Critical and Historical of Madame Malibran de Beriot and Monsieur de Beriot (London: Cookes and Ollivier, 1836); Gaetano Barbieri, Notizie biografiche di M-F. Malibran (Milan: A. F. Stella e Figli, 1836); and Madama Malibran e il suo secolo: Cenni biografici (Lucca: Pasquinelli, 1836).


M. Ernest Legouvé, Sixty Years of Musical Recollections, trans. Albert D. Vandam, 2 vols. (London: Eden, Remington, 1893), 1:72.


FitzLyon, Maria Malibran, 247.


Théophile Gautier, Histoire de l’art dramatique en France depuis vingt-cinq ans, 6 vols. (Paris: Hetzel, 1858–59), 2:282. For information regarding Gautier and his writings on prima donnas, including his coining of the word “diva” to refer to stars of the operatic stage, see J. Q. Davies, “Gautier’s ‘Diva’: The First French Uses of the Word,” in The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century, ed. Rachel Cowgill and Hilary Poriss (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 123–46.


For a discussion of the Romantic hero archetype in nineteenth-century arts and literature, see David Higgins, “Celebrity, Politics and the Rhetoric of Genius,” in Romanticism and Celebrity Culture, 1750–1850, ed. Tom Mole (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). Simon Williams’s Wagner and the Romantic Hero (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) focuses on the archetype as applied to nineteenth-century composers in general and to Richard Wagner in particular.


See, for example, Edward Heron-Allen, A Contribution towards an Accurate Biography of Charles Auguste de Bériot and Maria Felicita Malibran-Garcia (London: J. W. Wakeham, 1894); Henry Malherbe, La passion de la Malibran (Paris: A. Michel, 1937); and Suzanne Desternes and Henriette Chandet, La Malibran et Pauline Viardot (Paris: Fayard, 1969).


FitzLyon, Maria Malibran, 256–60.


Mary Ann Smart, “Voiceless Songs: Maria Malibran as Composer,” in Autorschaft – Genie – Geschlecht: Musikalische Schaffensprozesse von der Frühen Neuzeit bis zur Gegenwart, ed. Kordula Knaus and Susanne Kogler (Cologne: Böhlau, 2013), 137–58, at 139.


Some of the most recent important contributions to this rapidly growing field include: Melina Esse, Singing Sappho: Improvisation and Authority in Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021); Sean M. Parr, Vocal Virtuosity: The Origins of the Coloratura Soprano in Nineteenth-Century Opera (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021); Susan Rutherford, The Prima Donna and Opera, 1815–1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Susan Rutherford, Verdi, Opera, Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); and Kimberly White, Female Singers on the French Stage, 1830–1848 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).


Garcia’s pupils included Jenny Lind, Erminia Frezzolini, and Mathilde Marchesi, who went on to become an important vocal pedagogue herself. Two of his publications became standard-bearers in the literature: Manuel Garcia, Mémoire sur la voix humaine présenté à l’Académie des sciences en 1840 (Paris: Duverge, 1847); and Manuel Garcia, École de Garcia: Traité complet de l’art du chant, 2 vols. (Paris: Chez l’Auteur, 1840–47). See M. Sterling Mackinlay, Garcia the Centenarian and His Times (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1908). For an examination of Garcia’s influence on nineteenth-century vocal culture, see Gregory W. Bloch, “The Pathological Voice of Gilbert-Louis Duprez,” Cambridge Opera Journal 19 (2007): 11–31.


The bibliography on Pauline Viardot is vast. For discussion of her life and career, see Beatrix Borchard, Pauline Viardot-Garcia: Fülle des Lebens (Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 2016); April FitzLyon, The Price of Genius: A Life of Pauline Viardot (New York: Appleton-Century, 1964); and Michael Steen, Enchantress of Nations: Pauline Viardot—Soprano, Muse, and Lover (Thriplow: Icon, 2007).


The spelling of Garcia without the accent throughout this article is deliberate. Maria Malibran’s birth certificate records her as Marie-Félicité Garcia, and this surname was thereafter spelled “Garcia” in French and internationally, with no acute accent over the i. Moreover, the c in it was always pronounced like an s and never as th. The same is true of her sister Pauline Viardot. Their brother Manuel Garcia the younger, though born in Spain, was soon thought of as French. Indeed, the entire Garcia family including the parents and descendants became known as “Garcia” not “García.” In the late twentieth century some anglophone scholars decided to revert to the original Spanish spelling and pronunciation. It seems appropriate to the present author to retain the spelling (and common pronunciation) used by all the members of this distinguished family of musicians themselves. My gratitude goes to Patrick Waddington and Nicholas Žekulin for providing the relevant historical information.


For a detailed account of Garcia’s contributions as the first Almaviva, see the Preface to Gioachino Rossini, Il barbiere di Siviglia, ed. Patricia B. Brauner, 2 vols. (Kassel: Bärenreiter Verlag, 2008), 1:xxi–xxii; and Hilary Poriss, Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 34–41.


Harold Bruder, “Manuel García the Elder: His School and His Legacy,” Opera Quarterly 13, no. 4 (1997): 19–46, at 21.


James Radomski and April FitzLyon, “García family,” Grove Music Online, accessed November 16, 2022,


An important exception is April FitzLyon, who not only accuses Garcia of abuse but also implies that he carried on an incestuous relationship with Malibran, an allegation that does not appear elsewhere and for which I have found no evidence. FitzLyon, Maria Malibran, 122–24.


Marie and Léon Escudier, Études biographiques sur les chanteurs contemporains, précédées d’une esquisse sur l’art du chant (Paris: J. Tessier, 1840), 149–50. The Escudier brothers were staunch defenders of Italian opera in Paris, a fact that may have influenced their favorable opinions of Garcia. I am grateful to one of this article’s anonymous reviewers for drawing my attention to this connection.


James Radomski, Manuel García (1775–1832): Chronicle of the Life of a bel canto Tenor at the Dawn of Romanticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 300–303.


Orlando Figes, The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture (London: Penguin Books, 2020), 19.


FitzLyon, Maria Malibran, 30.


Ellen Creathorne Clayton, Queens of Song (New York: Harper and Bros., 1865), 402.


Camille Saint-Saëns, “Souvenirs d’enfance,” Revue musicale S.I.M., March 15, 1912.


Marguerite Gondoin Crauk and Gustave Crauk, Le carnet d’un sculpteur (Paris: Gabriel Beauchesne, 1930), 215. Importantly, Viardot does not seem to have employed similarly violent techniques in her own teaching. See, for instance, Emi di Bidoli’s account of her years as Viardot’s student in Reminiscences of a Vocal Teacher (Cleveland: Edward Bros., 1946).


The idea that this was a private communication and, therefore, that she would have felt free to speak her mind is mitigated by the fact that Viardot wrote letters to her husband with a keen understanding that those missives would one day likely be read by others. For more on Viardot’s letter-writing habits, see Hilary Poriss, “Pauline Viardot, Travelling Virtuosa,” Music & Letters 96 (2015): 185–208.


“Mon Dieu, quand je pense à ce qu’aurait fait à sa place un homme du caractère de mon père, par exemple! ou comme Manuel! ah certes, voilà un homme (papa) qui était violent, auprès de lui Ernest est un mouton. Combien de fois ma mère a été maltraitée, rudoyée, brutalisée par lui! et pourtant elle lui a sacrifié pendant de longues années sa bonne renommée…! A-t-elle assez souffert de toutes les façons, ma pauvre mère, a-t-elle assez dévoré de larmes en cachette! Et pourtant, où a-t-on jamais vu une femme plus dévouée, plus courageuse, plus à la hauteur de toutes les circonstances, de toutes les rudes épreuves d’une vie tourmentée?” Letter from Pauline Viardot to Louis Viardot, February 28, 1867, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Papiers Viardot, N.a.f. 16274, ff. 319–20. My thanks to Patrick Waddington, who alerted me to the existence of this letter and made his transcription available to me. The translation is mine with assistance from Maurice Bombron.


Marie and Léon Escudier, Vie et aventures des cantatrices célèbres (Paris: E. Dentu, 1856), 274.


Gustave Héquet, “A. Boildieu: Sa vie et ses oeuvres,” Le Ménestrel, December 6, 1863. This is not the only anecdote involving cruelty inflicted by Garcia on his son. Another story is told by the Scottish-born Welsh social reformer Robert Dale Owen, who witnessed abuse while he was a passenger on the same ship that carried the Garcia family to New York City in 1825. According to Owen, Garcia grew angry during lessons, so much so that “he suddenly struck his son a blow of his fist so violent that the youth dropped on the deck as if shot.” See Threading My Way, Twenty-Seven Years of Autobiography (New York: G. W. Carleton, 1874), 260–63. Radomski casts doubt on this event, which he recounts in full, noting that the details do not appear in Owen’s contemporaneous diary, but it is unclear what would have motivated Owen to fabricate his detailed and lengthy account. See Radomski, Manuel García (1775–1832), 192–93. I must thank Diana Garcia, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Garcia senior, for reminding me of this story.


Merlin, Memoirs of Madame Malibran, 1:4–5.


Arthur Pougin, Marie Malibran: The Story of a Great Singer (London: E. Nash, 1911), 16–17. It is worth noting that Pougin also says, “I cannot vouch for the fact” of this story. In other words, even though he has not witnessed violence himself, he nevertheless takes the rumors, which are apparently widespread, as credible, lending credence to the story. A variation of this story appears in Mackinlay, Garcia the Centenarian and His Times, 95–96, although in this account Ferdinando Paer is not identified.


J. N. Bouilly, Mes récapitulations, 3 vols. (Paris: Janet, 1836), 3:382–84 (ellipsis in original).


I am grateful to Drew Edward Davies, who drew my attention to the possibility that language created a barrier that may have prevented Bouilly from fully understanding what was happening in the lesson.


Laura Tunbridge, Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020), 3.


Wieck’s behavior is often excused in the name of having produced a great artist in his daughter. Clara Schumann herself professed her gratitude along these lines in a letter of 1894: “My father had to put up with being called a tyrant; however, I still thank him for it every day.” Berthold Litzmann, Clara Schumann: Ein Künstlerleben nach Tagebüchern und Briefen, 3 vols. (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1902–8), 3:585. Wieck was allegedly even more cruel to his sons than he was to Clara. A disturbing event involving her brother Alwin, who studied violin, was witnessed and recorded by Robert Schumann on August 12, 1831: “Yesterday I saw a scene whose impression will be indelible. Meister Raro [Wieck] is surely a wicked man. Alwin had not played well: ‘You wretch, you wretch––is this the pleasure you give you[r] father’––how he threw him on the floor, pulled him by the hair, trembled and staggered, sat still to rest and gained strength for new feats, could barely stand on his legs anymore and had to throw his prey down, how the boy begged and implored him to give him the violin—he wanted to play, he wanted to play––I can barely describe it—and to all this—Zilia [Clara] smiled and calmly sat herself down at the piano with a Weber Sonata.…Am I among humans?” Nancy B. Reich, Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 55–56. My thanks to Jesse Rosenberg who alerted me to this story.


Emily E. Hogstad, “‘We Were All of Us Whipped’: Rebecca Clarke,” Interlude, April 17, 2016,


The concept of “poisonous pedagogy,” introduced by Katharina Rutschky in Schwarze Pädagogik: Quellen zur Naturgeschichte der bürgerlichen Erziehung (Frankfurt: Ullstein Buchverlage, 1982), extends far beyond music lessons into any realm in which a teacher holds power over the student. Such methods, Rutschky argues, often result in long-term dysfunction and neuroses in the child. My thanks to Seth Brodsky for drawing this term to my attention.


Amy Fay, Music-Study in Germany, 10th ed. (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1887), 40, 89, and 103; Bidoli, Reminiscences of a Vocal Teacher, 9–11; and Birgit Nilsson, La Nilsson: My Life in Opera, trans. Doris Jung Popper (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2007), 31–32.


See, for instance, Dina Siegel, “Castrati: Child Abuse and the Search for Musical Perfection,” in Crime and Music, ed. Dina Siegel and Frank Bovenkerk (Cham: Springer, 2021), 55–71.


David Gramit, Cultivating Music: The Aspirations, Interests, and Limits of German Musical Culture, 1770–1848 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 107. For more generalized overviews of vocal pedagogy during the nineteenth century, see John Potter and Neil Sorrell, A History of Singing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); James Stark, Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999); and Robert Toft, Bel Canto: A Performer’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). Susan Rutherford touches on the inconsistent nature of vocal instruction, as well as occasional abuses by teachers, in Prima Donna and Opera, chap. 3, “Tutors and Tuition.”


For some contemporary accounts of bullying and emotional abuse by instrumental teachers, see Anna Bull, Class, Control, and Classical Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 70–92.


Henri de Curzon, “Pauline Viardot-Garcia,” in “Le centenaire de Manuel Garcia. Manuel Garcia; la Malibran; Pauline Viardot,” Le Guide musical 51 (March 12, 1905): 211–15, at 212.


Levine’s history of sexual misconduct and bullying, long an open secret in the classical music world, came to a head in 2018 when he was fired by the Metropolitan Opera. See Anastasia Tsioulcas, “James Levine Accused of Sexual Misconduct by 5 More Men,” NPR, May 19, 2018,


Nathan, Memoirs of Madame Malibran de Beriot, 58.


Nathan, Memoirs of Madame Malibran de Beriot, 46–47.


Merlin, Memoirs of Madame Malibran, 1:6–7.


Scholars of music and disability have confronted this sort of spectatorship, noting the connections between a performer’s illness and the audience’s reactions. See, for example, Hanne Blank, “Sexuality, Dis/Ability, and Sublimity in Grand Opera,” in The Oxford Handbook of Music and the Body, ed. Youn Kim and Sander L. Gilman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 306–17. The field of disability studies, in particular the work of Blake Howe, informs much of what follows below. See Blake Howe, “Paul Wittgenstein and the Performance of Disability,” Journal of Musicology 27 (2010): 135–80; and Blake Howe, “Disabling Music Performance,” in The Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies, ed. Blake Howe, Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, Neil Lerner, and Joseph Straus (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 191–209.


A connection might be drawn between the spectacle of Malibran performing while she was unwell and the problematic viewing of “hysterical” women in asylums who performed their illness, a pastime that peaked later in the second half of the nineteenth century. See, for example, Susan McClary, “Excess and Fame: The Musical Representation of Madwomen,” chap. 4 in Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002); and Mark A. Pottinger, “Lucia and the Auscultation of Disease in Mid-Nineteenth-Century France,” Nineteenth-Century Music Review 19 (2022): 55–84.


The first opera performed by the Garcia Troupe in New York City was Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia on November 29, 1825. Thereafter, their repertory included other operas by Rossini: La Cenerentola, Otello, Tancredi, and Il Turco in Italia, as well as operas by Garcia himself (L’amante astuto and La figlia dell’aria). Famously, Lorenzo da Ponte, living in New York City at the time, persuaded Garcia also to stage Mozart and Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni. Howard Bushnell, Maria Malibran: A Biography of the Singer (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979), 238.


This anecdote appears in nearly every biographical account of Malibran’s life. See, for instance, Merlin, Memoirs of Madame Malibran, 1:31–32; FitzLyon, Maria Malibran, 41; Bushnell, Maria Malibran, 24–25; and Legouvé, Sixty Years of Musical Recollections, 1:165–67. See also Catherine Clément’s remarks regarding this incident in Opera, or the Undoing of Women, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 11, 29–30.


FitzLyon, Maria Malibran, 44.


See Kimberly White, “Female Singers and the maladie morale in Parisian Lyric Theaters, 1830–1850,” Women and Music 16 (2012): 57–85, for a detailed discussion of how marriage affected a prima donna’s financial outlook and ability to control her own earnings.


The critic for the London Evening Standard reported that “At the conclusion, the curtain fell behind the exanimated pair [Henriette Sontag and Malibran], and this being the second time that the like catastrophe has occurred, we must necessarily conclude that it was a pre-concerted coup de Theatre. The lovers had not lain long before they were carried off by the stage attendants; the situation certainly was not without its effect, yet we much doubt the propriety of a contrivance which has in some measure the appearance of trickery, more especially as nothing was needed to add to the splendid effect produced by the previous acting. On their re-appearance, in compliance with the call of the audience, they were greeted with most flattering plaudits.” “The King’s Theatre,” London Evening Standard, June 29, 1829. Despite this critic’s accusation of “trickery,” Malibran seems to have been injured badly enough that she had to cancel her appearance in a production of Semiramide that followed this incident. See “The King’s Theatre,” London Evening Standard, July 3, 1829.


It is unclear how she fell. While press accounts state that she tumbled through the trapdoor, the stagehands at the Théâtre Italien laid the blame on Malibran, claiming she tripped down a stairway. The debate was fierce enough that her brother intervened with a letter to Le Figaro, asserting that the injury resulted from the trapdoor being left open. “Rectifications: Au sujet de Madame Malibran,” Le Figaro, April 15, 1830. See also Bushnell, Maria Malibran, 109.


“Another Accident to Malibran,” Sherborne Mercury, March 30, 1835.


“From a Private Letter from Naples,” Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, November 13, 1835.


In May 1830, for example, one critic commented of her participation in a benefit concert for another prima donna, Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis: “Malibran, though suffering from considerable indisposition, gave in very superior style a new Aria, composed for her by Hummel” (“De Begnis’ Concert,” Morning Post, May 22, 1830); and in June 1833 she was unable to fulfill a concert obligation in Oxford due to an unnamed illness (“The Commemoration” Oxford University and City Herald, June 22, 1833). On Malibran’s pregnancies, miscarriages, and abortions, see FitzLyon, Maria Malibran, 152–55.


“Theatres: The Opera House,” London Courier and Evening Gazette, July 8, 1829.


“Madame Malibran,” Star (London), December 31, 1830.


“Madame Malibran’s Toes!,” Warder and Dublin Weekly Mail, November 21, 1835.


“Fashion and Table Talk,” Dublin Morning Register, June 24, 1830


“Fashion and Table Talk,” Dublin Morning Register, June 24, 1830.


For a survey of historical assumptions made about the figure of the prima donna, see Rachel Cowgill and Hilary Poriss, “Introduction,” in The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century, ed. Rachel Cowgill and Hilary Poriss (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), xxvii–xlvi.


On Lablache’s life and career, see Sarah Hibberd, “‘The Essence of Nine Trombones’: Luigi Lablache and Models of Masculinity in 1830s London,” in London Voices, 1820–1840: Vocal Performers, Practices, Histories, ed. Roger Parker and Susan Rutherford (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 93–119; and Clarissa Lablache Cheer, The Great Lablache: Nineteenth Century Superstar: His Life and His Times ([Bloomington, IN]: Xlibris, 2009).


“Foreign Correspondence and Musical Intelligence,” Era, October 27, 1844.


White, Female Singers on the French Stage, 82. For an account of how opera houses attempted to maintain the health of opera singers by hiring their own doctors in the later part of the nineteenth century, see Kimberly Francis and Sofie Lachapelle, “Medicine Goes to the Opera: Vocal Health and Remedies for Professional Singers of the Belle Époque,” 19th-Century Music 44 (2020): 19–35.


“Drury-Lane Theatre,” Morning Chronicle, June 5, 1833.


“Theatrical Examiner: Drury Lane,” Examiner, June 5, 1836.


Céline Frigau Manning, “Playing with Excess: Maria Malibran as Clari at the Théâtre Italien,” in Art, Theatre, and Opera in Paris, 1750–1850: Exchanges and Tensions, ed. Sarah Hibberd and Richard Wrigley (Farnham: Ashgate Press, 2014), 203–21.


On July 5, Malibran was to have appeared in a benefit concert for the Russian tenor Nicola Ivanhoff at the Great Concert Room of the King’s Theatre, London, but excuses were made for her absence (see “Ivanhoff’s Morning Concert,” Morning Post, July 5, 1836). She also traveled to Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) to appear in Bellini’s La sonnambula in mid-August (Bushnell, Maria Malibran, 240), and on August 14, she gave a well-received concert, alongside de Bériot and her sister Pauline (at the piano), following the horse races in Liège (Pougin, Marie Malibran, 258).


“Manchester Festival,” London Evening Standard, September 16, 1836.


My deepest gratitude goes to George Biddlecomb, who alerted me to the existence of Smart’s copy of the program book and provided me with pictures.


“Monday Morning: Manchester Musical Festival,” Evening Mail, September 19, 1836.


One eyewitness recounted that Malibran, when begged by her doctors and husband to rest rather than perform, refused, saying that if she did not appear, “it will be reported that my illness is all a sham.” See Mary Sabilla Novello, “The Last Days of Madame De Beriot,” Musical World, October 14, 1836. Mary was the mother of Clara Novello.


The account of the event here is from “Wednesday Evening: A Grand Miscellaneous Concert,” Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, September 17, 1836.


“Wednesday Evening: A Grand Miscellaneous Concert.”


For a deeper dive into this duet and its history as a concert piece as well as a substitution aria, see Hilary Poriss, Changing the Score: Arias, Prima Donnas, and the Authority of Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 100–134.


H. Bertram Cox and C. L. E. Cox, Leaves from the Journal of Sir George Smart (New York: Longmans, Green, 1907), 283.


“The Last Moments of Madame Malibran de Beriot,” Manchester Times, October 1, 1836.


Bushnell, Maria Malibran, 221–22.