Text: James A. Harrison, “Review of Memoirs and Letters of Madam Malibran,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. X: Literary Criticism - part 03 (1902), 10:91-96


[page 91, continued:]


[Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, May, 1840.]

MARIA FELICIA GARCIA, afterward Madame Malibran, afterward Madame De Bériot, was more fairly entitled to the proud appellation, “the queen of song,” than any cantatrice who ever lived. Upon her was lavished the enthusiastic applause of the most correct taste, and of the deepest sensibility. Human triumph, so far as regards all that is most exciting and delicious, never went beyond that which she experienced — or never but in the case of Taglioni. For what are the inane and purchased adulations which fall to the lot of the conqueror — what, even, are the extensive honours of the popular author — his far-reaching fame, his high influence, or the most devout public appreciation of his works — to that rapturous approbation, that spontaneous, instant, present, and palpable applause — those irrepressible acclamations, those eloquent sighs and tears, which the idolized Malibran at once heard, and saw, and deeply felt that she deserved? Her brief career was one gorgeous and magnificent dream — for even the many sad [page 92:] intervals of her grief were but dust in the balance of her glory. In the book before us we hear much of the causes which curtailed her existence, and there seems to hang an indefinitiveness about these causes as here given — an indistinctness — which the fair memorialist tries in vain to clear up. She seems never to approach the full truth. She never reflects that the reason of her friend's speedy decease was but a condition of her rapturous life. No thinking person hearing her sing, would have doubted that she would die in the spring of her days. She left the world at twenty-five, having existed her thousands of years. She had crowded ages into hours. Her intense excitement was often superhuman. And it was this excessive ardour of sensibility, educated and controlled by the thinking spirit of Garcia the father, which gave to Malibran, in the end, a dominion over the souls of her audience, such as no mere human artist will ever, perhaps, exercise again.

The memoirs now published by the Countess de Merlin, an intimate friend of the cantatrice, belong to the best order of biography, and convey a vivid picture of their subject. We conscientiously recommend them as the most interesting reminiscences of the day. They abound in just reflection, and amusing anecdote; evincing, moreover, a poetical, as well as an artistical, sense of music and song. The first volume is prefaced by a well-written sketch of the progress of the Italian opera in England, previous to the début of Garcia, runs through the life of the songstress, and ends with her decease. The second is more discursive, enters fully into random detail, embraces a minute account of the death and funeral, with many letters and other memorials, concluding with a memorandum of the English opera in general, and critical notices of the performances [page 93:] of Malibran on the British stage. Both are highly entertaining.

In the progress of the memoir the heroine is, of course, frequently brought into juxtaposition with celebrated rivals; yet in fact Pasta alone had any claim to equality, and even here there are few points of analogy. The difference between the two favourites was obvious. Pasta was everything which mere art could effect — always correct, always graceful. But, being compact of art, she was invariably the same. The depth of expression which formed one of the principal charms of her singing, was due, however, to something apart from artificiality — to an irregularity in the tones of her voice. Her lower notes were somewhat dull and harsh, but deeply indicative of vehement passion, and undoubtedly only the more effective from their wild contrast with the clear, sweet, upper ones. It has often been observed that the guttural melody of transition, from the voce di petto to the voce di testa, is productive of a profound sense of melancholy; and it was the extent of this transition in Pasta which brought about her most thrilling effects.

Malibran, with all the sense of a profound art, rendered this sense subservient to nature. As an actress she scarcely ever had an equal, yet her great success arose from the apparent absence of acting. She seemed borne away, and, in a great degree was so, by an intense enthusiasm. The powerful impression she produced arose from a conviction of her extreme sensibility. It is beyond the reach of art to imbue either air or recitative with more impassioned expression than was hers. Her utterance of the romance in “Otello” — the tone with which she occasionally gave the words Sul mio sasso in the Capuletti — we [page 94:] may defy any one to forget who ever had the exquisite pleasure of hearing them. Of her lower tones no sound in nature can convey the remotest idea. Her voice embraced three complete octaves, extending from the contralto D to the upper soprano D, and while sufficiently powerful to fill the immense San Carlos, could execute with the minutest precision every difficulty of vocal composition — ascending and descending scales, fiorituri, or cadences. Every one must remember the electrical effect she was wont to produce, in the “Sonnambula,” in the words of the finale, —

Ah! non guinge uman pensiero

Al contento de ohe io son piena.

She here altered the original phrase of Bellini so as to let her voice come down to the tenores, then, by a rapid transition, sprang up an interval of two octaves, striking the G above the treble stave. Her “Sonnambula” altogether was a study for the musical artist — a combination of the highest scientific skill with the most delicious singing, and the most impassioned yet finished acting. We saw nothing here of the certainly sweet but somewhat tiresome monotony of Pasta. The “Amina” of Malibran was indeed an embodiment of all the poet's brightest dreams, and in this character she awakened the whole world of thought and feeling, as if by a spell, to the very highest sense of musical and intellectual enjoyment.

The merely private anecdotes related in these volumes of the sensitive and vivacious woman are very entertaining and strongly characteristic. Among other good things it is told that one evening she felt rather annoyed at the general prejudice expressed by the company then present against all English vocal composition, [page 95:] the opinion being altogether in favour of foreign music, some even going so far as to assert that nothing could be good the air of which was entirely and originally of English extraction. She in vain endeavoured to maintain that all countries possess, though of course in unequal degrees, many ancient melodies peculiarly their own; that nothing could exceed the beauty of the Scottish, Irish, Welsh, or even some of the old English airs. She then named many compositions of the best British composers, — Bishop, Barnett, Lee, Horn, etc., — declaring her belief that if she were to produce one of Bishop's or of Horn's ballads as the work of a Signor Vescovo, or Cuerno, thus Italianizing and Espagnolizing the names, it would be received with rapture. In the midst of the discussion she volunteered a new Spanish song, composed, as she said, by a Don Chocarreria. She commenced; the greatest attention prevailed; she touched the notes lightly, introducing variations on repeating the symphony, and with a serious feeling, though a slight smile might be traced on her lips, began: —

Maria tràyga un cahlero

De aqua, Llàma levanté

Maria pòn to caldero

Ayamos nuestro tè, etc.(1)

She finished; plaudits resounded, and the air was quoted as a farther example of the superiority of foreign talent to English. The cantatrice assented, and agreed to yield to the general argument of the company, if the music which had just been played adagio should be found equally beautiful when played presto. She then [page 96:] sung it presto, and it was immediately recognized, to the consternation of all present, as an old English nursery song, very popular to be sure, but not precisely of the highest class. Our readers of Spanish will understand that —

Maria tràyga un caldero

Means nothing more than —

Molly, put the kettle on.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 95:]

1.  The editor prints this Spanish-Italian doggerel as Poe wrote it, without correction [[— ED]].





[S:1 - JAH10, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of Memoirs and Letters of Madam Malibran)