University Musical Encyclopedia/Vocal Music and Musicians: The Vocal Art; Great Vocalists; Famous Songs/Henriette Sontag
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Few lives of celebrated singers have been more sensational than that of Henriette Sontag. Not one do we call to mind in which the fabric of reality has been interwoven with so much romance, the course of incident more thrilling, the sequence of circumstances bordering more closely on the province of the fairy tale.
Sontag was born in the beautiful Rhenish town of Coldentz, May 13, 1805. It was a modest household, that of the Sontags; father and mother were both actors. The child was barely six when she made her first appearance at Darmstadt in Kauer's "Donauweibchen," and created some sensation by the sterling quality of her voice. Three years later her father died, and mother and children went to Prague, where Henriette continued to appear in children's parts, anxiously awaiting the time when she would be allowed to enter the conservatory.
At last, in 1815, though under the age prescribed, she was admitted. When she was fifteen, a fortunate accident occurred that was to lift her at once into a prominent position. The regular prima donna suddenly fell ill, and the director of the theater had to confide her part as Queen in "Jean de Paris" to Henriette. Always petite, at that time she looked a mere child. She used to dwell in after years on the many innocent stratagems adopted to add to her apparent age, one of the principle items being a pair of red shoes with souls four inches in thickness. Though she was naturally somewhat timid, the sweetness of her voice was such as more than to compensate for all deficiencies. The Prague audience was so generous in its applause that the reputation of the singer traveled fast beyond the limits of both town and kingdom. Vienna was still the Mecca of all aspirants to musical honors. Henriette was soon installed in the "Kaiserstadt," over which the shadows of Haydn and Mozart seemed yet to linger, where the mighty genius of Beethoven was still battling against poverty and physical adversity; where Weber, Moscheles, Hummel appealed for judgment, and Fodor-Mainvielle enchanted mighty audiences.
Four years Sontag remained in the gay capital, alternating her time between close study and occasional appearances on the stage. Ever afterward she acknowledged freely that she owed much, and perhaps everything, to Madame Mainvielle, who took a friendly interest in the young singer. But the Vienna public, slow to recognize new talent, was not very appreciative until Weber set the seal on her name by confiding to her the title-rôle in his opera "Euryanthe," which she carried through triumphantly, October 25, 1823. Composer and singer were in everyone's mouth; even Beethoven, whose interest was not easily aroused, and whose deafness kept him at home on the night of the performance, asked how "little Sontag" had acquitted herself. From this date the German, and we may say the European, reputation of Sontag was established. She was soon to leave Vienna—not, however, before she had sung at the first performance of Beethoven's Ninth symphony and his mass in D, works which tax the powers of a singer.
After a short engagement in Leipzig, she signed a contract on excellent terms for Berlin. Here she was received with the greatest enthusiasm, and acquired a popularity never known before. The court, affable and art-loving, was additionally impressed by her German birth. The nation was delighted. Many are the tales related of the exaggerated form this worship took. On one occasion a set of boisterous students at Göttingen overturned her post-chaise into the river, that nobody might use the vehicle after her. Luckily, the coach was empty at the time.
In 1826 Sontag first appeared in Paris as Rosina in "Il Barbiere," and was warmly applauded. The critics were unanimous in her praise. Catalani is reported to have said of her: "Elle est la première dans son genre mais son genre n'est pas le premier" (She is first in her class, but her class is not the first). And yet there may have been just a grain of truth concealed in this malice. In comic and light opera, such as "Il Barbiere" and the graceful, if somewhat shallow, productions of the French school, she was as near perfection as can be imagined; but when she turned to more serious parts, as in "Semiramide," it was stated—and perhaps not quite without reason—that she was somewhat lacking in highly dramatic quality. Where she was wanting Pasta excelled, and the earnestness with which Sontag watched that great actress and tried to frame herself on her model forms one of the many proofs of her modesty which was a prominent feature in her character.
In England she appeared first on April 19, 1828, at the King's Theater, London, as Rosina, and met with a most flattering reception, sharing with Malibran the honors of that and the succeeding season. The story of the coolness existing between the two, and of how, after singing together the duet from "Semiramide" at a concert, mutual admiration transformed their estrangement into warm friendship, is well known. Sontag appeared here in other rôles, and her artistic fame was enhanced by her popularity in society.
At Berlin Sontag has made the acquaintance of Count Rossi, of the Sardinian diplomatic service. In 1829 their private marriage took place.
After a time Count Rossi's efforts to secure court sanction to his union were successful---the King of Prussia bestowed a patent of nobility on the lady, who bade farewell to artistic life. As Countess Rossi she accompanied her husband to The Hague, where he was representative of the Sardinian court. Occasionally she would sing for public charities, in concerts or oratorio—a style in which she is said to have been unrivaled; still, for nearly half her lifetime she remained lost to the musical public and followed the career of her husband at the courts of Holland, Germany, and Russia. But the disorders of 1847–48 had impaired their fortunes, and she was tempted to return to the opera.
Lumley, of Her Majesty's Theater, London, was in the throes of one of those crises which more than once threatened that theater with imminent ruin. Jenny Lind, on whose reappearance he had counted, was not to be weaned from the repose she enjoyed in her Brompton villa. There was nobody to replace her, and the public protested emphatically against any singer not of the very first merit. Before any knowledge of the financial embarrassments of the Rossis could have reached him, the wary impresario had scented from afar the possibility of securing the great singer to repair his failing fortunes. A first attempt to approach the subject through the Earl of Westmorland, British ambassador at Berlin, was doomed to failure; but where the diplomatist had failed the virtuoso was successful. Thalberg, passing through Berlin, called on the Countess, and laying siege to the half-willing victim, succeeded in breaking down the last barriers of her resistance. The overjoyed impresario was enabled to announce in a flourish of language her immediate return to the stage.
It was, in truth, a great risk. She had been for operatic purposes dead for over twenty years, and this half-forgotten singer of a previous generation was now to be unearthed and placed in juxtaposition to the mature power of Jenny Lind. Lumley himself confessed that he thought it impossible that a voice could be preserved intact for such a length of time. Had there been another singer at his command it is more than likely that the idea to reëngage Sontag would not have occurred to him. But all his doubts were dispelled. Her voice and charms were unimpaired, and the unanimous opinion seems to have been that, in the words of Adolph Adam, she now united to youth and freshness the qualities of a finished artist. Her former deficiencies were in some measure compensated by study and less girlish appearance. As Amina, though Jenny Lind was fresh in the public memory, she was rapturously received; as also in Desdemona, and Susanna in the "Nozze di Figaro," one of her favorite parts, and pronounced by a German critic the most perfect thing he had ever seen on stage. Her extraordinary preservation of her powers was partly due, no doubt, to long exemption from the wear and tear of incessant public singing, but Sontag was always extremely careful of her voice, discarding any rôle that did not lie well within her register. Thus, in an early contract at Berlin, she expressly stipulates that she shall not be bound to sing in the operas of Spontini.
After a tour in the English provinces in the winter of 1849, she went to Paris, where a successful series of concerts, also under Lumley's management, preceded in the spring of 1850 her reappearance at Her Majesty's to win fresh laurels as Norina in "Don Pasquale," Elvira in "I Puritani," and Miranda in Halévy's new opera "La Tempesta." As Zerline and in "La Figlia del Reggimento," she appeared for the first time, and with preëminent success. In the autumn of 1850 she sang in Italian opera at Paris, Lumley again being director of the company. During this season Alary's "Tre Nozze" was produced, and the polka-duet between Sontag and Lablache never failed to send the public into ecstasies. It was brought out in London in 1851, with similar results. During this season, Sontag's last in London, she sang in a round of her favorite parts, ad in the production of "L'Enfant prodigue." In Germany, wherever she went she carried all before her. At a concert in Munich she was expressly requested to stay to hear the last piece. It proved to be a "Huldingungs Chor"—verses composed expressly in her honor by the Crown Prince and set to music by Lachner.
In 1852 Sontag received offers from the United States, which tempted her thither with her husband in the autumn. The results were brilliant. Her voice was strengthened by the climate, and at this time she could sing in "Lucrezia Borgia" and "La Figlia del Reggimento" on a single evening without overfatigue. Her last appearance was made in "Lucrezia" at the City of Mexico in 1854. She was attacked by cholera, and on June 17 a brief illness cut short a life of uncheckered prosperity.
Berlioz, remarking on the fact that Sontag had less to suffer than other equally famous singers from hostile criticism and party spirit, ascribes it to her having united so many favorite qualities. Her figure was slender and mignonne, her hair between auburn and blonde, her eyes large, and her features delicate. Her voice, a soprano of clear and pleasing quality, was specially good in the upper register, reaching the E in alt with facility, and in perfection of execution she seems to have been unsurpassed by any singer of her time. But she was deficient in dramatic power, and only appeared to the highest advantage in works of a light and placid style. On her return to Paris, in January, 1828, she essayed parts of a different order, such as Donna Anna and Semiramide, with success, but in passion and emotion never rose to the distinction she attained as a songstress. She was a thorough and conscientious artist, and her style won her the special favor of eminent musicians. Mendelssohn entertained the highest admiration for her, and she obtained a like tribute of praise from connoisseurs in every country. It fell to her lot to achieve an international popularity and fame never before accorded to a German singer.