People & Events: Jenny Lind, 1820-1887
Stephen Foster might have missed opera singer Jenny Lind's performance in Pittsburgh in the spring of 1851, but he couldn't have missed the impact of the so-called "Swedish Nightingale" on the American music scene. Born October 6, 1820 in Stockholm, Sweden, Jenny Lind had conquered the capitals of Europe before she turned 30. The talented soprano could sing in a range from the B below middle C to high G, but it may have been Lind's vocal purity and humble presentation that caused Queen Victoria to throw flowers at her feet.
Although most Americans had never heard of Lind, none other than master showman P. T. Barnum sent an emissary to Europe in November 1849 to negotiate with her for a series of American concerts. At the time, Barnum was better known as a promoter of sideshow attractions than a devotee of serious art. Yet he paid $187,500 in advance to bring Lind and her accompanists of choice to America for 150 performances.
If Lind was unknown to all but a few American opera fans when she signed her contract with Barnum, she had become a household name by the time she arrived in New York on September 1, 1850. A consummate media manipulator, Barnum had built Jenny Lind mania to a fever pitch with advertisements, well-placed positive reviews, and even a contest to write a song to be performed by Lind at her American debut. An estimated 30,000 people thronged New York's waterfront as Lind arrived -- a tribute to Barnum's promotional genius.
Almost no Americans had heard Lind sing, and she was neither vivacious nor beautiful. What Barnum had successfully sold to the public was the image of Lind as a simple woman with a God-given talent who had dedicated her life -- and her substantial earnings -- to a number of charity causes. Her first concert, at New York's Castle Garden on September 11, played to a sellout crowd of 5,000, who had bought their tickets at auction for as much as $225 apiece. And on that first night, the crowd roared with gusto as Lind lent her substantial talent to interpretations of "Casta Diva," "Il Turco in Italia," and a home-grown ditty called "Greeting to America." Composed by poet and novelist Bayard Taylor, the song won Barnum's contest -- and a $200 prize.
After the first performance, a few naysayers -- including poet Walt Whitman -- surfaced. But Lind generally received rave reviews. The $10,000 in concert proceeds she donated to charities, including the Fire Department Fund and the Lying-in Asylum for Destitute Females, helped cement her position as America's sweetheart. After more than 30 shows in New York, Lind struck out across America, where she performed to enthusiastic audiences everywhere. Jenny Lind mania swept the nation. Schools, bridges, and other public edifices were named after the Swedish Nighingale, as were numerous consumer products, from pies and cigars to bonnets and whiskies. Only in Havana, Cuba, where patrons considered the high price of the tickets an insult, did the fervor wane -- only to be restored during her first performance there.
Just as P. T. Barnum had hoped, he and Jenny Lind made beautiful music together -- to the tune of some $712,161 in gross receipts. In city after city, Barnum and Lind took in more money than Stephen Foster would make in his entire career. Yet even money was not enough to hold the two together. Lind severed her contract with Barnum after some 93 shows. She continued on her own, but never did as well without the impresario as she had with him.
In 1852, while still on tour of America, Lind married her accompanist, Otto Goldschmidt. Shortly after, she returned with him to Europe, where the two raised a family of two boys and one girl, living first in Dresden, Germany, and then in England's Malvern Hills. Lind used much of the money she made in America to establish charity endowments. She seldom sang publicly after her American tour; when she did it was usually in performances organized by her husband. Jenny Lind gave her last performance in 1883. That same year, she began a three-year teaching appointment at London's Royal College of Music. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage on November 2, 1887, at the age of sixty-seven.
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