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The Case for Jenny Lind
By Kevin Lynch

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  It’s hardly the case that a ‘case’ should have to be made for the most famous  singer of the 19th century, a woman who so commanded her audiences that women cried out and men openly wept, a woman who was featured on the cover of more American sheet music than anyone else during the century, including Lincoln. In the 20th century we had the Beatles, a musical phenomenon who had howling, weeping followers lionize them. But then the Beatles, as famous as they were, never had 30,000 on the docks of New York to greet them on arrival in America. And the Beatles had the rather significant advantages of recorded music and the airwaves. Few of the people gathered at the Canal Street docks that spectacular September day in 1850 had ever heard Jenny Lind sing.  
Jenny’s unprecedented popularity in the U.S. seemed to mushroom from her innate and very significant talent, her brilliant business decision, against the wishes of her advisors, to have P.T. Barnum manage her American tour, and the yearnings of Americans to hear the great operatic angels who had begun to arrive from Europe and England. There was Malibran preceding her, who thrilled Americans with her voice and theatrical talent. But Maria Malibran, daughter to Manuel Garcia, Jenny’s famous Parisian vocal teacher, did not have Jenny’s spectacular generosity or moral allure. Miss Lind’s gifts were more than vocal. Of the total amount earned on her American tour from 1850-52 (perhaps $250,000), as much as half of that revenue eventually found its way to charities. This generosity of spirit and pocketbook played very well with Victorian mores. The press, with Barnum’s selectively placed ‘puffs’ and advertisements fanning the flames, blew Jenny’s name across America.

Above and beyond all this was her very natural vocal style, which featured a soprano voice with unbelievable sustain and clarity in her upper register and in piano. She sang with the effortlessness of a bird. Audience members were often beside themselves. She was spellbinding.  

Though she blazed through Europe and London in the 1840’s with the seeming power of a magic wand, with many music reviewers falling over backwards in their effusiveness of praise, it was clearly the 100 American dates Barnum booked and the tour machinery he exquisitely handled, that created the eventual mania. Technically, it was to be 150 dates, but after 93 performances Barnum allowed a buyout of the remaining dates.

The image of the Wizard of Oz for Phineas Taylor Barnum would not be far a field, but for much of the mesmerizing tour there would be no sharp toothed Toto to pull back the drapery and expose the machinations. Jenny Lind cribs and Jenny Lind riding hats were just two of the many products developed which took advantage of his marketing abilities and her high moral character and success. Barnum’s hand was everywhere in Lind’s tour of the eastern states and Cuba.

Queen Victoria was swept away, eventually giving Jenny a shawl that graced the singer’s coffin when she died. Hans Christian Anderson proposed three times and composed the beautiful fairy tale The Ugly Duckling to honor her abilities to achieve in spite of plainness and lack of physical beauty. Chopin commented she had “unbelievable purity of tone” and Mendelssohn added “not once in a century does a voice come along like this” (of course, how would he know, he didn’t live to see a century out).

My point is that her brilliant ‘Northern Light’ was the result of more than any one dimension, more than Barnum’s ticket auctions and ability to inflame, more than America’s naive and untrained ears, more than her saintly compassion and legendary philanthropy, more than any one diva would be likely to produce in any century. It was the confluence, I suppose. Like the sweep and power of the Green and Colorado Rivers, melding into a single powerful force. It was perhaps a wave, a force of Swedish nature that moved queens and presidents, composers, poets and politicians. Her coming, and joining with the greatest promoter America has ever known, was one of those rare events that are difficult to overstate.

So why has it mostly been forgotten?

Though the American tour under Barnum lasted less than a year, she still appeared in portraiture on at least 50 different issues of American published music. Though there were many more music sheets that did not feature her likeness but mentioned her name and got the bounce of association, most all American publications of Jenny Lind music date between 1850, her arrival, and 1852, her departure date for England, where she spent most of the rest of her life. In those brief two years her image in lithographic portrait kept showing up. Though Lincoln had a very prominent five year period between election and assassination, it was the Swedish Nightingale who graced more covers of American music. 

It’s curious to note that her meteoric American successes were all in concert recital, her opera career, by her decree, having been shunted aside by that point. She was very religious and wanted the full determination of what she sang. Those two things seemed to mesh with her, her calling a linking of her art and religious belief. But aside from the audiences she spellbound, her donations to charity most marked her passage through America. Her offers were, in totem, spectacular. Orphanages, fire houses and homes for the blind, were just a few of the many, many social groups she gifted all over America. 

Though Jenny, with Barnum’s help, made her way to cities large and small, it’s what happened in Cuba that I found most arresting. Her first performance there was met with hisses, a reaction to Barnum’s high prices for the concerts, and then a steely silence followed from her audience of Habaneras. “Her countenance changed in an instant to a haughty self possession, her eye flashed defiance, and, becoming immovable as a statue, she stood there, perfectly calm and beautiful. She was satisfied that she now had an ordeal to pass and a victory worthy of her powers. In a moment her eye scanned the immense audience, the music began, and then followed – how shall I describe it? – such heavenly strains as I verily believe no mortal ever breathed except Jenny Lind, and mortal never heard except from her lips.”(New York Tribune)   

Her Havana audience was swept away and showered her with applause by the end of the concert. The performance stood as a mark of her generosity. No opera singer in the 20th century had the full scope and impact of Jenny Lind in the 19th.