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Saturday 21 August 2010


What better way to celebrate my fiftieth post on this blog than with a song!

Deborah Castle was my 3x great aunt. Her brother Charles was travelling widely through Europe in the autumn of 1847. He left Deborah a list of addresses and she wrote to him frequently with news of family and events in and around their home in Bristol.

Her news regularly included recent or forthcoming public entertainments. There was the Weymouth Regatta for example, at which “there were a great many about, chiefly as you may suppose of the lower orders.” She went to a concert by a singer called Phillips, “a very thin attendance hardly enough I should think to cover his expenses.”

Deborah's letter of 19th September 1847 to Charles,
sealed with wax and written in two directions to save paper 
- surprisingly easy to read (although you may disagree)

When Charles reached Milan in October 1847 he got Deborah’s news that

“Jenny Lind is coming here [Bristol] to sing at the theatre for one night, and one in Bath. The prices are raised 5/- gallery and various prices up to 25/- boxes. Whether the theatre will fill at such a figure I rather doubt, as so many have now heard her. We talk of going. Michael [brother of Deborah and Charles] protests against giving so much but I think it will end in our going with Miss Adams who is in want of a chaperone.”

Jenny Lind (1820-1887):
(left) as Alice in the opera Robert Le Diable by Meyerbeer (ceramic figurine c1847)
(right) in a portrait by Eduard Magnus now in Stockholm (painted 1862)

Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale, had been famous in Europe for nine years before she made her English debut in the presence of Queen Victoria at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, in an opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer. It was 4th May 1847, only four months before Deborah wrote to Charles, and Lind spent most of the rest of the year touring the provinces of Britain and Ireland.

She was at the height of her powers. A year earlier, Mendelssohn had written the soprano part in his new oratorio Elijah with her in mind, including the high F sharp for which she was famous. Mendelssohn fell in love with Lind (as Hans Christian Andersen had done four years earlier). There are persistent rumours that they had an affair, and that in 1847 Mendelssohn asked her to elope with him to America. She didn’t go, but she was so devastated by his untimely death that November that she was unable to sing Elijah for a year afterwards. When she finally tackled it, it was to raise funds for a Mendelssohn Scholarship (of which a young Arthur Sullivan, later of Gilbert & Sullivan fame, was the first recipient).

PT Barnum brought all hs showbiz razzmatazz
to the promotion of Jenny Lind in America
(cartoon of her first concert there, 1850)

The great showman PT Barnum finally persuaded her to go to America, where she gave 93 concerts between 1850 and 1852. She made $250,000, much of it for charity; Barnum made $500,000. She returned to England however, retiring and settling in Malvern where she died in 1887.

I do hope that Deborah, Michael, Charles and Miss Adams bit the bullet and paid the extortionate ticket price. They could afford it. Jenny Lind would never again be as confident and care-free as she was in that summer and autumn of 1847, royally applauded by kings and queens, universally admired by the public, and passionately adored by Mendelssohn. Although the Bristol concert was to be given in 1848, after Mendelssohn’s death, it would have been a pity to pass the once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear the nightingale sing.

The Victoria Rooms, Bristol,
in which Jenny Lind sang in 1848,
had been opened only six years earlier

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