I am still working away on my Sontag (or Cephaline) project and should have a finished object to share next week. In the meantime, I found out more about the life of Henriette Sontag, a famous operatic soprano in the first half of the nineteenth century. I found a fabulous copy of a book, The Life of Henriette Sontag, Countess de Rossi, published in 1852, which provides an overview of her life and career. I particularly enjoy that it is written in the style of the day and have included a sampling of quotes below.
Sontag was born in 1805 in Koblenz, Germany under the name Gertrude Walpurgis Sontag. Both of her parents were actors and Sontag impressed all with her singing voice from an early age:
To gratify the nobility of the district, the authorities of the town, or their friendly neighbors, it was the practice of Henriette Sontag’s mother to place her child on the table, and bid her to sing. (The Life of Henriette Sontag, Countess de Rossi, 1852, p. 7).
She was able to enter the Conservatory in Prague to study operatic singing at the age of ten:
At the Conservatoire of Prague, the little maiden and her relatives did not cease to be tempted by managers or Impresari. First attracted by her beauty, they were soon astonished by her aptitude. She successively won the prize of every class of this great school of music, until she earned the highest position; and, placed at the head of the school, she became one of the marvels of the city. (The Life of Henriette Sontag, Countess de Rossi, 1852, p. 8).
Sontag debuted in opera in 1823 at the age of 15 and was an immediate success. Of note, she sang at the first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and his Mass in D.
She was an opera superstar with many (male) fans:
Not allowed to approach the object of their idolatry, her adorers had to recourse to the most eccentric expedients to express their devotion. It is related that a young man of rank was so desparately enamored of her, as to resort to the romantic expedient of hitimr himself as a servant in her family. (The Life of Henriette Sontag, Countess de Rossi, 1852, p. 12).
Her singing career continued until 1829 when she married Count Carlo de Rossi. This must have been a bit of a scandal as she was not a member of the nobility, but she quickly received a Patent of Nobility (including a Coat of Arms) from the King of Prussia. With the marriage approved, she left artistic life. For the next twenty years, she raised her family and sang only occasionally at charitable functions.
Even the King of Bavaria was charmed by her and in 1846
…felt deeply the charm of her looks, her manners, and conversation, whilst her singing wound him up to poetical enthusiasm. Under its effect he wrote the following stanzas, which created and immense sensation at the time. (The Life of Henriette Sontag, 1852, p.31).
To give you a taste of the King’s poetry, I have included one stanza here:
Of the choirs sublime of the Cherubim
thou has borrowed thy strains;
and as he listens, each auditor thinks
it is the voice of his Guardian Angel that speaks.
(The Life of Henriette Sontag, Countess de Rossi, 1852, p. 32).
In 1847-1849, the de Rossi family suffered a financial loss relating to an economic crisis in Europe and the Countess de Rossi returned to the opera. In 1851, she sang in London at a concert that my own great, great, great-aunt attended as a little girl (more on that in another post)! In 1854, Sontag sang for the first time the words of the Mexican national anthem at the Italian Opera in Mexico City. A month later, she died from cholera. She was only 48 years old.
Miss Lambert’s book was published in 1843 before the Countess de Rossi returned to the opera. I imagine that naming the opera cap after Sontag was an acknowledgment to an operatic superstar with a romantic story that was well known among the aristocracy of the time.