On a rainy July night in 1851, Jenny Lind performed at the Old Edwards Church in Northampton. As with her many other appearances in the United States, the Swedish Nightingale’s performance received the approval of the “[s]ixteen to seventeen hundred” concertgoers that welcomed her to the stage that evening.1 On the program were two regularly featured songs from Lind’s concert series, M. Taubert’s “The Bird Song” and Maurice Strakosck’s “The Echo Song.” Each piece showcased Lind’s virtuosic talent by including in its ballad form a type of musical mimicry for which Lind was famous. In the first, Lind trilled like a bird; in the second, Lind imitated herself, throwing her voice to evoke the resounding echoes of a cavern. “The Bird Song” and “The Echo Song” were consistently popular with American audiences, representing two of the most cherished songs in Lind’s repertoire. An early review published in The Savannah Daily, for instance, recalled the “bravas” following “The Bird Song” and “The Echo Song” to be “loud and long.”2 The New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette similarly reported that Lind’s “sweet voiced…warbling” in each solicited such a “thrill of sympathy” in her audience that they even forgot to breathe.3
At the Old Edwards church, however, such trills failed to thrill all. One audience member, poetess and pianist Emily [End Page 493] Dickinson, left the concert somewhat under-impressed. In a letter to her brother Austin, Dickinson wrote of her lukewarm response to this “night of Jennie [sic] Lind.” Although attracted to the “air of exile in her mild blue eyes,” Dickinson found Lind’s “manner of singing” distasteful. What the songstress needed, according to Dickinson, was a good musical editor: “take some notes from her ‘echo’—the Bird sounds from the ‘Bird Song’ and some of her curious trills” and her performance would become “very fine” indeed. Carefully distinguishing between the Swedish Nightingale and the music that had made her famous—“how we all loved Jennie [sic] Lind, but not accustomed oft to her manner of singing did’nt [sic] fancy that so well as we did her”—Dickinson’s letter reveals a troubling facet of Lind’s otherwise inspiring performance. In these moments of musical mimicry, Lind became something else—a transformation threatening to sever the sentimental bonds developing between poetess and songstress. As Dickinson readily admitted, it was “Herself” (and not this something else) that “we all came to love.”4
Portrayed in the press as an exemplar of the sentimental ideal, Lind regularly inspired in her American public the sympathetic identifications that Dickinson’s letter acknowledges.5 Yet Dickinson’s aversion for Lind’s “extra notes” problematizes our understanding of Lind’s popularity during her 1850–1851 American tour. Her letter thus recommends a starting point for addressing the curious phenomenon of Jenny Lind: for at the heart of this spectacle was virtuosity’s tenuous placement in the United States and Lind’s own celebrated improvisations. Introduced to the American public in the 1840s, virtuosic improvisation challenged—as it did for Dickinson—music’s role as a sympathetic art. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, sacred music dominated American musical practice as prominent music theorists, composers, and critics (Thomas Hastings, Lowell Mason, John Sullivan Dwight, among others) emphasized music’s more affective nature to justify its institutionalization in the lives of everyday Americans.6 Written for the first academy of its kind in the United States, Lowell Mason’s Manual of the Boston Academy of Music (1834), for [End Page 494] instance, described music’s “great object” to be “the improvement of the heart.”7 By the 1840s and 1850s, however, the musical scene exploded, introducing musical genres and styles hitherto unavailable to middle-class Americans: a mixture of European and folk music traditions where black-face minstrelsy and sentimental ditties were heard alongside the Italian operas of Rossini and the classical compositions of the European “greats,” from Mozart and Beethoven to Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Liszt.
To this unique American soundscape came European virtuosos like Ole Bull...