Christina Nilsson (1843−1921)

Christina (or Kristina − she also commonly wrote Christine) Nilsson was born on 20 August 1843 on a farm in Vederslöv’s parish in the region of Småland, and died on 22 November 1921 in Växjo. She worked as an opera and concert singer from 1864 until 1888. Nilsson was considered one of the foremost Swedish-born international opera singers during the 19th century − a soprano with an impressive high range. She also wrote a few musical works. Christina Nilsson was elected into the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 1869.

Life

Childhood and education

Christina Nilsson was the youngest of seven siblings and she was born on 20 August 1843 on a farm named Sjöabol in Vederslöv’s parish just outside of the town of Växjo. Her parents were Jonas Nilsson and Stina-Cajsa Månsdotter. The family was quite poor and in 1848 they were forced to move off the farm. Christina taught herself to play her older brother’s violin and at the age of eight she began visiting roadside inns, markets and dances where she earned money by singing and accompanying herself on the violin. As an 11 year-old, she was mentioned in the newspaper Fäderneslandet in 1855 by the editor Nils Munk af Rosenschöld. Christina Nilsson’s impoverished childhood was later romanticised and often written about. A large number of the early biographies made use of anecdotes about the poor, resourceful little girl. Her life was painted as a Cinderella story.

In 1857 a 14-year old Christina Nilsson sang and played at a summer market in Ljungby. Among the audience were District Judge Fredrik Tornerhielm and the pharmacist Sven Edvin Berg who are considered to have discovered her. They arranged for her to have her first music education under the tutelage of the singing teacher Adelaide Valerius (later wed Leuhusen) in Halmstad. Valerius contacted the composer Frans Berwald and in September of 1859, Nilsson moved to Stockholm in order to continue her music schooling under him. It was through Berwald that Stockholm’s music scene was made available to Nilsson. She had her debut in a public concert on 28 February 1860. Criticism was sympathetic but not glowing. Journalist Oscar Patric Sturzen-Becker (pen name, Orvar Odd) wrote that she was artistically undeveloped. However, the sharpest criticism was aimed at Berwald, which led her patrons to arrange for Nilsson to continue her studies in Paris. In September of 1860 she began her studies with the renowned vocal teacher Nicolas Jean Jacques Masset (1811−1903). Masset was succeeded in 1861 by Pierre Francois Wartel (1806−1882) who was her singing teacher until 1864. Wartel arranged for Nilsson to audition for, among others, Thèâtre Lyrique’s director, Léon Carvalho (1825−1897), which resulted in several engagements.

Breakthrough and career

On 27 October 1864, Nilsson debuted as Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris. She was well received but the debut was not much of a sensation. The critics remarked that her voice was still uneven and that she had a weak middle register. It was her second debut on 23 February 1865, as the Queen of the Night in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which was to be the big breakthrough for her. In this role she was praised to the heavens. Nilsson said herself in the newspaper Ny Illustrerad tidning from 21 April 1894 that her portrayal of Violetta was childish and immature while the Queen of the Night role was better suited to her voice. It was particularly the big aria’s staccato passages in an enormously high tessitura that were an uncommonly good fit for her voice. Nilsson related that at the premier, the audience required her to sing the aria again − three times in total.

In 1867 Christina Nilsson had a new breakthrough when she debuted at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London in the role of Margareta in Charles Gounod’s Faust. Between 1867 and 1870 Nilsson sang at both the Paris Opera and Her Majesty’s Theatre. On 9 March 1868 she debuted as Ophelia in Ambrose Thomas’ newly written opera Hamlet. The roll was designed specifically for Nilsson and as a nod to her Scandinavian origins, a part of the folk tune ‘Näckens polska’ was written into one of Ophelia’s larger arias. The opera broke box office records.

In 1869 Nilsson became a member of the Kungliga Musikaliska akademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Music). In 1870 she did her first concert tour in the USA, and then in 1872, a second tour. During both of these tours she took part in various operas and gave concerts. In her concerts she sang opera arias as well as folk songs. Above all, the song ‘Fjorton år tror jag visst att jag var’ became her signature piece. In July 1872 she married Auguste Rouzaud who henceforth accompanied her until he died in 1882.

From 1872 until 1884 she did successive tours in Europe, the USA and Canada. She was named Imperial Chamber Singer in both Austria and Russia. New successes included, above all, Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, Valentine in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots as well as Elsa in Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. On 22 October 1883, she sang Margareta at the Metropolitan Opera’s opening ceremony.

Nilsson stopped performing opera in 1885 but continued to concertise. In September 1885 the so-called ‘Christina Nilsson accident’ occurred in Stockholm when Nilsson sang from a balcony at the Grand Hotel. Panic struck the crowd of 30,000. Sixteen women and two girls were trampled to death and around 70 others were hurt.

In 1887 Christina Nilsson married Duke Angelo de Casa Miranda. Shortly thereafter she ended her career. The couple settled in Paris and Madrid, and in 1895 Nilsson bought the home Villa Vik in Småland. In 1902 she was widowed for a second time and after that, she spent her summers in Småland. She died in Växjo on 22 November 1921.

Christina Nilsson’s voice

Christina Nilsson’s vocal register stretched from low B natural to F above high C. She had an impressive high range and somewhat weaker low and middle ranges. The singer described how she early-on cultivated her high notes because as a child, the people she sang for found it impressive. Nilsson’s timbre is described as special. Phrases such as ‘crystal-clear’, ‘like a bell’ and ‘flute-like’ are often-repeated descriptions.

Sofia Berfors in 1877 emphasised that among Nilsson’s contemporaries there were many female singers with larger voices but none more beautiful, while Arvid Ahnfeldt wrote in 1887: ‘Chr. N. has at her disposal, a voice that does not dazzle with impressive strength, does not set fire with passion’s glowing coals, but draws one in through her gentle, tender beauty.’

Works

Christina Nilsson has written a few musical pieces, the songs ‘Ofelias klagan’, ‘Jag hade en vän’, as well as arrangements of the folk songs ‘Om dagen vid mitt arbete’ and ‘Spring and Autumn’ (an English reworking of ‘Fjorton år tror jag visst att jag var’). In ‘Ofelias klagan’ for song, piano and violin one can hear Nilsson’s background as a violinist. The song is expressive and the violin part has a relatively large ambitus. ‘Jag hade en vän’ for song and piano has the feeling of a Swedish folk song in a relatively quick triple metre. All the songs combine the style of Swedish folk song with a bit of vocal virtuosity.

Ingela Tägil © 2015
Trans. Jill Ann Johnson

Publications by the composer

'A few Words about Public Singing', The North America Review, 1 June 1883, pp. 568−570.
'Om röstens utbildning. Några råd till unga sångerskor', Ny Illustrerad Tidning, no. 9, 3 March 1894, p. 93; no. 16, 21 April 1894, p. 163.

Bibliography

Ahnfeldt, Arvid: 'Nilsson Christina', in: Europas konstnärer, alfabetiskt ordnade biografier öfver vårt århundrades förnämsta artister, Stockholm: Oscar L. Lamms förlag, Stockholm 1887, pp. 398−409.
Bergfors, Sofia: Christina Nilssons resor, Lund, 1877.
Björklund, Ingegerd: The Compelling. A Performance-Oriented Study of the Singer Christina Nilsson, diss. in musicology, Gothenburg University, no. 64, 2001.
−−−: Den oemotståndliga, en Christina Nilsson-biografi, Västerås: Författarhuset, 2000.
Carlsson, Beyron: Kristina Nilsson, Grevinna de Casa Miranda. Minnen och upplevelser, Stockholm: Åhlén & Åkerlund, 1921.
Charnacé, Guy de: Christina Nilsson, Paris: Plon, 1869.
'C. L.': 'Christine Nilsson', Ny Illustrerad Tidning, no. 14, 1865, pp. 107−109.
Cronhamn, Frithiof: 'Den uppgående stjernan. (Några drag ur Christine Nilssons ungdom)', Ur Dagens krönika, vol. 5, 1885, pp. 793−799.
Curzon, Henri de: 'Mme Christine Nilsson' in: Croquis d’artistes, Librairie Fischbacher, Paris 1898, pp. 37−50.
Dizikes, John: Opera in America A Cultural History, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993.
Forsstrand, Carl: 'Nordens näktergal. Kristina Nilssons lefnadssaga för Julstämning berättad af henne själf och efter andra källor', Julstämning, vol. 9, 1914.
Franzén, Nils-Olof: Christina Nilsson: En svensk saga, Stockholm: Bonnier, 1976.
−−−: 'Christina Nilsson', in: Romantiskt rendezvous, Stockholm: Bonnier, 1992, pp. 264−293.
−−−: 'Nilsson, Christine', in: Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, vol. 26, Stockholm: Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, 1989, pp. 686−690.
Fryklund, Daniel: 'Bidrag till kännedomen om Christina Nilsson', Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning, vol. 25, 1943, pp. 183−194.
−−−: 'Nilsson, Kristina', in: Svenska män och kvinnor, vol. 5, Stockholm: Bonnier, 1949, pp. 447−448.
Headland, Helen: Christina Nilsson the Songbird of the North, Rock Island, Ill.: Augustana Book Concern, 1943.
Hedberg, Frans: Svenska operasångare: Karakteristiker och porträtter, Stockholm: Fritze’s K. Hofbokhandel, 1885, pp. 316−319.
Hofberg, Herman: 'Casa Miranda, Christina (Nilsson)', in: Svenskt biografiskt handlexikon, vol. 2, 1906, pp. 168−169.
Jungstedt, Kurt: 'Tante Christine', in: När livet är ungt, Stockholm: Bonnier, 1954, pp. 27−36.
Klein, Hermann: 'Christine Nilsson: The second "Swedish Nightingale"', in: Great Women-Singers of my Time, vol. 2, Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1968, pp. 66−79 [vol. 1 1931].
Lawson, B. Evald: Cristina Nilsson’s Visit to Brockton, Mass., in November, 1870. Pages from the Early History of the Oldest Swedish Lutheran Church in New England, Rock Island, Ill.: Augustana Historical Society Publications, 1934.
Lewenhaupt, Inga: 'Konkurrens av Christina Nilsson vid Thèâtre Lyrique i Paris 1866−67', in: Signe Hebbe (1837−1925): Skådespelerska, operasångerska, pedagog, diss. in performance studies, Stockholm University, 1988, pp. 99−106.
Löfgren, Mia Leche: Kristina Nilsson Smålandsflickan som blev världsstjärna, Stockholm: Lindfors, 1944.
Norlind, Tobias: Kristina Nilsson Grevinna de Casa Miranda: Sångerskan och konstnärinnan, Stockholm: Åhlén & Åkerlund, 1923.
−−−: 'Christina Nilsson', in: Nordens årsbok 1922, København, 1922, pp. 213−214.
Petersson, Thorsten: Kristina Nilsson: Sångardrottningen från Värend, Stockholm: Missionsförbundet, 1949.
Tegnér, Elof: 'Nilsson, Christina', in: Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, new series, vol. 7, Stockholm: Beijer, 1877, pp. 336−343.
Tornehed, Stig: 'Christina Nilsson-minnen i det småländska landskapet', in: Småländska strövtåg genom fem sekler, Växjö: Diploma, 1976, pp. 151−174.
'W. B.': 'Christina Nilsson', in: Svenska Familj-Journalen, vol. 11, 1872, pp. 356−357.
Wägner, Elin: 'Hur Stina i Snugge blef diva i Paris och en strålande stjärna på två kontinenter. En saga ur Lifvet', Idun [Iduns Christina Nilsson Nummer], 17 August 1913.
Österberg, Carin, et al.: 'Nilsson, Christina', in: Svenska kvinnor: Föregångare Nyskapare, Lund: Lund, 1990, pp. 274−276.

Summary list of works

Songs.

Collected works

Songs
Ofelias klagan (Complainte d’Ophélie) for voice, violin and piano. Printed in an enclosure to the paper Julstämning, Stockholm: Åhlén & Åkerlund, 1914.
Jag hade en vän.
Om dagen vid mitt arbete, folk song arrangement.
Spring and Autumn, arrangement and English reworking of the Swedish song 'Fjorton år tror jag visst att jag var'.