Christina Nilsson - a Swedish Queen of Song

Christina Nilsson, soprano (1843 - ­1921) with her golden voice made no less than four major tours across the United States and Canada. She was born on August 20, 1843, as the youngest of seven children at the small farm of Snugge, just south of Växjö in Småland. Snugge had been in Christina's family's possession for generations, but during her adolescence they were forced to give it up, as one of many bitter steps they had to climb down the social ladder. They came to belong to the large group of really poor Swedes in the 1800s, a period when many people emigrated to the United States.

The family had to move to Lövhult, a farm under the large estate of Huseby in the parish of Skatelöv. Christina early showed a talent for singing as well as playing the violin. She was only eight years old when she started to contribute to her own and her family's support. Rather like a little beggar girl of the country road she made for the dances, the inns, the markets and other places where people gathered. With her song, her violin and her jaunty performance she became famous in the vicinity.

When she, at the age of fourteen, attended the summer fair in Ljungby she got a fantastic opportunity which was going to change her life forever. She was offered a musical education by a local celebrity who had fallen for her obvious musical aptitude, and she accepted it greatfully.

Three years later, in 1860, her studies took her to Paris and there she made her debute as Violetta in Verdi's La traviata, a tremendous success, followed by her next demanding role, the Queen of Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute. Now her name was spread all over the world of music and the fairy-tale of her life was told over and over again. It took several years before she saw her home again. In 1865 she made a short visit and performed, in the church of her childhood, David's psalm about the yearning deer with a melody composed especially for her. This "Christina Nilsson hymn" is still frequently performed by new singers in the little church of Skatelöv.

In Paris new roles awaited her, and soon she extended her work to London as well. Some of her most famous operas were, in addition to the ones mentioned above, Flotow's Marta, Thomas' Hamlet and Gounod's Faust. She also performed at concerts with arias, romances and Swedish folk-songs, as well as in the great oratorios by Händel and Bach.
The rumour about the new singing queen also reached the United States, and the Americans were waiting impatiently to hear her. In September 1870 she began her first American tour, which was going to last for almost two years. She got an absolutely fabulous greeting by the Scandinavians in New York, and around Christmas she contributed to the first large Scandinavian manifestation in Chicago. She performed in several American cities and received fantastic ovations wherever she went. On July 8, 1871 she visited West Point, as General Upton's special guest, and sang both Swedish and American folk-songs. Every single cadet pulled a button from his uniform and presented her with a unique necklace of shiny buttons as a memory of the event. During her first tour she is said to have appeared in some thirty cities, giving 173 performances and concerts.

In the summer of 1872 Christina returned to London to marry the Parisian financier Auguste Rouzaud, unknown to most people, but the wedding in Westminster Abbey seemed almost royal.

In the autumn she conquered the Russian capital of St Petersburg and gave a special performance in Moscow. Here, just as in America, the people knew how to welcome and honour the uncrowned queen of song. The tour was concluded in March 1873 in St Petersburg with Christina as Gretchen in Faust. When Christina opened the jewel box in the garden scene she found that the usual theatre knick-knacks had been exchanged for real jewels, gifts from the tsar and his wife, and from the theatre season-ticket holders. From the standing-ticket audience she recieved a magnificent golden laurel wreath. After the performance the students lay down on the snow, constituting a living carpet for the prima donna.

She now continued her career in Europe, covering most European countries. In 1873 - 74 she returned to the United States, and then again in 1882 and 1883.

She attended the opening of the Metropolitan, singing in Faust, and got another laurel wreath (later worn by Birgit Nilsson as a tribute to her predecessor when Nilsson made her last performance at the old Met). Christina Nilsson obtained a unique status as an artist. She had friends in most of the European princely houses and mixed with royalties on all but equal terms. She had the great honour to be invited to the White House, something very unusual at that time. That way she got to know the two presidents Taft and Arthur.

Apart from her voice she had a marvellous stage charisma which enchanted everybody (all descriptions of her, from her early childhood onwards, point out her fantastic blue eyes). She was a rare mixture of the sublime and the down-to-earth, always being herself. She once declared that nobody would ever have to give her applause out of charity, and maybe that is one of the reasons for her retirement in 1888 - after twentyfive years in the business. She had become a widow in 1882, but remarried in 1887. Her new husband was the Spanish count Angelo de Casa Miranda.

Christina Nilsson's song had given her quite a considerable fortune, and she bequeathed a large sum of money to the Royal Music Academy, money which is annually distributed to talented song students. Christina Nilsson, countess de Casa Miranda, died in Växjö in 1921, where she rests in a mausoleum built especially for her.

The Christina Nilsson Society, the purpose of which is to preserve her memory and to promote the kind of music she had devoted her life to, has approximately 400 members. During our century her vocal tradition has been meritoriously kept up by Swedish international stars such as Jussi Björling and Birgit Nilsson. The latter was an honorary member of the Christina Nilsson Society.