“The Jenny Lind mania still continues, like a snow ball, which – crescit eundo – grows larger as it rolls.” – “Jenny Lind in the Metropolis,” The New York Herald, September 5, 1850
With the success of the recent movie musical The Greatest Showman (released December 2017), interest in Swedish soprano Jenny Lind (1820-1887), “still continues” today as it did in 1850. Rebecca Ferguson (who, like Lind, was born in Stockholm) plays the opera star coaxed to the United States by the legendary showman P.T. Barnum, played by Hugh Jackman. In a departure from the historical record, Ferguson’s Lind falls for the married Barnum, setting up a central conflict in the film. Though some reviews of The Greatest Showman were tepid, audiences embraced the upbeat, pop-heavy soundtrack and family-friendly story. The movie-Lind’s power ballad “Never Enough,” written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, claims many YouTube covers and was performed by contestants on the most recent seasons of NBC’s The Voice and ABC’s American Idol. Despite its popularity, the film might leave viewers wondering: why has Lind’s star power endured to the present? And how did she become a cultural phenomenon in the first place?
In the U.S., the phenomenon began with Barnum. Following a ten-year career singing leading roles in opera houses across Europe, the so-called “Swedish Nightingale” had retired in 1848. But the profit-minded showman convinced her to undertake an American concert tour. In a February 20, 1850 letter to the editor of the New-York Daily Tribune, Barnum claimed that his true intent was to expose the country to a magnificent artist:
… I assure you that if I knew I should not realize a farthing profit, I would yet ratify the engagement, so anxious am I that the United States shall be visited by a lady whose vocal powers have never been approached by any other human being, and whose character is charity, simplicity and goodness personified.
Almost immediately, the publicity Barnum generated began to feed off of itself. “The all-absorbing topic in the saloon, the hotel, and the family circle is the distinguished stranger [Lind],” noted one newspaper. When she arrived in New York for her first set of concerts, crowds stampeded and concerts quickly sold out. Lind was the darling of the press, with her movements in any given city reported across the country. “Lind mania” spread beyond the east coast when she performed in cities including New Orleans, Memphis, Madison, and Cincinnati.
Historians have pointed to Lind’s impeccable reputation and charitable giving as factors in her mass appeal: she was a woman of the stage who nevertheless embodied her Christian faith. During the eight months she toured with Barnum, Lind reportedly donated upwards of ten thousand dollars to charities including the New York City Fire Department Fund and several orphan asylums.
Of course, Lind’s personality was only one factor: there was also her voice, with its wide range and beautiful tone in its high register. By contrast, Lind’s musical number in The Greatest Showman, “Never Enough” (sung by Loren Allred), is in a lower range than would have been comfortable in Lind’s voice and its musical style is very different from nineteenth-century opera repertory. After her first Boston concert, one paper did not even attempt to describe Lind’s voice: “Vain – lunatic would it be – to attempt to describe the qualities of Jenny Lind’s voice. The soul felt every trill of her melodious utterance – the whole air seemed to vibrate with her sweet and astonishing eloquence.”
The memory of Lind’s tour – of her personality and her voice – was kept alive in the decades after her 1852 return to Europe through both objects and music. The seemingly endless array of Lind-inspired knick-knacks produced in the 1850s have lived on in museum collection: figurines, cups and saucers, medals, cigar boxes, and glass bottles, to name but a few. Lind’s repertoire ended up in thousands upon thousands of parlors during the nineteenth century in the form of sheet music, often purchased by or for young, white, middle-class women to sing at home. Today, major collections of “Lindiana” are held at the ASHM, the New-York Historical Society, and Stanford University.
As Lind did not live into the era of recording technology, her voice can now only be heard where memory and imagination intersect: perhaps the unknowableness of her voice is part of its allure.
Watching The Greatest Showman, we do not hear what nineteenth-century audiences would have heard. But we do, in a way, get a taste of their experience. The film, writes the Guardian’s Caspar Salmon, “though hokey and trite at its core […] offers a genuine rush of spectacle and wonder.” With its help, we too can leave the theater excited by – perhaps even humming – the songs we just experienced.
Katie Callam is completing her PhD in historical musicology at Harvard University. Her dissertation explores how music history was crafted during the early twentieth century in the United States and includes a chapter on the Jenny Lind centennial celebrations of 1920.