Pauline Viardot-Garcia was born in Paris to the Garcias, a Spanish opera family led by her father, tenor, singing teacher, composer and impresario Manuel Garcia . Her godparents were Ferdinando Paer and Princess Pauline Galitsin, who provided her with her middle names She was 13 years younger than her beautiful sister, diva Maria Malibran, but her father made Pauline his favorite and trained her on the piano and also gave her singing lessons.
As a small girl she travelled with her family to London, New York (where her father, mother, brother and sister gave the first performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni in the United States, in the presence of the librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte and Mexico. By the age of six she was fluent in Spanish, French, English and Italian; later in her career, she sang Russian arias so well that she was taken for a native speaker. After her father's death in 1832, her mother, soprano JoaquÃna Sitchez took over her singing lessons, and forced her to focus her attention on her voice and away from the piano.
She had wanted to become a professional concert pianist. She had taken piano lessons with the young Franz Liszt and counterpoint and harmony classes with Anton Reicha, the teacher of Liszt and Hector Berlioz, and friend of Ludwig van Beethoven. It was with the greatest regret that she abandoned her strong vocation for the piano, which she did only because she did not dare to disobey her mother's wishes. She nevertheless remained an outstanding pianist all her life, and often played duets with her friend Frédéric Chopin, who approved of her arranging some of his mazurkas as songs, and even assisted her in this. Liszt, Ignaz Moscheles, Adolphe Adam, Camille Saint-Saens and others have left accounts of her excellent piano playing.
After Malibran's death in 1836, aged 28, Pauline became a professional singer, with a vocal range from C3 to F6. However, her professional debut as a musician was as a pianist, accompanying her brother-in-law, the violinist Charles Auguste de Bériot
Viardot began composing when she was young, but it was never her intention to become a composer. Her compositions were written mainly as private pieces for her students with the intention of developing their vocal abilities. She did the bulk of her composing after her retirement at Baden-Baden. However, her works were of professional quality and Franz Liszt declared that, with Pauline Viardot, the world had finally found a woman composer of genius. As a young girl she had studied with the musical theorist and composer, Anton Reicha, she was an outstanding pianist, and a complete all-round professional musician. Between 1864 and 1874 she wrote three salon operas - Trop de femmes (1867), L'ogre (1868), and Le dernier sorcier (1869), all to libretti by Ivan Turgenev - and over fifty lieder. Her remaining two salon operas - Le conte de fées (1879), and Cendrillon (1904; when she was 83) - were to her own libretti. The operas may be small in scale, however, they were written for advanced singers and some of the music is difficult. She also wrote instrumental compositions, often for violin and piano. Among her arrangements are vocal arrangements of instrumental works by Chopin, Brahms, Haydn and Schubert.