Hermina (Hermine) Barbot managed something few other Charleston women of her day could even imagine: She was famous in a good way. In an age when “ladies” were warned that their names should never appear in the newspaper, Madame Barbot made headlines on a regular basis and always received star billing.
Born in Brussels in 1842, Hermina Petit toured Europe as a 9-year-old pianist and played for the King of Holland. Her parents brought her to America in 1852, and she performed in New York at Niblo’s Garden with the superstar soprano Adelina Patti. The Petits soon moved to Charleston, where Victor, her father, set up a music academy for young ladies. A full course of 72 lessons, he proclaimed, would equip students to perform “parlor, opera, or sacred music.” His method was based on solfège, a system for sight-reading that uses the well-known sol-fa syllables (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti).
Victor, who played the clarinet, also gave popular concerts with “Miss Hermina” accompanying him on the concertina. They attracted a wide circle of admirers, and Victor envisioned a career for his daughter on the concert stage. But just three years after arriving in Charleston, Victor died of the dreaded yellow fever. His widow and Hermina’s mother, Marie, ran large ads in the newspaper announcing that Hermina, who was then 13, would take over teaching her father’s music classes in their home at 13 Legare St. Marie also set up a school for young ladies, where all academic instruction was given in French. For an extra charge, pupils could also sign up for classes in other foreign languages, as well as in music, drawing, painting, “Callisthenic Exercise” and “Ornamental Needlework.” The students were forbidden to have visitors, except for parents and guardians who applied well in advance.
The Civil War broke out in 1861, disrupting what might otherwise have been a very profitable venture. Hermina married Pierre Barbot, also known as Peter, a French-speaking widower 23 years her senior, who was serving as lieutenant commander of the famed Sumter Guards. At some point Marie and Hermina closed the school and fled the besieged city, but they reopened it soon after the end of the war.
Hermina and Peter had six children, two boys and four girls. But unlike most married women of her day, Madame Barbot was anything but a stay-at-home mother. Named director of the Charleston Musical Association in 1875, she went on to direct ambitious productions of everything from Haydn’s “Imperial Mass” to comic operas, like Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment). The city fathers made sure that such illustrious venues as Hibernian Hall and the Academy of Music were made available at no charge for these concerts, some of which, like her 1885 production of Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto (Moses in Egypt), involved lavish costumes and special effects. She also served as organist for the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
To work with Madame Barbot was to scale the heights of Charleston’s amateur music scene, and attractive female soloists who appeared in her productions were often overwhelmed with lavish “floral offerings.” Until the 1890s, though, individual performers’ names were not published in newspapers or even in the programs. Madame Barbot’s name did appear, often in large print. In an age when the mere act of appearing on a stage could brand a woman as “loose,” Hermina Barbot was repeatedly hailed as a “high-minded, noble woman,” “a great artist and a beautiful character.” She died just 10 days before her 67th birthday, in December 1919. Music, as her obituary observed, had been “the grand passion of her life.”
Susan Millar Williams is the author, with Stephen G. Hoffius, of Upheaval in Charleston: Earthquake and Murder on the Eve of Jim Crow.