Taking up our #ThinkOutsideTheBachs challenge, London-based musician Martin Ash offers engaging insights on the groundbreaking and innovative violinist-composer (also singer and keyboard player) Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen (1745-1818). Martin Ash is a viola player, folk fiddler, and sometime mandolinist, arranger and composer. His website is www.martinashmusic.com.
The first of two posts about Maddalena, it focuses on her biography. The second will explore her music,and will include more detailed links to sources and recordings.
Maddalena Lombardini was born in Venice, at a time when the city was still an independent republic but in political decline. There appear to have been several attempts (probably in her own early lifetime) to enhance her child-prodigy credentials by falsifying or confusing her date of birth, but this is now considered fairly well established as 1745, shortly before 13 December, when she was baptised.
Her parents were of the nobility, but impoverished; there is no evidence of them being musical, though a certain amount of musical training was normal as part of upper-class education at the time. Maddalena had seemingly shown significant noticeable talent by 1753, when she began her education at the Ospedale di San Lazaro e dei Mendicanti, at the earliest age pupils were admitted there. Originally a lepers’ hospital, by the 17th century this institution had acquired a girls’ orphanage which specialised in teaching music, when Antonio Vivaldi’s father taught there. Its members formed orchestras which played for visiting travelers (doubtless for donations which helped sustain the institution). By Lombardini’s time, the orphanage was actively seeking out musically talented girls for its ranks, and it is unclear whether Maddalena was an orphan, or if her parents were merely induced to part with a daughter who would have not been expected to earn money and for whom it would have been difficult to find a husband; but we can be reasonably confident she was ‘recruited’ on at least partly musical grounds, particularly as a violinist, though as was then common she also sang and played keyboard instruments (which ones were available would, of course, vary through her life).
In any case, the Ospedale proved the route to Lombardini’s future. She was taken on as a pupil and mentee by Giuseppe Tartini at the age of 14, and apparently became his favourite pupil. Not only was permission granted for her to travel from the orphanage to study with Tartini himself in Padua, and he himself paid for her musical tuition within the institution. This musical and financial benefaction became well-known as Maddalena’s career developed, and led to rumours that she was in fact Tartini’s illegitimate daughter! There is no reason to believe that this was the case, however.
During her time studying with Tartini and at the Ospedale, Lombardini fixed upon an aspiration of becoming a professional violinist. Female opera singers were not uncommon in much of Europe by this time, but working instrumentalists (as opposed to salon or domestically performing amateurs, who might be highly skilled) were extremely rare; they would grow slightly less so as the 18th century continued.
Pupils of the Ospedale usually only left when they married, which they could do once they came of age; others remained there well after childhood, sometimes their whole lives. This context gives Maddalena’s actions at around the age of 21 (1767) significance which seems to be rarely commented on. On the one hand, she obtained her licence of maestro (theoretically, this should have been maestra … ) at the orphanage. This was an equivalent of the journeyman’s licence obtained by craftsmen on completing their apprenticeships, and gave her the musicians’ guilds’ permission to work as a musician beyond the Venetian republic. On the other hand, she married fellow violinist Ludovico Sirmen.
–-This may be a good place to comment on the variety of names and spellings by which the subject of this post is indicated in different sources! The ‘Laura’ and ‘Maddalena’ (or Madelena) are found in either order, and either is used alone as well as both together. From her marriage onwards, most contemporary sources use her married surname of Sirmen, more often spelt Syrmen at the time and occasionally Ceriman. Modern academics often follow the convention of using maiden surname followed by married surname, i.e. Lombardini Sirmen or Lombardini-Sirmen; this too can be found on title pages of her compositions, though not particularly more so than other forms. —
The newlywed Sirmens immediately set out on a tour as travelling virtuosi, the career which Maddalena would follow for around the next 20 years. They appeared together in Faenza, Turin and Paris in the course of 1767–9. The travelling virtuoso market was a crowded one and performers seem to have used whatever unique selling points (to use a modern phrase) they could to attract audiences and patronage; a husband-and-wife duo certainly provided the Sirmens with an obvious ‘hook’ and they often played joint concerts on this tour. At this time, many soloists were writing much of their own repertoire (they would have carried the full sets of parts to all of it, written by them or not, and hired local orchestras, whether existing ensembles, scratch groups or somewhere in between, in each location). Whatever the actual division of labour may have been, a double violin concerto which the Sirmens performed in Paris in August 1768, apparently to rave reviews, was billed as a joint composition.
While the double violin concerto does not survive, her Duo for two violins (op. 5, no. 6) can represent the performance skills of the couple — it is given an amazing performance in this large outdoor venue in the Netherlands, recorded in August 2019.
I sound a note of doubt because Maddalena, at this point an unknown composer, rapidly eclipsed Ludovico, now a forgotten one, in this field. The Sirmens were still in Paris in 1769 when six string quartets were published, again under their joint names; however, musical analysts conclude they are in fact Maddalena’s sole work and they are now referred to under her name alone. This should not necessarily be interpreted as Ludovico seeking credit for his wife’s work; chamber music, if not specifically commissioned, was generally written at this date for sale (one-off and outright) to a publisher, who would set up the title page of the edition chiefly according to their own notions. As Ludovico had a more established reputation than Maddalena, and a man’s compositions would probably be taken more seriously, the fiction may have been perpetrated either by the Sirmens to try and get a higher price from the publisher, or by the publisher in a bid to boost sales.
Also in 1769, Maddalena gave birth to a daughter, Alessandra. However, by the end of 1770, Ludovico had returned to a position at Ravenna, taking Alessandra with him and soon openly linked with a Countess Zerletti or Zirletti (in the 18th century, Italy seems to have been more tolerant of mistresses than most of Europe). Very unusually, Maddalena had remained in control of her own finances throughout the marriage.
This is of course speculation, but Alessandra notwithstanding, we might wonder if the Sirmen marriage was never intended as a lifelong domestic partnership. Maddalena got her exit from the Ospedale, a kick-start to her professional career – and — the protection of a married name, with the security of her touring work explaining geographical distance from a husband whose activities would hardly be questioned across 18th-century Europe (besides keeping her own finances). Ludovico got a legitimate child, if the pregnancy was part of the plan, and the freedom to return to Zerletti with freedom from pressure to marry or marital interference. It may have suited both parties, especially if the money Maddalena remitted to Ludovico at Ravenna was in part a fee for his participation, as he would seem to have less to gain by the marriage. Incidentally, from when she left the Ospedale, Maddalena was accompanied travelling and at home by a priest named Giuseppe Terzi, who died a few days after she did. Catholics travelling in northern Europe often did so with a priest as confessor and Mass celebrant, since no such would be readily available, so we should not assume that all or any confessor / spiritual-director priests were anything other than what they claimed to be to women under their pastoral care, without evidence. (Although, as mentioned below, in 1795 Maddalena and Terzi jointly adopted a girl).
Regardless of personal details, Madame Sirmen continued her touring as a soloist from Paris to Liège, Amsterdam and London, where she made her début at the King’s Theatre in January 1771. She premièred her first solo (and sole credited) violin concerto there that year, and clearly found considerable success as she returned for performing seasons in the two following years. She also performed at least one harpsichord concerto as soloist, in the Bach-Abel subscription series (for many years the pinnacle of London concert life).
Besides London, Sirmen travelled and performed in France, modern-day Germany and even Russia over the next 14 years, which constituted her performing career. She also published: trios, duos, quartets and concerti are known.
For her third London season (1773), however, Sirmen swapped her main performing role from violinist to singer, though she continued to perform occasionally as a violinist for over a decade longer. Her singing did not receive as much critical acclaim as her violin playing; the influential, if utterly subjective, English essayist Charles Burney criticised the change: ‘having been first woman so long upon her instrument, she degraded herself by assuming a character in which, though not destitute of voice and taste, she laid no claim to superiority’. Unlike certain of her female singer contemporaries, she seems not to have composed for the voice and her publishing activity decreased along with her violin playing; I have found no reference to a new publication after 1776. This did not stop her international touring activity continuing with undiminished energy, however; in the 1783 season she was the leading lady at the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg. Paris in 1785 appears to have been her last concert appearance as a violinist, and her technique was apparently criticised as old-fashioned compared with Viotti’s innovations involving the transitional or classical bow – Sirmen was probably still using what today’s period-instrument performers would recognise as a baroque bow, which is certainly what she would have learned on in the 1750s and 60s. Similarly her repertoire was insufficiently modern for reviewers, and probably audiences.
Sirmen had remained financially shrewd, and managed to (productively) invest some of her earnings besides living off them and remitting money to Ludovico. By the late 1780s, she was able to retire to Venice, still with Terzi. In 1795, they jointly adopted a girl, Angela Maddalena (it seems likely she was given the second name after her new protector).
Unfortunately, by 1797 Sirmen’s money was all held in Venetian currency. In that year, Napoleon conquered the remains of the Republic of Venice and placed it under the rule of his puppet regime in Austria; the value of the Venetian currency collapsed. Sirmen does not seem to have been destitute, and she lived on her savings for another 20 years. However, when she died on 18 May 1818, her will (which survives) shows her to have been relatively poor. She left equal amounts of money to her two daughters, one biological and one adopted. Giuseppe Terzi died just nine days later.
Composers and, still more so, performers were rapidly forgotten in the fast-changing fashions of 18th and early 19th century art music, especially if they were not part of a very small canon of ‘greats’. (At the time of Sirmen’s retirement, England had an ‘Academy of Ancient Music’ which generally started playing pieces around 30 years after their first publication!) For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, Lombardini Sirmen was only remembered as Tartini’s pupil – much more specifically, as the recipient of an extended letter, effectively a treatise, on violin technique, from him much used as a resource on historical playing and performance practice.
By the late 1980s this was changing, however, and the last 30 years have seen a gradual though patchy increase in inclusion in histories and reference books; in editions of the compositions; and in recordings and concert programmings of some of the works, chiefly the quartets and concerti. This of course forms part of a rising recognition (albeit arguably overdue and incomplete!) of the value of women composers, often though sadly not always including historical ones, on the one hand, and on the other, of Classical composers beyond the hegemony of Wolfgang Mozart, Joseph Haydn and Beethoven.
— stay tuned for more — part 2, the music! —