Her music was admired by Leopold Mozart. She was one of the first composers to write string quartets. As a young woman, she wrote a set of six violin concertos and performed them to great acclaim. She toured Europe as a violinist and singer and led a truly fascinating life with a bit of intrigue and mystery to it (was her marriage a PR stunt?).
Today we’re looking at thirteen facts about the life, career, and music of composer Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen.
1. She was born Maddalena Laura Lombardini to noble but impoverished parents in Venice in December 1745.
2. During the eighteenth century, Venetians contributed to programs to educate abandoned or orphaned girls so they could perform in virtuosic women’s orchestras for visiting wealthy tourists. (Vivaldi taught at one of these schools and composed a great deal of music for the girls and women who worked in them.) The schools became so renowned that even the nobility sent their daughters there to be educated. Little Maddalena began her musical studies at seven years old at the San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti, the youngest age a pupil at such an institution was allowed to be.
3. She must have been incredibly talented because when she was 14, she was given leave to travel and study in Padua with master violinist Giuseppe Tartini…and he even paid for her tuition! He wrote a letter to her about violin technique that would become famous, and, centuries later, would help period practice performers better understand Baroque violin technique.
4. In 1766, at the age of 21, she expressed her desire to pursue a performing career outside of Venice, and she was given permission to leave. The following year, she married another violinist named Ludovico Sirmen. This is why you’ll hear her referred to as Maddalena Lombardini or Maddalena Sirmen.
5. In 1768, she and her husband gave a legendary performance in Paris, where they performed a double violin concerto they had co-written. Parisian audiences were delighted, but unfortunately, a score has not survived, so we have to guess as to what it sounded like!
6. In 1769, the couple published a set of six string quartets under the Sirmen name; however, it is agreed today that Maddalena was the quartets’ sole author. Joseph Haydn is widely referred to as the father of the string quartet, but he only started publishing his string quartets in the late 1760s. So at the time she was writing, this was a cutting-edge genre, and the conventions of the form had not yet fully developed.
Sirmen: String Quartet No 5 in F Major | Skyros Quartet
7. She gave birth in 1769 to a daughter named Alessandra. We don’t know exactly what happened, but by the end of 1770, Ludovico moved to Ravenna, Italy, to take a job there. He took his baby daughter with him, as well as a mistress. Unusually for the time, Maddalena retained control of her own finances during her marriage, which of course makes some historians wonder if the union had maybe been a bit of a self-promotional tool, or a way she could more easily leave Venice. To put another wrinkle in the story, Maddalena traveled with a priest, who she may or may not have taken as a lover. However, it was common at the time for Italian Catholics to travel with priests, so we can’t know the nature of their relationship for sure.
8. While the Sirmens were making a splash in Paris, Maddalena published a set of six violin concertos, now known as her op. 3. They are incredibly charming and accessible works from the early classical era. We don’t know when she composed them: if she wrote them while still a student, or while she was pregnant with her daughter and not performing. In a letter to his son Wolfgang, Leopold Mozart praised Maddalena’s first concerto as “beautifully written.” Wolfgang famously wrote a set of five violin concertos between 1773 and 1776, shortly after Maddalena’s came out, so it is fascinating to compare them!
Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen: Violin Concerto No.1 in B-flat major, Op. 3
9. In 1771, she made appearances in London. The following year, she performed as a singer, but her singing was not received nearly as well as her violin playing. Nevertheless, she was accomplished enough to give concerts as both an instrumentalist and a singer, and it is interesting to think about how her vocal abilities might have informed her ideas about violin playing, and vice versa.
10. She traveled the world, performing in Paris, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, and other locales. However, over time, as the musical world moved from the Baroque era into the classical era, her playing began to be called old-fashioned. A 1785 attempt at a “comeback” in Paris was sadly unsuccessful.
11. In 1795, when she was 50, she and her priest adopted a little girl together named Angela Maddalena.
12. Maddalena had always been shrewd when it came to managing her money. But she kept all of her savings in Venetian currency, and when Napoleon conquered the region in 1797, the value of her investments collapsed. She didn’t become completely impoverished and fortunately was able to fall back on money she’d earned during her performing career, but the fiscal instability of the era affected her net worth. She died in 1818, leaving what assets remained to her two daughters.
13. You can hear much of Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen’s music today, even though it doesn’t often show up on concert programs! Check out Youtube and Spotify. There are even modern editions of the sheet music of her charming and extremely accessible violin concertos and string quartets available for purchase…or you can go to IMSLP.org to download the eighteenth-century sheet music for free and create your own modern versions of the scores.
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