Sirmen qts cpo5554882

Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen (1745-1818)
Six String Quartets op. 3 (1769)
Quartet No. 2, in B flat major
Quartet No. 3, in G minor
Quartet No. 5, in F major
Quartet No. 4, in B flat major
Quartet No. 1, in B flat major
Quartet No. 6, in E major
Lombardini Quartett
rec. 2021, Stift Herzogenberg, Austria
cpo 555 488-2 [65]

Maddalena Laura Lombardini was born (in Venice) in December 1745. Her parents were apparently of noble origin but were more or less penniless. At the age of 7, she was admitted to the city’s Ospedale de Mendicanti – not as an orphan or because her parents were impoverished, but because she showed such musical ability that the institution judged that she would be an asset to their choir and orchestra (both of which were all-female).

Her musical education was furthered at the Ospedale, where she would have studied singing, sight reading and violin and harpsichord. She may also have had lessons in composition from the Ospedale’s maestro de coro, Ferdinando Bertoni (1725-1813), composer of some 70 operas and a substantial body of sacred music. Young Maddelena’s talents as a violinist were such that in 1760, the Ospedale (or perhaps Bertoni himself?) arranged for her to spend some time during the summer months studying with the great violinist Giuseppe Tartini in Padua. Students granted such a privilege were, naturally, supervised by a governess.

By 1766, around the age of 20, Maddelena sought to put life in the Ospedale behind her. Normally this would come about either by a girl’s taking up life as a nun or by marrying. The second of these alternatives was apparently the more appealing so far as Maddalena Lombardini was concerned. The Ospedale often found a husband for young women leaving the institution and provided a dowry for them. In this case, Tartini also seems to have made efforts to find her a suitable husband. One way or another, she found a husband; in September 1767 she married (in the church of S. Maria Formosa in Venice) Ludovico Sirmen (1738-1812), a violinist and composer, who was then maestro di capella at Santa Maria Maddelena in Bergamo and had also been a pupil of Tartini.

During the next few years, the couple made very successful tours together, performing in Italy and beyond – they gave concerts in, for example, Turin, Liege and Amsterdam, as well as many other cities. A report, by the composer Quirino Gasparini, on a performance by Maddalena Sirmen in Turin – “She won the hearts of all the people of Turin with her playing . . . I wrote to old Tartini last Saturday telling him the good news. It will make him all the happier, since this student of his plays his violin compositions with such perfection that it is obvious she is his descendant” – is quoted in Karin Pendle’s Women & Music: A History, Indiana, 1991, p.114).

As a soloist in London, Sirmen had to overcome prejudices against the very idea of women playing the violin; as late as 1789, Mrs. Thrale was recording that the Critics “say a Violin is not an Instrument for Ladies to manage, very likely!” (Quoted thus in Simon McVeigh, Concert Life in London from Mozart to Haydn, Cambridge U.P, 1993, p.87). A writer in The Morning Chronicle of March 15, 1791, pronounced that it “requires the more muscular tone of a man, than the delicacy of female nerves to accomplish the instrument [i.e. the violin]” (ibid.)” Despite such attitudes, Maddalena Sirmen initially met with great success in London. By 1771, Sirmen was touring without her husband and was accompanied, instead, by a long-time friend, Don Giuseppe Terzi. She was very well-received in the London season of 1771, when she was one of the ‘sensations’ of the season – see Simon McVeigh, ‘Italian Violinists in Eighteenth-Century London’, The Eighteenth-Century Diaspora of Italian Music and Musicians, ed. Reinhard Strohm, Turnhout, 2001, pp.139-176) – and again in 1772. Perhaps because the tastes of London audiences were fickle and most readily attracted by novelty, in 1773 she chose to appear as a singer (in operas at the King’s Theatre) rather than as a violinist. After her appearances as a singer Charles Burney wrote “Madame Syrmen, the scholar of Tartini, who was justly admired for her polished and expressive manner of playing the violin, appeared as a singer […] but having been first woman upon her instrument, she degraded herself by adopting a character in which, though not destitute of voice and taste, she laid no claim to distinction” (quoted from Marian M. Scott, ‘Maddalena Lombardini: Madame Syrmen’, Music & Letters, 14(2), 1933, 149-63. quotation from p.154).

This seems to have marked the beginning of the end for Lombardini Sirmen’s career as a performer. There is a record of her at the Court Theatre of Dresden in 1782, when she was singing minor roles. In the following year she was engaged as a singer at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg. However, in 1785 she gave a concert as a violinist, at the Concerts Spirituels in Paris, but her playing was now, it seems, judged to be old-fashioned in style. Rather than her talents being on the wane, what Elisabeth Weisbauer says in the booklet accompanying this disc may well be correct: “Although the quality and professionalism of her played had not changed, audience tastes had. Audiences now wanted to hear virtuoso, impressive playing. They would rather see someone who would perform a tour de force rather than a violinist to enchant the ear.” (English translation by Daniel Costello). Thereafter she seems to have retired from performing.

To turn more directly to the music on this disc: Maddalena Lombardini Sirmen seems to have been one of the first women (perhaps even the very first) to write string quartets. These six quartets were first published in Paris in 1769. The title page reads thus: “SEI/QUARTETI/A Violino 1, e 11, Viola, e Violoncello/DEDICATI/Al Illustrissimo Signor Conte/ BENEVENTO/Di Sant.t Raffaelle/E COMPOSTA DA/LODOVICO, E MADELENA LAURA SYRMEN. Prix 9.#/Opera III./A PARIS/Chez Madame Bérault Musique rue de la Comédie francaise/Faubourg St. Germain au Dieu de l’harmonie/Et aux addresses ordinaires”.

There are several points of interest here. What, for example, should we make of the statement that these quartets were composed by “Lodovico” and “Maddalena”? Perhaps at this point of time, Ludovico was better known than his wife, and the appearance of his name on the title-page (in first place) was a marketing device intended to reassure any potential customers sceptical of the value of works by a woman composer. Or, perhaps, the quartets were the product of Maddalena’s last few years in the Ospedale in Venice and her husband made, or suggested, a few revisions of these youthful works? Probably we shall never be entirely sure of the exact truth where this statement is concerned. In an interesting essay, ‘Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen (1745-1818’ (in Annäherung VIII – an Sieben komponistinnen, ed. Clara Meyer, Kassel, 1997, pp.73-893) Marc-Joachim Wasner has argued persuasively that these quartets are stylistically more like Maddalena’s known work than that of her husband, a view endorsed by Eloise Arnold in her entry on Maddalena in the New Grove. The title page’s reference to “Signor Conte Benevento” is less of a problem. He was a music lover and minor composer who lived in Turin and can be presumed to have been a patron of the husband-and-wife violinists.

Elizabeth Wiesbauer and the quartet she leads clearly have no doubts that these quartets are the work of Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen. Indeed, they have chosen part of her (maiden!) name as the name of their quartet.

The six quartets (in what follows I shall assume that they were entirely, or very largely, the work of Madame Sirmen) are all in two movements – with the possible exception of No. V, in which the first movement is in three distinct sections, marked ‘Larghetto’-‘Allegro’-‘Larghetto’; since this movement is longer than the first movement of any of the other five quartets, one might choose to view it as three short movements. The other five quartets share a broadly common structure, in which the first movements “usually have a singing character with a moderate to fast tempo” (Wiesbauer); the second movements are more various – Wiesbauer calls them “a great playground of formal experimentation, pointing out that “In Quartetto I we find an ingratiating Allegretto in 3/4 time and a tender drone in the viola. In Quartetto II there is an audacious Fugato in 2/4. Quartetto III’s second movement features a rondo-like alternation between an even bar Allegro and a 6/8 Sostenuto”. Any reader desirous of more technical/formal analysis than would be appropriate here is advised to seek out W. Dean Sutcliffe’s review (Notes, 2nd series 62:4, June 2006, pp 1061-4) of Sally Didrickson’s edition of the quartets (Bryn Mawr, Hildegard Publishing, [c.2002])

The eighteenth-century serenade and divertimento are more relevant to the consideration of these quartets than the great tradition of the string quartet is. Occasionally one hears similarities with Haydn, but I find the affinities with Boccherini’s writing for small string ensembles more striking – such as the habit of using a narrow range in which to accommodate the four independent voices, sometimes as little as half an octave and a shared fondness for the marking ‘cantabile’.

There is a vivacious quality in much of Sirmen’s writing which is thoroughly engaging and attractive. There are times, in the second movement of No. 3, for example, when Sirmen seems to be remembering the popular/folk music of her native Italy. But she can also write thoroughly dignified and ‘proper’ music, such as the beautiful and affecting larghetto which opens the second movement of No.5. This is a composer with much to say and many musical resources with which to say it; for the most part, Lombardini Sirmen’s harmonic language is sophisticated. She needs no special case (feminist or otherwise) to be made for her. In these six fascinating quartets her music speaks powerfully for itself.

I know of two other recordings of this set of quartets: from 1994 by the Allegri String Quartet (Cala CACD 1019) and from 1999 by the Accademia della Magnifica Communità (Tactus TC731201). It is, though, a long time since I heard these two recordings, and I feel in no position to make detailed comparisons with this new recording. I didn’t make any notes when I heard the two earlier recordings, but my recollection is that the Allegri Quartet played the music on modern instruments, unlike the Lombardini quartet who use period instruments – I prefer the greater brightness of sound they produce. Purely as performances the interpretations by the Accademia della Magnifica Communità were, if my memory can be trusted here, less accomplished than those by the Allegri and Lombardini quartets, though their love of the music shone through.

In short, this new recording of the six String Quartets by Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen represents her work very well. She is clearly a ‘heroine’ in the eyes of the four women making up the Lombardini Quartet and their respect and admiration is evident in the skill and passionate commitment with which they play her music. Their attitude is made verbally explicit in the booklet essay by the leader of the quartet, Elisabeth Wiesbauer. The essay concludes thus: “The list of unconventional things that Maddalena Lombardini did in her life is remarkable. She liberated herself from the tight corset of strict teaching institution and adopted a self-determined career as an artist as a woman in the 18th century; she lived and travelled for decades separate from her husband and with her partner Terzi; she composed and oversaw the publication of her own works; she was one of the first who composed music for string quartet. We can only guess as to what obstacles she had to clear out of the way in an [artistic] world dominated by men. We are in awe, impressed by so much courage.” Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen’s story is certainly remarkable – but, fortunately, so too is her music.

Glyn Pursglove

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Elisabeth Wiesbauer, Gloria Ternes (violin); Rosi Haberl (viola); Cecilia Sipos (cello)