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Maddalena Lombardini SIRMEN, Eighteenth-Century Composer, Violinist and Businesswoman


Elsie Arnold and Jane Baldauf-Berdes

Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2002

170 pages

ISBN 0-8108-4107-X

Maddalena Lombardini Sirmen has remained in the history books mainly as a pupil of the violinist Tartini to whom he wrote an important letter detailing her practice regime and his views on violin technique. This book is an important attempt to expand our knowledge of Maddalena Lombardini Sirmen, but it is not a true biography. The materials simply do not exist; apart from her wills we have no significant personal documents of hers. Instead the authors have produced a documentary biography, filling in the gaps with some excellent background material (Charles Burney features quite highly) and ending up with a discussion of Maddalena’s music.

Born in 1745, Maddalena Laura Lombardini (Sirmen was her married name) in 1753 she gained a place at the Ospedale dei Mendicanti. Technically the Ospedale was a combination of hospital for the sick and elderly, home for the poor and orphanage. But, like the Ospedale della Pieta where Vivaldi worked), the young women in the Mendicanti received a good musical training and made an income for the Ospedale by performing. So the Mendicanti actively solicited talented young women and Maddalena was one of these. And she obviously was talented as she was permitted to leave the Ospedale for periods to have lessons with Tartini.

She finally left the Ospedale in 1767 when she married another musician, Lodovico Sirmen. They immediately left on a concert tour, performing together. Though they had some success, Lodovico eventually returned to his job in Ravenna and consoled himself with the Countess Zerletti. Maddalena, for her part, took her cicisbeo or cavaliere servente on her honeymoon tour with her. This gentleman, the priest Dom Giuseppe Terzi would be her companion on all her travels and they would die within 9 days of each other. Unfortunately we know only the bare facts and can only speculate on what the participants in this little comedy actually felt.

Maddalena had a successful career as a concert artist until the late 1780’s. She spent a number of years in London, first as a violinist and then as a singer. Again we have no knowledge of why she changed from violinist to singer but Elsie Arnold makes some very sensible educated guesses. In addition to London Maddalena’s concert career took her to Paris and even Russia. But, at her final concerts in Paris in 1785 her technique was beginning to look rather old-fashioned. Giovanni Battista Viotti, with the help of a new style bow, had revolutionised violin technique and Maddalena does not seem to have modernised her own technique.

She seems to have retired to Venice. Throughout her career she had managed her own career and her financial affairs; investing money and even sending money back to her husband (who frittered it away on Countess Zerletti). By 1798 she seems to have been a rich woman, but the invasion of Venice by Austria had a disastrous effect on the Venetian currency and Maddalena died in 1818, evidently rather poor.

We only have fragments of Maddalena’s life and Elsie Arnold has made an excellent job of piecing them together. Jane Baldauf-Berdes provides an excellent pair of chapters on Maddalena’s not inconsiderable music, mainly Violin concertos, sonatas and string quartets.

Most of the research for the book was done by Jane Baldauf-Berdes who had done her doctoral thesis on the Musical Life at the Four Ospedali Garandi of Venice. She did her doctorate under Denis Arnold, at Oxford. Arnold died before Baldauf-Berdes gained her doctorate, so when Baldauf-Berdes unfortunately succumbed to cancer it was to Denis Arnold’s widow, Elsie that the family asked to turn Baldauf-Berdes’s notes into this excellent book.

Robert Hugill



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