I enjoy exploring the byways and obscure corners of music, the (now) neglected “minor” masters – those seen today as minor, and all but shrouded in the huge shadow cast by those selected by posterity as giants of their days, although they may have enjoyed great fame in their time. Other, of course, than the minor (or, occasionally, major) pleasures offered by their music, one of the reasons for to explore these composers is to get a better understanding of the terrain in which the giants grew (for the classical era, obviously, Haydn and Mozart), and possibly a better grasp of what sets them apart as “giants”, opposed to the throngs of “minor masters”. Some of these – in the classical era, Boccherini, Dittersdorf, Cambini, the Bach sons, Stamitz, Vanhal, Michael Haydn among others – where indeed highly regarded in their time – and nonetheless, their aura rapidly declined, while Haydn’s and Mozart’s durably lasted.
But talk about Maddalena Lombardini Sirmen! Even I had never heard of her, and I chanced on the CD of her Six String Quartets recorded in 1994 by the Allegri Quartet as I was compiling a discography of the label, Cala. Very enjoyable. The quartets were published in 1769, which makes them contemporary with Haydn’s opus 9, considered to have established the genre and form of the strng quartet, and Boccherini once boasted that he had, together with three pupils of Tartini, given the first-ever string quartet concert, in Milan in 1765. The disc’s liner notes conclude that “the efforts of this 19- to 20-year-old composer can fairly be ranked with those of the early Haydn and Mozart”, and I fully agree. But ultimately, as always with those composers now considered “minor”, I end up not concerned too much with a comparison with the great giants and trying to recognize what sets them apart and makes them the giants they are, as simply enjoying the pleasures offered by the music as it is.
Her birth year, 1745, makes Sirmen a contemporary of Carl Stamitz and a near-contemporary of Dittersdorf, Vanhal, Boccherini, Cambini, Kozeluch, Cimarosa; it also places her midway between Haydn (born 1732) and Mozart (1756). Dying in 1818, she outlived them all too (except possibly for Cambini, whose passing isn’t recorded with certainty, but could have been as late as 1825). The disc’s liner notes are a model of information about what is known of her and read like a novel. Born in Venice, she was a violin pupil of Tartini and considered the legatee and champion of his style of violin playing (the long letter sent to her by Tartini in 1760 was eventually published and translated and became the classic textbook in mid-18th century violin playing technique. It can be read online here). She was in fact very famous for a while, and her fame (and travels) extended to Paris and London in the late 1760s and early 1770s. Then this violin virtuoso… switched to singing, and must have been equally good at it, since she was hired as prima donna by the Dresden opera, then in Saint Petersburg in the 1780s. When she returned to Paris in 1785, again as a violinist, she didn’t meet the same success as the first time around: playing styles, fashions and tastes had changed, the Tourte bow had been invented which allowed for more forceful and fast playing, as opposed to the sweet and vocal playing style advocated by Tartini – from which one may derive a fascinating inference, that all the violinists who play Tartini today, even the “historically-informed”, are probably entirely misconceived in their playing style: but thtat’s another story… Anyway, she didn’t change her style, returned to Italy and recessed in obscurity, then oblivion.
Sirmen’s dicography remains frustratingly scanty. Here is what a quick check on the web yielded:
Duetto No. 6 in C major for Two Violins. Giovanni Guglielmo, Orchestra Barocca Andrea Palladio (in Giuseppe Tartini e la Scuola della Nazioni + works of Tartini, Giulio Meneghini, Ludovico Sirmen, Johann Gottlieb Naumann, André Noël Pagin, Johann Gottlieb Graun, Pietro Nardini). Tactus TC 692005 (2014), bc 8007194105797
Note that Ludovico Sirmen is the husband of Maddalena Lombardini
Quartets Nos 2 & 3. Erato Quartett Basel (with String Quartets of Fanny Mendelssohn-Henselt, Emilie Mayer). Cpo 999 679-2 (1999), bc 761203967926
6 Violin concertos op. 3. Piroska Vitárius, Savaria Baroque Orchestra, Pal Németh. 2 CDs Hungaroton 32 499-500 (2007), bc 5991813249920
Violin Concerto in A major op. 3-3. Arion Orchestre Baroque, Stefano Montanari (violin and direction) (In “Les Trésors caches d’Italie / Hidden Treasures of Italy” with violin concertos of Cristiano Giuseppe Lidarti, Carlo Alessio Razetti, Antonio Maria Montanari, Pietro Nardini). Early-music.com EMCCD 7776 (2014), bc 629048174728 (link will open new tab to the label’s website for more info).
And, at the time of writing (August 2017), that’s all, folks.