Violin Virtuosas

Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen (1745-1818)

Maddalena Sirmen was born in Venice, Italy, to a noble, albeit impoverished, family on 9 December 1745. At the age of seven she began her musical studies at the Ospedale dei Mendicanti. The Venetian ospedales were charitable organizations that sought to improve the lives of the poor, where girls could receive training as musicians. The most talented would form orchestras that would raise money by performing for tourists, many of them young men coming through Venice on their Grand Tour. Once these women came of age, they could marry; if they chose not to, they usually stayed in the ospedale their entire lives.

Maddalena evidently showed great promise, as she was allowed to leave the ospedale to take lessons from the renowned violinist Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770). Tartini was so impressed by her ability that he offered to pay for her lessons at the ospedale. While she was under his tutelage, he wrote a famous letter to her in which he describes facets of violin technique common at the time. You can read that letter here. In 1767, at the age of twenty-one, Maddalena married another violinist named Ludovico Sirmen, and she left the ospedale. But, unlike her fellow students, she didn't give up her performing career, even after she had a daughter named Alessandra in 1769.

The two Sirmens often performed together in joint concerts, and even co-wrote a double violin concerto together. Later, Ludovico began a romantic involvement with a woman named Countess Zerletti. Maddalena, on the other hand, traveled with a servant named Dom Giuseppe Terzi, who apparently died nine days after she did. The nature of their relationship is unknown, although it is certainly interesting to speculate what all passed between the two couples.

Maddalena concertized until the late 1780s in countries as far away as England, France, and Russia. In her later years, she began to perform as a singer. Unfortunately her singing was met by less acclaim than her violin playing. Nevertheless, by the end of her career, she was very wealthy. Interestingly - and unusually! - she remained in charge of her own financial affairs throughout her marriage. She did very well for herself, and her fortunes only turned when Austria invaded Venice and the value of Venetian currency took a steep nosedive. She died on 18 May 1818 in relative poverty.

Maddalena had just as much, if not more, success as a composer than as a performer. Her works were widely performed throughout her own lifetime. No less an authority than Leopold Mozart (1719-1787), father of Wolfgang Amadeus, wrote of her first violin concerto that it was "beautifully written." You can listen to a recording of Maddalena's first violin concerto here. Here is an excerpt from her third concerto.

List of Compositions

Maddalena's IMSLP page

Six Trios for two violins and cello obligatto
Six Quartets for two violins, viola, and cello
Six Duets for two violins
Six Concertos for violin
Six Sonatas for two violins

Sources / Further Reference


The Norton Grove Dictionary of Women Composers, by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel
Maddalena Lombardini Sirmen, Eighteenth Century Composer, Violinist, and Businesswoman, by Elise Arnold and Jane Baldauf-Berdes


Maddalena Lombardini Sirmen - Book Review from Music Web International
Plectra Ensemble website