Notes 62.4 (2006) 1061-1064
[Access article in PDF]
While Maddalena Laura Sirmen (née Lombardini, 1745–1818) is well enough known for her eminence as a performer—she was just about the only professional female violinist of her time, and a highly successful one, before embarking upon a less illustrious career as an opera singer—her compositions are certainly less familiar. In fact, the string quartets that appear here in two volumes edited by Sally Didrickson have not been published in the modern era. Like Sirmen's other works, they were written relatively early in her life. Published by Madame Bérault, the quartets appeared in Paris in 1769 (and subsequently in London in 1773 by William Napier), under the joint authorship of Maddalena (as Madelena Laura Syrmen) and her husband Lodovico. There are differing views on this apparent collaboration: for Elsie Arnold, stylistic evidence points to the quartets being Maddalena's work alone ("Sirmen, [End Page 1061] Maddalena Laura," Grove Music Online, http://www.grovemusic.com [accessed 22 February 2006]), while Ian Woodfield has recently suggested that the balance might have been the other way around, with Maddalena's name being added to the publication to boost sales through name recognition (review of Maddalena Lombardini Sirmen: Eighteenth-Century Composer, Violinist, and Businesswoman by Elsie Arnold and Jane Baldauf-Berdes [Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2002],in Eighteenth-Century Music 1, no. 1 [March 2004]: 92).
While the question of the quartets' authorship raises some fascinating issues, one should signal here the still stronger fascination provided by "Sirmen's" music (complete recordings are available by the Allegri String Quartet, Cala CACD1019 , CD; and the Accademia della Magnifica Comunità, Tactus TC 731201 , CD). The predominant topic, one that accounts for many of the music's stylistic and textural characteristics, is the serenade; the quartets are full of passages that feature two or more players crooning in parallel intervals against a steady accompaniment. This wooing of the listener reminds me of Luigi Boccherini, but the resemblances are more pronounced than that. Sirmen is also given to textural "loops" in which the parts exchange short units, creating a hovering, hypnotic character. This coexists and often overlaps with a tendency for parts to move in various permutations of parallel and contrary motion, normally involving sinuous stepwise lines, the crossing of parts, and light touches of chromaticism. Another related tendency reminiscent of Boccherini is the preference for very close spacing, the four independent parts often moving within the range of no more than half an octave. One should bear in mind that Boccherini's first set of quartets (op. 2) was written in 1761 and published in 1767 (as op. 1) in Paris by Vénier. This need not imply any direct influence, but both Boccherini and Sirmen were students of Giuseppe Tartini, and the resemblances may provide evidence of a shared Italianate approach to the genre in its early years. Certainly the ethos of almost idyllic interaction provides a contrast with the harder-edged "conversational" models that have become entrenched in the reception of the genre.
A number of harmonic features collaborate with the textural attributes outlined above to create a more definitively Sirmenesque flavor. The composer is very fond of flat-side moves that give the harmonic action a...