Wednesday, 13 October 2010

‘More perfect than any singer I have heard.’

Irving Godt was already working on his book about Marianna Martines when he met John Rice in the late 1990s. When Godt died towards the end of 2006, his daughter asked Rice to revise the typescript for publication by the University of Rochester Press. As he says in the Editor’s Note to the book, “I welcomed this opportunity to contribute to an important project and to the memories of a talented and accomplished composer and a knowledgeable and tenacious scholar.’

Here is an edited extract from the Introduction which demonstrates both her reputation among her contemporaries and the sort of barriers that existed for female artists of the time:

The music historian Charles Burney spent several weeks in Vienna in 1772. One of his most cherished ambitions was to meet the court poet Pietro Metastasio, whose librettos, set to music hundreds of times, had helped to shape the music of his age. But once in the presence of the great dramatist, Burney found his attention distracted by the entrance of a young woman, “who was received by the whole company with great respect. She was well dressed, and had a very elegant appearance.” This was Marianna Martines, whose family had lived with Metastasio for about forty years and whose education he had supervised. She had developed quickly into a fine singer, keyboard player, and composer, and was now, at the age of twenty-eight, at the height of her creative powers.

Martines’s singing left Burney at a loss for words:

To say that her voice was naturally well-toned and sweet, that she had an excellent shake, a perfect intonation, a facility of executing the most rapid and difficult passages, and a touching expression, would be to say no more than I have already said, and with truth, of others; but here I want words that would still encrease the significance and energy of these expressions. The Italian augmentatives would, perhaps, gratify my wish, if I were writing in that language; but as that is not the case, let me only add, that in the portamento, and divisions of tones and semi-tones into infinitely minute parts, and yet always stopping upon the exact fundamental, Signora Martinetz was more perfect than any singer I had ever heard: her cadences too, of this kind, were very learned, and truly pathetic and pleasing.

After these two songs, she played a very difficult lesson [i.e., sonata], of her own composition, on the harpsichord, with great rapidity and precision. She has composed a Miserere, in four parts, with several psalms, in eight parts, and is a most excellent contrapuntist.

The woman who charmed Burney so completely, impressing him as both a performer and a composer, was one of the most accomplished and highly honoured female musicians of her century. Her first music teacher was the young Joseph Haydn. Vienna knew her as a gifted aristocratic singer and keyboard player who performed for the pleasure of the Empress Maria Theresa. The great composer Johann Adolf Hasse praised her singing, keyboard playing, and composition. The regular private concerts she held in her home attracted the presence and the participation of some of Vienna’s leading musicians; Mozart enjoyed playing keyboard duets with her. She composed prolifically and in a wide variety of genres, vocal and instrumental, writing church music, oratorios, Italian arias, sonatas, and concertos. Those who study, perform, and listen to her music today will understand easily why it captivated Burney.

Yet a few decades after her death a critical tradition hostile to the music of Martines and to women composers in general began to influence opinion. The prolific Viennese novelist Caroline Pichler was herself an accomplished musician in her youth, having studied with Mozart. She took part in private musical events given by her father in the 1790s, when Martines presided over one of Vienna’s most celebrated musical salons. (Thus she had reason to think of Martines as a rival.)

In memoirs published in 1844, a year after her death, Pichler gave notice to two female composers: the blind pianist Maria Theresia von Paradis and Martines. Pichler was ten years younger than Paradis, twenty-five years younger than Martines. Her musical tastes were clearly those of a generation different from Marianna’s; but she expressed no great fondness for the music of Paradis either: “I found neither her compositions nor those of Fräulein Martinez (the only works by female composers that were known to me) to be of much interest.” This statement led Pichler to a short disquisition on female composers:

It is an altogether strange observation . . . that not a single woman has yet succeeded in distinguishing herself as a creative musician. There are successful women painters and poets, and if not a single woman in any art or science has ever achieved as much as men have, they have nevertheless made significant strides forward. But not in music. And yet one would think that this art, which demands the least preliminary study and more feeling and imagination than the other arts, would be the proper medium in which the female spirit might express itself.

She went on to disparage not only Marianna but the whole sisterhood of women composers, beginning with a rhetorically useful concession that Paradis and Martines wrote some good music:

Both produced fine things, but not at the highest—indeed not even at the middle level, while women in painting and poetry, even if they have produced nothing comparable to the works of the leading masters in these crafts, have brought forth valuable things without any allowance for their sex. But should not one expect that music, resting as it does on instinct, on inner impulses, on feeling, and on imagination, would be better adapted to the female character than the fields of painting and poetry, in which experience, clear concepts, technical skill, etc., are required? Yet it is not necessarily so, because up to now we have seen a Sirani, a Rosalbe, an Angelica Kaufmann, a Lebrun, etc.—but not even a somewhat significant woman composer.

Marianna Martines: A Woman Composer in the Vienna of Mozart and Haydn by Irving Godt, edited by John A Rice, is now available from the University of Rochester Press and all good booksellers.

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