In the book “Violin and Viola” by violinist Yehudi Menuhin and violist William Primrose, Menuhin waxes eloquent on the violin: “Its shape is in fact inspired by and symbolic of the most beautiful human object, the woman’s body….The varnish of a Stradivarius or Guarnerius evokes the sun caught in the silken texture of human skin. And like the female human voice, the violin combines the entire soprano and contralto range. I have often wondered whether psychologically there is a basic difference between the woman’s relationship to the violin and the man’s… Does the woman violinist consider the violin more as her own voice than the voice of one she loves? Is there an element of narcissism in the woman’s relation to the violin..?”
And yet, through most of history until the last century or so, female violinists have been conspicuous by their sparse presence and acknowledgement. Today of course, women outnumber men in many major orchestras, notably the New York Philharmonic, where some years ago a male violinist actually filed a suit against the orchestra on grounds of gender discrimination when he was ousted.
One of the many thoughts that crossed my mind at the Hadar Rimon recital was the fact that here was a woman at the height of her violinistic powers, playing the works of composers who were all male!
If one looks at a list of outstanding female violinists through time, an interesting trend emerges when one narrows down the period from the late 1600s to the mid-1800s. A significant number of them seem to have come from and studied at the Ospedale della Pietà, Venice. As the name suggests, it was a charitable institution for orphans, particularly abandoned girls. Its orchestra and choir gained international renown for the sterling quality of their performances. The famous violinist-composer Antonio Vivaldi taught here from 1703 to 1740. Here abandoned infants who might otherwise have had to scrounge for a living or suffer worse fates, were given the best possible music education from a very young age, and the results were spectacular.
I was reminded of this again by Hadar Rimon, when she presented me a CD of her playing. The first work on the disc is Mozart’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in B flat major, K. 454, the “Strinasacchi” sonata. I had often wondered at the provenance of the nickname. Epithets such as these often suggest the work might have been dedicated to a wealthy patron (think of Beethoven’s Razumovsky string quartets for example), or a testimony to the place to which they have a connection (Haydn’s “London” and “Oxford” symphonies; Mozart’s “Prague” and “Linz” symphonies). But every so often, the nickname immortalises the person it was written for.
Regina Strinasacchi was an Italian violin virtuoso in an age when women rarely if ever performed in public. Her name might have sunk without a trace had she not impressed Mozart with her playing, to the extent that he wrote this work expressly for her.
We know she was born in Ostiglia, near Mantua in Italy but her date and year of birth are shrouded in mystery, with various historical accounts vacillating between 1761 to 1764, strongly hinting she was born out of wedlock. At some point, perhaps early on in her childhood, she was brought to the Ospedale, where in addition to acquiring phenomenal violin skills, she also learned to play guitar and to compose. Her story when told is often paired with that of Maddalena Lombardini who has similar life circumstances and was also trained at the Ospedale, but let us look more closely at Strinasacchi.
She began touring Europe around 1780, a very young age to be sure, whichever birth year you estimate her age by. It is an indicator of her prodigious prowess at her instrument. She toured what is today Italy, France and Germany, between 1780 and 1783, arriving in Vienna in 1784, where she had the famous encounter with Mozart. We know this because Mozart wrote a letter to his father Leopold at the end of April 1784: “At the moment we have here the famous Strinasacchi from Mantua, a very good violinist; she has a great deal of taste and feeling in her playing…. I am just now composing a Sonata, which we will perform together on Thursday at her concert at the Theatre.”
Strinasacchi and Mozart debuted the Sonata at the Kärtnerthor Theatre Vienna on 29 April 1784 at which the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II was present. In a typical example of Mozart’s genius and haste, it was apparently completed just a day before the concert, and Mozart’s widow Constanze writes that he played his part from an empty music sheet or at best an incomplete score. The music was safely in his head; he needed no visual cue for the message to be sent from his brain to his fingers for his own freshly-conceived composition! But it is equally to Strinasacchi’s credit that she mastered the work in 24 hours to play it before such a distinguished audience.
In 1785, Strinasacchi married Johann Schlick, cellist and concertmaster of the court orchestra in Gotha. She played in the orchestra as well, making her arguably the first female orchestral player in history that we know of. She performed as a guitar virtuoso as well, and there are indications that she may have conducted the orchestra too! Sadly her own compositions have not survived. The couple had two children: Caroline, who became a pianist and an actress; and Johann who became a cellist and luthier. Upon her husband’s death in 1818, she moved with her son to Dresden, where she remained until her own demise in 1839.
Some accounts place her last public performance in 1809, in Rome. But in a letter dated 1824, Strinasacchi writes to her friend that she was still “making music”. Whether this was for the public or for more intimate circles is not clear.
The 1718 Stradivarius that she played upon, was subsequently owned by the great violinist-composer Lousi Spohr, and is currently in the safe hands of another female violinist, Miriam Fried.
It is very tempting to speculate whether it was a “good” thing or not for an ‘unwanted’ female child to be left at the doorstep of the Ospedale? What would have become of Regina Strinasacchi had this not happened? But because it did happen, it set off a chain of occurrences that led to her being remembered today, and posterity is the richer for a joyous Sonata which would not have seen light of day had Mozart not met the virtuoso Strinasacchi.
(An edited version of this article was published on 15 March 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)