01 July 2008

Famous People: Regina Strinasacchi

Carrie Lofty
By Carrie Lofty

On April 29, 1784, a young woman performed with Mozart for Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor. But that woman, Regina Strinassachi, did not play pianoforte as most ladies were wont to do. She played violin, with Mozart on piano. Together they debuted Mozart's newest composition, Sonata in B flat for Violin and Keyboard (K. 454), which he had written for her.

By all accounts, K. 454 is a very difficult pieces, which speaks to Mozart's high opinion of Strinassachi as a performer. He often wrote "puff" pieces for influential patrons' children who had mediocre talent, but this was not one of them. In a letter to his father, Mozart wrote: "We now 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 this moment composing a sonata which we are going to play together on Thursday at her concert in the theater."

Because of prior arrangements, or perhaps because of laziness, Mozart did not get the sheet music to Strinassachi until the day of the performance, meaning she sight-read the entire sonata. He did not complete transcriptions for his half of the duet, playing instead with blank sheets of paper in front of him.

But perhaps Mozart had a deeper motive.

Regina Strinassachi, 1795Strinassachi was reputed to be a lovely woman in face, form and temperament. The novelty of a female violinist drew music aficionados and curiosity seekers alike, because such performers were rare. In fact, in the German-speaking regions of Europe between 1760 and 1800, only three such female violinists maintained a regular touring schedule, a healthy fan base, and a respectable position within society.

So what was Mozart to do, his ego faced with the possibility of playing second to a woman who had the emperor's full attention? After the concert, someone--who is not clear--told the emperor that Mozart's pages were blank. Mozart merely shrugged, leaving the emperor to believe that he had improvised the entire duet, when musical historians now believe he had composed the piece mentally. But the wonder of Mozart's talent overshadowed Strinassachi's imperial debut.

So who was she?

The nuns at Venice's famous Ospedale della Pietà--founded by Antonio Vivaldi as a refuge for orphan girls, or perhaps for the illegitimate daughters of wealthy nobleman--constantly obscured the year of Strinasacchi's birth. As a child prodigy, if she could pass for ten years old, that would wow the audiences more than if she was actually 16. The fact she had a surname adds to the mystery of her origins, because most of the girls at the Pietà took on the names of their preferred instruments--Anna della Violin from Barbara Quick's Vivaldi's Virgins is one famous example.

Strinasacchi toured Italy, France and Germany, performing on both violin and guitar, before arriving in Vienna in 1784, where she met Mozart. In 1785, she married Johann Conrad Schlick, a famous cellist and konzertmeister of the Gotha ducal band. Some speculate that her marriage may have been one of a professional nature, because she became the first woman in Europe to perform full-time with an orchestra, rather than as an occasional soloist. She may have also composed. Their daughter Caroline, born in 1786, grew up to play piano as part of a family trio, and they split their time between Gotha and tours that reached as far as Russia.

Here I imagine Mathida, the heroine of my unpublished manuscript, Serenade, meeting Regina before a concert.

They reached Arie where he stood next to an elegant woman in her early forties. She wore an exquisite gown of watercolor blue silk and ivory lace trim. Gray-streaked black hair arranged in an elaborate coiffure of spirals and curls accentuated the graceful lines of her neck and slender face, her olive skin flawless. Magnetic black eyes shone from beneath dark, heavy lashes.

Mathilda had never seen such an arresting, self-possessed woman.

"De Voss, there you are," Haydn said.

"Gute Nacht, Kapellmeister. And Frau Heidel. Lovely to see you." Arie bowed deeply, his air bright and amused. He turned to present the elegant woman. "Allow me to present Frau Regina Schlick."

"I am honored to meet you both," the woman said. Her lilting Italian accent created melody out of plain speech. "Herr De Voss has told me you perform exquisitely."

"Thank you." Mathilda smiled broadly at the unexpected compliment. That he would speak of her in glowing terms to the exotic woman warmed her from top to toes. "The maestro flatters me."

"Nonsense. He recognizes talent almost as well as he composes." She turned and touched his arm. Mathilda fought an urge to slap her hand away. "Sir, your violin concerti remain among the most thrilling I know. I must have one of my own. You have promised for years."

"Quality requires patience, my dear."

His smooth response convinced even Mathilda. He sounded perfectly gracious and even...charming?

Watching the exchange, her jealousy--her uncertainty--increased. She never could have imitated the mysterious woman's air of unquestioned authority, holding the rapt attention of every man within earshot. Arie smiled warmly and with an expression of genuine interest.

Despondently, she wondered if he and the stylish woman had been intimate.

But no--he remained poised and cool, ignoring the fawning guests. Surely, a public reunion with a former lover would throw her reticent Dutchman into bashful fits.

Just who was she?
Their son Johann was born in 1801--when Strinassachi would have been nearly 40--and became a cellist and instrument maker. Caroline married and became an actress. Upon her husband's death in 1818, Strinassachi moved with her son to Dresden. She died in 1839, having lived through 80 tumultuous years--from the old Georgian and Classical periods, through the Napoleonic era, and into mid-19th century Victorian Europe.

But if anyone remembers Regina Strinassachi, it's because of that fateful day in 1784 when she found out what it meant to play second to Mozart.