11 May 2011

15 Minutes of Fame: Regina Strinassachi

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 rather difficult piece, 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."

The concert was noted, however, not for Strinassachi's virtuosic performance, but because Mozart performed from blank pages. He had been in too great a hurry to write down his part, instead performing from memory. Later years would elevate this duet to the stuff of legend, with Mozart reputed to have composed his portion on the spot.

Regina Strinassachi, 1795But who was Strinassachi?

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 Heidel, the heroine of my first book with Carina Press, SONG OF SEDUCTION, meeting Regina before a concert.
The pair reached Arie where he stood next to an elegant woman in her early forties. She wore an exquisite gown of ice-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. Magnetic black eyes shone from beneath heavy dark lashes. An oblong bruise along her left jaw marred her otherwise flawless olive skin.

Mathilda had never seen such an arresting woman.

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

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

"Nonsense. He recognizes talent almost as well as he composes."
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 few remember Regina Strinassachi today. In fact, I was the person who wrote her Wikipedia entry, based on my research for SONG OF SEDUCTION. If the prodigal female violinist is remembered at all, it's because of that fateful day in 1784 when she found out what it meant to play second to Mozart.

SONG OF SEDUCTION's sequel from Carina Press, PORTRAIT OF SEDUCTION, is now available! Later this year watch for Carrie's new Victorian series from Pocket, as well as her "Dark Age Dawning" romance trilogy from Berkley, co-written with Ann Aguirre under the name Ellen Connor. "Historical romance needs more risk-takers like Lofty." ~ Wendy the Super Librarian