The renaissance of Marianna Martines

They say that brilliant minds touch the lives of all that surround them. This was especially true for Vienna-born composer Marianna Martines (sometimes referred to as Marianne von Martinez). Marianna was born in 1744 into a family of career soldiers. Her father Nicolo, who had grown up in Naples, served in Vienna as major-domo to the papal nuncio (the Pope’s embassy to the Austrian Empire). 

Marianna’s brothers both led distinguished military careers and, for their service to the Empire, their entire family was awarded a patent of nobility in 1774 (back then, you couldn’t have “von” in your  family name without this handy slip of paper). But Marianna (with her musical gifts both as a performer and composer) was the rising star of the family, and with the help of a family friend she would one day become a sensation throughout all of Europe.

During Marianna’s childhood, The Martines family lived in a large building on the Michaelerplatz in Vienna. Described by historians as “a stately building still standing in the Kohlmarkt”, the complex was arranged by the social class of its occupants: upper class members of society held soirees in palatial rooms on the bottom floors, while the lower classes lived in the cramped interiors of the building’s uppermost reaches. As an upper-middle class family, the Martines clan were privileged enough to live on the third floor. 

The neighbors of Marianna Martines included the dowager princess of the wealthy Esterházy family (1st Floor), the well-known Italian singing teacher and composer Nicola Porpora (who lived a few floors above Marianna), and Joseph Haydn (then a struggling composer and freelance musician who lived in the building’s attic). The figure who helped unite all these neighbors into a network of musical support for Marianna’s development was her father’s childhood friend Pietro Trapassi. Writing under the famous pen name “Metastasio”, Pietro lived with the Martines family for the rest of his life after being appointed Poet Laureate to the Austrian Empire in 1730. 

As the tutor responsible for Marianna’s practical and musical education in childhood, Pietro ensured that the education Marianna received was of a quality far superior to that of the “standard” provided to women of her social class at that time. Through her rigorous study of languages with Pietro, for example, Marianna became an incredibly well-versed quadrilingual of French, English, Italian, and German. Pietro arranged for Marianna to take keyboard lessons from Haydn (that brilliant young man from the attic) and encouraged her to take singing lessons at the age of ten. 

So it was that Marianna continued her musical training under Nicola Porpora, with Haydn serving as both her accompanist and assistant to her new teacher. Demonstrating potential as a gifted composer, Marianna was encouraged by her tutor Pietro to take lessons in composition from Johann Adolph Hasse and the Imperial court composer Giuseppe Bonno. She brought Haydn with her to meet both Hasse and Bonno, and the attic musician’s career flourished as a result.

Martines was a virtuosic player, even as a child, and regularly performed before the Imperial court. Her biographer Helene Wessely depicts the young Martines as having “attracted attention with her beautiful voice and [superb] keyboard playing”. Wessely also asserts that her compositions, particularly for voice, possess a “predilection for coloratura passages, leaps over wide intervals and trills indicat[ing] that she herself must have been an excellent singer.” As a rock star on the harpsichord, she developed such a reputation into adulthood that she was frequently requested to perform before the Empress Maria Theresa.

Despite being one of the most eligible bachelorettes in the Classical Viennese music scene, Marianna Martines never married. She never sought an appointed position at court either. There were barriers to women (as well as individuals of her social class) when it came to pursuing compositional employment that her friend Haydn simply did not have to contend with. Together with her sister (who also remained a lifelong bachelorette) she cared for her mentor Pietro until his death in 1782. That very year, Marianna’s Italian oratorio “Isacco figura del redentore” was premiered in a renowned concert series put on by the Tonkünstler-Societät. The librettist for this oratorio is credited to Pietro’s pen name of Metastasio.

The poet left his estate to the Martines family, and to his student Marianna he bequeathed 20,000 florins, his harpsichord, and his entire music library. Marianna used this money to fill the Martines home with her former tutor’s favorite music, hosting musical soirees with her sister that attracted distinguished guests (such as the Irish tenor Michael Kelly and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself!). The latter was a frequent guest to these musical get-togethers and composed four-hand piano sonatas to perform with Marianne. Never too proud to forget his roots, Haydn would often pop in for a bit of harpsichord-tickling and merriment-making.

As a composer, Martines penned four masses, six motets, and three litanies for choir. She composed several works for solo voice and wrote several secular cantatas (as well as two oratorios) to Italian texts. In the definitive fashion of the early Classical period, particularly in Vienna, she composed in the Italian style. Her harpsichord playing was compared stylistically to that of C.P.E. Bach, and her compositions were so well-regarded that some scholars suggest Mozart modeled his 1768 Mass after the “Christe” of her Mass No. 1 in D major. 

As she rightly deserved, Martines’ name and music were lauded throughout Europe, but after her death in 1812 her musical legacy faced an incredible amount of erasure. It is only in recent years that her music has, rightly, been unearthed to the delight of the musical world. It is primarily thanks to the efforts made by publishers such as “Furore-Verlag” (a German publisher that specializes in works by female composers) that we can enjoy so many of her compositions today. The SSO is honored to bring her Sinfonia in C major to life at our upcoming “Visit to Vienna” concert.

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