Marianne Martinez Biography

Marianne Martinez (1744–1812) was an Austrian composer active and widely esteemed during the age of Haydn and Mozart. She was the author of the only symphony composed by a woman during the Classical period in music (c. 1750–1790), and she also wrote a number of other ambitious vocal and instrumental works.

Amember of the Viennese court aristocracy who never held a formal post as composer, Martinez and her music fell out of favor as the new concept of the composer as independent genius came into vogue. Musical accounts written in her own time testify to her high level of activity and to the quality of her compositions, but after her death she was almost completely forgotten. However, a new wave of musical scholarship in the 1980s and 1990s aimed at uncovering the often-undervalued contributions of women to musical life through history has led to an upward reappraisal of her importance.

Descended from Spanish Soldier

Martinez was born Anna Katharina Martinez on May 4, 1744, in Vienna. She had four brothers and one sister. Her Hispanic surname came from her paternal grandfather, a Spanish soldier who came to Naples, Italy, in the late seventeenth century. Her father, Nicolo Martinez, also served Neapolitan rulers as a military officer. He also pursued a wider education and struck up a friendship with an Italian poet, Antonio Trapassi, who called himself Metastasio and over the course of the eighteenth century became the most prolific and most honored Italian opera librettist (text-writer) of his time. Many of his libretti were set by multiple composers, and his fame lasted for most of the century. In the early or middle 1720s Martinez took a job at the nuncio or papal ambassador's office at the Habsburg court in Vienna, Austria, and he was reunited with Metastasio when the latter became the court's poet laureate. Martinez's mother, Maria Theresia, was Austrian.

The name Anna Katharina Martinez underwent several evolutions in German-speaking Vienna. Germans tended to pronounce it "Martinetz," and the English music historian and traveling critic Charles Burney spelled her name that way. In order to correct the mispronunciation, she began to spell her surname Martines, apparently changing her first name to Marianna out of personal preference. Sometimes that name too was spelled in the German manner, Marianne, and as a descendant of her father, who had noble rank, she was also entitled to use the "von" prefix for her last name. However, she normally signed her letters "Marianna Martines."

She showed musical gifts early on, and her father's friendship with Metastasio resulted in opportunities for her to develop them. Initially inclined toward singing, she was steered by Metastasio toward Nicola Porpora, an Italian transplant to Vienna who composed some of the most technically spectacular operatic vocal parts of the middle of the eighteenth century. Taking voice lessons with Porpora, Martinez was sometimes accompanied on the harpsichord by a penniless young musician from the Hungarian countryside who rented a room on the top floor of the handsome Vienna townhouse where her family lived—Franz Joseph Haydn. Metastasio took the responsibility for Martinez's education, which was impressive for the time even by the standards of Vienna's upper nobility. Although she apparently never left Vienna, she mastered French in addition to German and Italian, and she spoke English to Burney when he visited the court in 1772.

Trained as a singer, Martinez was said (the story may have been embellished after the fact) to have won the favor of the Empress Maria Theresa and even to have induced her son, the future emperor Joseph II to turn the pages of her music for her when she gave concerts as a teenager. By that time she had also shown skills as a composer, and her education in music theory was entrusted to Maria Theresa's court composer, Giuseppe Bonno. She may also have studied with a leading operatic composer, Johann Adolf Hasse.

Composed Masses at Age 16

Many of the manuscripts of Martinez's compositions were destroyed in a fire in 1927, so there is no way to know exactly when she began (or ceased) to be active as a composer. But the year 1760 saw three dated compositions by the 16-year-old Martinez: two settings of the Catholic mass and one motet (during this period, a religious work with an original text, for solo voice and orchestra or other accompaniment). One of them, the Mass No. 1 in D major, includes a passage that resembles the parallel music in a mass by the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and may have influenced it. Some of these early works were performed at Vienna's Michaelerkirche (St. Michael's Church, which served as the chapel of the emperor's court) and resulted in a growing appreciation for Martinez's talents as a composer as well as a singer and keyboard player. Indeed, these performances may have showcased her skills in various capacities; she may have played the harpsichord in the small orchestra that accompanied the masses, and the vocal parts of many of her works contained technical difficulties that reflected her own training as a singer.

In the 1760s Martinez's reputation spread beyond Vienna. Metastasio sent some of her compositions to the most celebrated composition teacher of the day, Padre Giovanni Battista Martini (among whose students was Mozart). He responded with praise, and Martinez's compositional reach expanded. Her third mass, written in 1761, runs to more than 150 pages in manuscript score and contains parts for soloists, chorus, and a large orchestra with trumpets, oboes, flutes, strings and organ. After Joseph II assumed the throne in 1765 he mandated a simpler style of church music, and Martinez from then on wrote large religious compositions only for special occasions. She continued to compose smaller motets and cantatas for solo voice with accompaniment, often with texts by her mentor Metastasio, and many of these were apparently made for her own enjoyment and use.

Indeed, the economically noteworthy aspect of Martinez's compositional activity was that it was unconnected with any formal employment. Composers in the late eighteenth century were still mostly employees of churches or of Europe's noble families. A few—Mozart, and eventually the young Beethoven—looked toward the future as independent creative figures, making an income by giving concerts and selling their works to music publishers. But it would have been inconceivable for Martinez, as a woman, to compete for top ecclesiastical jobs or for a music director post in a noble household. Nor was she in a position to barnstorm around Europe like the young Mozart, giving concerts and composing music for patrons in new cities. Instead, Martinez remained in Vienna and wrote music for associates and for court and religious events. As an adult woman she held salons—parties devoted to music and art—in her home.

Martinez never married, which was unusual for a woman of her time and social status. She had a wide circle of acquaintances, and portraits show her to have been attractive. No evidence pertaining to this situation has come down to the present time; one nineteenth-century historian, F.J. Fétis, speculated that she might have been the aging Metastasio's mistress, but later writers refuted the suggestion. Possibly her single status resulted simply from a combination of financial independence and satisfying professional activity. Martinez and her sister cared for Metastasio in his old age, and after his death in 1782 were handsomely rewarded in his will with annual incomes sufficient to lead a more than comfortable existence in Vienna. And Martinez found plenty of outlets for her music. Early cataloguers listed some 150 Martinez compositions, of which about 65 are extant today.

Inducted into Italian Academy

In 1773 Martinez won an important honor when she was admitted to the Accademia Filarmonica (Philharmonic Academy) of Bologna, a society of composers and musical connoisseurs. For the academy she composed a grand motet, Dixit Dominus , for chorus, soloists, and orchestra. Although Irving Godt noted in the Journal of Musicology that it "may well be her masterpiece," it apparently fell victim to internal academy politics and was never performed. Martinez was the first woman composer inscribed in the Accademia's membership rolls, and her induction marked her emergence as one of Vienna's prominent composers, suitable for commissions for major events. Some of those were religious. Before his death, Metastasio furnished Martinez with texts for two oratorios (dramatic but unstaged religious works for soloists, chorus, and orchestra), Santa Elena al Calvario (St. Helen at Calvary, 1781) and Isacco figura del Redentore (Isaac, Symbol of the Redeemer, 1782). The orchestra for Isacco was as elaborate as that in any work by Haydn or Mozart at the time, including paired trumpets, horns, oboes, flutes, and bassoons; timpani; and strings. The work was mounted at Vienna's Tonkünstler-Sozietäat with a choir of some 200 singers.

In everyday life at court, however, it was Martinez's instrumental works and performances that attracted attention. She played the harpsichord, perhaps the more intimate clavichord, and perhaps the piano, which was just coming into wide use in the 1770s. Burney, visiting Vienna in 1772, wrote (as quoted on the Women of Note website): "Her performance indeed surpassed all that I had been made to expect. She [sang two arias] of her own composition, to words of Metastasio, which she accompanied on the harpsichord … and in playing the ritornels [instrumental refrains], I could discover a very brilliant finger…. After these two songs she played a very difficult lesson of her own composition, on the harpsichord, with great rapidity and precision."

Martinez and Mozart were apparently well acquainted and frequently performed together; Mozart may have written his Piano Concerto No. 5 for Martinez to perform. On her own, Martinez composed various keyboard sonatas and concertos for piano and orchestra, in C major and A major. Of the first movement of the latter work, Diana Ambache wrote in Women of Note that "the sudden plunge into a harmonically unexpected world dispels any expectation of polite, early classical decorum. Her keyboard writing is reminiscent of Haydn in athletic mode." In 1770 she also composed a Symphony in C major, the only Classical period symphony by a woman.

The last surviving composition by Martinez was a chamber (small-group) cantata for solo voice, dated 1786. It is difficult, owing to the destruction of many of her manuscripts, to know whether her compositional activity ceased at that time, and information from her later years is sparse. A 1796 musical yearbook reported that she was giving weekly academies, probably vocal lessons. Martinez may have been in attendance in 1808 at a giant performance of Haydn's oratorio The Creation , mounted to honor the aged composer. She died of tuberculosis on December 13, 1812. Her sister Antonia, with whom she had lived during her last years, died two days later.

Although Martinez's music had energy and originality, it was essentially conservative in style. During the nineteenth century, when musical innovation was at a premium, her reputation was eclipsed; it was initially sent on a downward trajectory by a negative evaluation in the memoirs of a female Viennese novelist, Caroline Pichler. Martinez was little more than a footnote in history books until the 1990s, when feminist scholarship stimulated a spate of new research, performance, and recording activities.


Pendle, Karin, Women & Music: A History , Indiana University Press, 1991.


Journal of Musicology , Autumn 1995; Winter 1998.


"Marianne Martinez," Women of Note: Celebrating Two Hundred and Fifty Years of Music by Women," (February 12, 2007).

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