Martha von Sabinin (Marfa Stefanovna Sabinina, 1831–1892)

Martha von Sabinin or Marfa Sabinina was born in Copenhagen in 1831 as the daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest. In 1837, Stefan Sabinin was appointed confessor to Grand Duchess Mariya Pavlovna in Weimar. Marfa had inherited her musicality from her mother and took her first piano lessons with Gustav Kellner and Ulrike Wolf in Weimar. From 1841, she regularly attended concerts, and from 1843 also the gatherings of a Choral Society.

Her piano teacher had by now become the organist Johann Gottlob Zöpfer, who also taught her music theory. Between 28th May and 10th July 1850, Marfa Sabinina took piano lessons with Clara Schumann in Leipzig, and between November 1850 and March 1851 in Düsseldorf. There, she also sang in the Choral Singing Society, directed by Schumann, played for the first time in a public concert (on 6th February 1851, Clara Schumann’s pupils Martha von Sabinin, Nanette Falk and Karoline Dupré performed one of Bach’s concertos for three pianos), took singing lessons with Sophie Schloß, and also theory lessons with Julius Tausch. After her return to Weimar, she formed a singing quartet in the autumn of 1851, which then became her private choir.

Between 1853 and 1860, the talented pianist was taught by Franz Liszt. Liszt played four hands with her, let her conduct his correspondence from time to time, spoke with her about his compositions, and passed some of his pupils on to her. When she began to compose in the second half of the 1850s, the master reviewed her works before they were sent to a publisher. In 1853, Marfa Sabinina was appointed Court Pianist to Grand Duchess Sophie, and at the beginning of 1854, the Grand Duchess offered her the position of music teacher at her Sophie Foundation, a secondary school for girls. At the end of 1855, Marfa Sabinina went on her first concert trip to Russia. In 1860, she was called to St Petersburg and appointed music teacher to Princess Mariya Aleksandrovna. This meant the end of a concert career for which she had prepared for so many years.

Marfa Sabinina was employed at the Court of the Russian Tsar until 1868. Between 1866 and 1868, she was involved in the founding of the Russian section of the Red Cross, and after her period of service at Court had expired, she moved with a friend to the Crimea. There, she devoted herself to charitable and pastoral activities. After the murder of her mother and her four sisters in 1892, she retreated and died after a serious illness in December 1892.

Marfa Sabinina left some interesting notes about her meeting with Clara and Robert Schumann, which were first published in German by Olga Lossewa in 1997 (O.L.: “Marfa Sabinina und ihre Erinnerungen an Clara und Robert Schumann”, in: Schumann Studien, Sinzig, 1997, pp. 195. -224; the biographical information is taken from this essay).

(J.M.N., translated by Th. H.)

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