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Adela Maddison: cosmopolitan decadent


The poetry of English and French decadents sustained a substantial popular song-literature in the early decades of the twentieth century.  Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Symons, and Ernest Dowson were particular favourites, and well-known composers, including Roger Quilter, Cyril Scott, Frederick Delius, and Gabriel Fauré, set a number of works by these poets to music.  A quick survey of the Liedernet Archive for singing translations of decadent poetry, however, reveals that a good number of women composers and musicians set decadent poetry to music.  Many of these women actively participated in the queer cosmopolitan world of musical salons and concerts; most of them remain unknown today.

Women may not have been part of the larger public-facing musical world of Scott and Delius, but, as Sophie Fuller describes in ‘Devoted Attention': Looking for Lesbian Musicians in Fin-de-Siècle Britain, they were very involved in the semi-private concerts and musical evenings that characterized upper-class British musical life.  Many of them chose to write love lyrics that ‘unambiguously expressed desire for a woman.  Although this was the accepted tradition of song and lieder writing, in the hands of women composers such songs t[ook] on intriguing layers of meaning and express[ed] a range of potentially subversive desires.’i

Ella Overbeck’s (1874-1919?) early works, for example, including a sonata and various songs, were well received in the musical press.  Her incidental music for Gordon Craig’s adaptation of Alfred de Musset’s play, On ne badine pas avec l’amour, was praised in the Musical Times, and in 1906 her orchestral suite, Salome, was performed at Plymouth.  In the 1890s Overbeck began a love affair with the Russian decadent and symbolist poet Zinaida Nikolayevna Hippius (1869-1945), but as she did not move in fashionable London musical circles frequented by flamboyant cross-dressing members of the lesbian community, she remains ‘a shadowy figure’.ii

Despite the gaps in her biography, one figure stands out from the shadows for her international connections and fluid sexuality.  Katherine Mary Adela Tindal (1866-1929) was born probably in London in 1866 into an upper-class family, her mother of Anglo-Irish descent and her father Louis Symonds Tindal, an English Vice-Admiral.  Nothing is known about her early musical education, but at the age of 19 she married Frederick Brunning Maddison (1849-1907), one of the senior directors of the music-publishing firm Metzler & Co.  They had two children, in 1886 and 1888.

BLOG_FaurePortrait.jpgFred published her first pieces of music, a song and a piano piece, in 1882, and together they hosted a successful musical salon in London in the 1890s, which was frequented by Gabriel Fauré, who was contracted to Metzler & Co. in 1896.  During the 1890s he had much to do with the couple: he taught Adela musical composition, his music was performed often at their musical salon, and he stayed at their villa in Brittany.  Fauré thought Adela was hugely talented.

She translated into English Fauré’s song cycle for voice and piano, Cinq mélodies ‘de Venise’, Op. 58.  Composed in 1891, the cycle was based on five poems by Verlaine from the collections Fêtes galantes and Romances sans paroles.iii  The song-cycle looped a number of musical themes from song to song and so pleased was Fauré with his technique that he wrote to his patron Winnaretta Singer, heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, declaring that he had created a new form whereby the return of the themes of the other songs in the final one, ‘C’est l’extase’, made the cycle into a kind of suite or story.

In 1898, Adela left her husband and children and went to Paris to be with Fauré.  The nature of their relationship, despite claims by biographers that they were lovers, remains unconfirmed, but her decision to move to France, as Fuller has argued, could easily have been a professional one; she was well known in French musical circles and several of her works had been published in Paris.iv  In 1906, to the astonishment of her friends, Adela moved to Berlin, a city she did not much like but where lived the family of Marta Gertrud Mundt, secretary to Winnaretta Singer.  After Fred Maddison’s death (probably in 1906), Mundt and Adela developed a close companionship and became lovers.  Adela re-entered London’s music scene during the war but was less involved in lesbian society circles.  She died in a nursing home in Ealing, west London, in 1929.

Unsurprisingly perhaps for an Irish woman travelling between London, Paris, and Berlin, Adela’s music was cosmopolitan in style, and it was regarded as decadent by contemporary critics.  The Athenæum described her compositions performed with Fauré at St. James’ Hall in London as ‘somewhat Wagnerian in character’.v  She bridged the gap between languages and cultures, translating and adapting a variety of writers’ works into song.  Her Twelve Songs, Op. 9 & 10 (1895) includes ‘Bleak Weather’ (Ella Wilcox Wheeler), ‘Before Sunset’, ‘The Triumph of Time’,vi ‘Stage Love’, ‘An Interlude’, ‘Rococo’ (Swinburne), ‘A Little While’, ‘Insomnia’ (D. G. Rossetti), ‘O That ’Twere Possible’ (Tennyson), ‘A Lament’ (Shelley), ‘No. 1. Liebe’ (Heine), and ‘No. 2. An den Mond’ (Altes Volkeslied).

Maddison’s preference for an impressionist style of continental music over the academic British type was probably the reason why, at the turn of the century, she invited Cyril Scott to her home in Paris to meet Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel.  About his hostess, Scott had little illuminating to say.  In his biography, Bone of Contention, he describes her as a ‘composeress’, ‘a married woman who moved in London society.’vii  Apart from devising a witty conundrum round her surname,viii he seems to have regarded her merely as a conduit to meeting other likeminded male composers.  Like the public perception of so many independent women artists at the fin de siècle, Adela’s musical talents were eclipsed by her role as Fred’s wife.

Maddison was not a mere conduit however.  She was an accomplished translator and composer with an international reputation who moved between the public-facing male-musical world and the private spheres of lesbian music-performance in the early twentieth century.  Her work on the Continent was followed by the newspaper press in England, which suggests, despite the paucity of accessible material on her now, that she had a much greater public profile than currently thought.  At the foot of a column titled ‘Affairs in Berlin’ in the Observer for 13 November 1910, for example, Maddison’s opera Der Talisman is singled out for praise, albeit rather circumspect.  ‘The management of the Leipzig opera’, the correspondent writes, ‘has given Mrs. Maddison’s production a first-rate cast and an exceptionally fine mounting.’  He goes on, ‘German critics await its initial performances with the liveliest interest’, concluding that ‘Leipzig was the scene of the only other English opera ever produced in Germany, Miss Smythe’s “The Wreckers”, recently seen at Covent Garden. It is considered an interesting coincidence that both “The Wreckers” and “The Talisman” are the work of English women.’ix

Much archival research awaits the scholar interested in the contribution of women composers to decadent song-literature.  Very little is known about their social networks and cross-continental influences.  However, the establishment of the Decadence Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London, and the rise of large collaborative multidisciplinary digital projects, like Sounding Victorian directed by Phyllis Weliver and Sophie Fuller; Re:dress Women Composers Project, directed by Kate Kennedy, a collaboration between the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Oxford University, BBC Radio 3, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; and the magisterial Baudelaire Song Project, directed by Helen Abbott, are dramatically changing the research landscape.  Talented and influential women musicians and composers are emerging from the shadows.  Detailed information on Maddison is difficult to track down and there are many gaps in her life-story, but she stands out for her cosmopolitanism, as ‘a French composer with Irish roots’,x and for the fascinating role she played in the musical legacy of fin-de-siècle decadence.


Jane Desmarais



i Sophie Fuller, ‘“Devoted Attention”: Looking for Lesbian Musicians in Fin-de-Siècle Britain’, in Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity, edited by Sophie Fuller and Lloyd Whitesell (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002), pp. 79-101: p. 92.  Fuller’s account of Adela Maddison’s life and career is by far the most comprehensive and informed and I draw on it here.

ii Fuller, ‘“Devoted Attention”’, p. 88.

iii ‘Mandoline’ (from Fêtes galantes) ; ‘En sourdine’ (from Fêtes galantes); ‘Green’ (from Romances sans paroles); ‘À Clymène’ (from Fêtes galantes); ‘C’est l’extase’ (from Romances sans paroles).

iv See Fuller, ‘“Devoted Attention”’, p. 86.

v Anonymous, Athenæum (May 1896), 627.

vi Michael Craske describes the musical phrasing of Maddison’s ‘The Triumph of Time’ as ‘particularly interesting’, ‘a fragmentary, synaesthetic ekphrasis of Swinburne’s poem’ (see Michael Craske, ‘Swinburne, Wagner, Eliot, and the Musical Legacy of Poems and Ballads’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 23/4 (2018): 542-55: 554.

vii Cyril Scott, Bone of Contention: A Life Story and Confessions (New York: Arco, 1969), p. 125.

viii ‘If Adela Madison is the daughter of her father’s daddy’s son, / Then what relation is Adela Madison / To the sister of her father’s daddy’s son?’ (quoted in Scott, Bone of Contention, p. 125).

ix See Fuller, ‘“Devoted Attention”’, p. 85.

x Axel Klein, ‘Adela Maddison (1863-1929) and the Difficulty of Defining an Irish Composer’ (17 April 2010), paper presented at the conference on ‘Women and Music in Ireland’ at Maynooth University, County Kildare, Ireland.

Posted on:Tuesday 14th July, 2020