To modern readers, the ambiguity of historical queer relationships can be frustrating. We know that same-sex relationships have occurred over the centuries, but of course details about many are scarce, and vacuums are often ripe environments for controversy. Add in the fact that many labels we take for granted today only came into broad use a generation or two ago, and it becomes extremely difficult to define historical figures’ sexualities in modern terms.
Composer Adela Maddison is one of the women who resides in the center of a diagnostic Venn diagram, crunched between circles that modern people label “straight” and “gay” and “bi” and any other number of descriptors. Observers of her life question her sexuality, but no broad consensus has been found. In 1898, one friend insisted to her diary that Adela was having an affair with a man. Fauré biographers Jean-Michel Nectoux and Robert Orledge are quite clear that they believe Adela was a bit of a lovesick hanger-on. (Nectoux went so far as to say of her, “We may imagine that Fauré found somewhat embarrassing the attentions of this ‘pupil.’” Quotation marks in the original, or at least the English translation.) Sophie Fuller in her chapter “Devoted Attention: Looking for Lesbian Musicians in Fin de Siècle Britain” in Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity clearly thinks of Adela as lesbian. (Interestingly, no historian I read entertained the idea that she might have been bisexual.)
To a modern person reading Adela’s life story and Adela’s own words, it seems clear that she was in a long-term relationship with another woman, likely marking her as, in some way, queer. As to what exactly that should mean when choosing a modern label to describe her, who knows. (It may be worth being open to an ambiguous answer.) Regardless of what labels we settle on, Adela Maddison’s willingness to follow her heart – personally and professionally – is fascinating history. Her fearless independence and her musical accomplishments ought to be celebrated.
Katharine Mary Adela Tindal was born in London on 15 December 1862. She came from a distinguished family. Her father was a vice admiral named Louis Symonds Tindal, who had earned his rank off the coast of China during the First Opium War. Louis’s father was Nicholas Conyngham Tindal, the lawyer who had successfully defended Caroline of Brunswick, the wife of King George IV, during her 1820 adultery trial.
Adela, as she’d later be known, was educated in Britain and on the Continent. Details of her childhood have yet to surface, but she obviously studied music. When she was in her late teens, her first works – a song and a piano piece – were published.
In the spring of 1883, at the age of nineteen, she married thirty-four-year-old barrister and former Oxford footballer Frederick Brunning Maddison. Maddison was a great music lover, as well as a director at the piano making and music publishing firm Metzler & Co. Adela and her husband had two children, a daughter named Diana in 1886 and a son named Noel in 1888.
Adela continued to pursue her musical interests even as a young mother. In 1895 Metzler & Co. published a collection of twelve of her songs. Despite appearances, the decision wasn’t entirely borne of favoritism; in 1897 Fauré’s first publisher, Choudens, published six of her songs, and in 1898, no less a magazine than Le Figaro devoted an October musical supplement to her setting of a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Adela’s re-entry to the music world after the birth of her children coincides with her (and her husband’s) burgeoning friendship with pianist and composer Gabriel Fauré. In fact, the Maddisons were instrumental in convincing him to visit London for the first time. Probably not coincidentally, Fauré signed a contract with Metzler & Co., which published his work in Britain between 1896 and 1901. Adela translated some of his lyrics into English, and Fauré gladly employed those translations. In 1898, her translation of his La Naissance de Vénus, op. 29, was performed when he conducted a chorus of 400 at the Leeds Festival. (He was thrilled by the experience.)
Through the late 1890s, their friendship continued to blossom. Fauré performed at Maddison house concerts; Fauré vacationed at their villa in Brittany; Fauré’s works were heard alongside Adela’s at public British concerts. Soon Adela became Fauré’s composition pupil, and it’s possible that their creative relationship evolved into something romantic or even erotic.
Biographers of Fauré have a tendency to label Adela as a bit of a lovesick inconvenience, hovering at the elbow of a man of genius. More sympathetic historians might point to the fact that Fauré apparently thought her genuinely talented. He wrote to Elsie Swinton in 1898: “Has she never let you hear the five or six most recent songs from Paris and London? They are quite remarkable! But difficult to figure out and take in at first acquaintance. She is extraordinarily gifted and I would like her to be encouraged as much as she deserves.”
In 1898, at the age of thirty-six, Adela Maddison made a shocking break: she decided to leave her husband and her two children to follow Fauré to Paris. Any number of reasons might explain the upheaval: a genuine personal or professional connection with Fauré, a falling out with her husband, a desire to pursue her career, or even an awakening acknowledgement of her sexual identity.
A woman named Mme. de Saint-Marceaux invited Adela and Fauré to visit her country house in September 1899. Saint-Marceaux wrote in her diary:
The triumph of love. She’s abandoned everything to follow the man she adores. She’s charming, rather childlike, but her courage and determination are heroic. Fauré has brought with him a marvelous new Nocturne.
That Nocturne was the moody, melancholy seventh in C-sharp major, op. 74. It seems to have been a tribute to Adela Maddison and their relationship. He dedicated the nocturne to her and even gifted her the manuscript.
For around seven years, Adela lived in Paris. It’s unclear if there was a total break with her husband. She took in lodgers, potentially suggesting that Fred wasn’t sending enough money for her to live on. But after the turn of the century, she also wrote in a letter to Delius that she was looking after him during a serious illness. It seems that the relationships in her life didn’t fit into neat boxes.
Mme. de Saint-Marceaux’s diary references Adela again in 1904:
She played her own works and also persuaded Enesco and Viñes to take part. Her music is a pot-pourri of Debussy and Fauré, but the overall effect is pretty enough.
Adela fit in well with the fin de siècle Paris crowd. She spent time with Delius, Enesco, Viñes, Debussy, Ravel, Princesse de Polignac, and all the rest. She also put on performances of her own works and others’. In March 1899 she produced the first performance of Delius’s opera Koanga in her own home.
Eventually the relationship with Fauré cooled, or perhaps her studies with him just followed their natural course. The timeline is fuzzy, but sometime around 1906, she met a woman named Marta Gertrud Mundt, the editor of a Berlin socialist journal. Mundt was well-educated, having studied sociology and economics in Germany and Italy. In 1905/6, Adela made a mysterious move from Paris to Berlin. Her friends were purportedly confused; they knew she didn’t care for Germany. But, intriguingly, Mundt’s family lived there, which might explain all. When Fred Maddison grew deathly ill, he ended up in Berlin, where Adela helped nurse him. He died there in September of 1906. After his death (or maybe a little before), Adela and Marta Mundt became dear friends and potentially lovers.
Adela continued to pursue her musical career in Berlin. She produced concerts and wrote music. She seems to have been attracted to larger forms during this time. In 1909 she wrote a piece for orchestra called Irische Ballade (Irish Ballade), but the score has been lost. In 1910 her opera Der Talisman was staged in Leipzig.
The omnipresent Princesse de Polignac was apparently responsible for securing the opera house in Leipzig for the Der Talisman performances. Der Talisman was based on a satirical fairy tale by German author Ludwig Fulda. (Interestingly, Fulda was romantically linked with composer Cécile Chaminade’s younger sister Henriette.)
The reviews of Der Talisman were mixed. One critic summed it up by conceding that Frau Maddison had a talent for opera writing, “even though not a particularly distinctive one.” Of course sexism impacted the opera’s reception, as the Leipziger Volkszeitung proved when it wrote, “Should women ever possess great musical creativity and be able to add to it this amount of energy, then, that is for sure, their competition will become of crucial importance.” There were also anti-French prejudices at play, and it is difficult to judge by the press response how much of that negativity originated with sexism, xenophobia, or the sheer objective quality of the music and the performance.
By the early 1910s, Marta Mundt had gotten a job as a secretary to Princesse Polignac. This took both Adela and Mundt out of Germany and back to France. But as international tensions worsened, the Princesse fired Mundt, saying that she could not in good conscience employ a German.
Eventually Adela Maddison and Marta Mundt found themselves in London, visiting Adela’s old friend, singer Mabel Batten, and Batten’s much younger lover, noted lesbian authoress Radclyffe Hall. The quartet of women spent an idyllic time together in the summer of 1913, listening to Batten singing under a Spanish tree and even watching a sunset together at Tewkesbury Abbey. But despite the respite, Adela and Marta’s love-story was becoming increasingly desperate. Adela wrote in a letter to Batten:
The best thing to help us (& we need help indeed) is to try & find a small flat which could be lent to me for as long as possible – & Marta would do the work for us both if she did not get any work “outside,” which is of course likely to be the case. It is impossible to give employment to foreigners when Englishmen and women are needing it so…
For M. to go into a home for German governesses or something of that sort would break my heart & I need her with me for my heart is very bad & who could look after me?
I know you are yourself worried, poor dear Mabel. I feel a brute writing all this – I don’t want money & hate anyone thinking I am begging at this terrible moment – but if the roof can be provided somehow I can for a time manage our food etc. on £2 a week…
I am doing the cooking & all here – & am so sick of life in general & so tired of “ideals” that only lead to the utmost abimes of sordid realities.
But one can’t be untrue to one’s nature!!!
Tragically, the search for a living and lodgings didn’t pan out. Adela later wrote to British music writer Edward Dent: “The war has separated us, & broken up our dear little home – alas! I am being taken care of by friends for the present. Poor Marta is in Berlin – very ‘pro-ally’ & heartbroken.”
Through it all, Adela continued writing music. One major work written during this time not only survived but has been recorded: her piano quintet from 1916. (The score is available for purchase, along with audio samples, here.) It was performed at Wigmore Hall in 1920 and published at her own expense in 1925. It’s an intriguing work with an international flavor: one minute, a listener hears tinges of Fauré or Debussy, the next Vaughan Williams or Elgar.
Sometime before 1920, Adela moved to Glastonbury, where she became involved with the festival there, producing various works, including her own. In 1920 her ballet The Children of Lir was staged at the Old Vic. All of the works she wrote while living in Glastonbury are, at this time, lost.
Adela also maintained a long-distance relationship with Marta Mundt, who in the early 1920s took a job in Geneva with the International Labour Organization. (Ultimately, according to Wikipedia, “Mundt became the ILO’s officer dealing with employment issues for women and children, and the ILO’s liaison with feminist organizations.” The ILO is now an agency of the UN.) Her work took her to various postwar congresses around Europe, and Adela often visited her. But the historical record is spotty, and it’s unclear whether they ever lived together again.
Adela’s health had been poor throughout the 1920s, and she passed away in 1929 at the age of sixty-seven. From there, she also passed into relative obscurity.
Adela Maddison is most often written about in the context of her relationship with Fauré. But the more one learns about her, the clearer it becomes that she wasn’t just Fauré’s momentary mistress or even just his pupil. She was also a pianist, composer, and concert presenter in her own right…and maybe even much-needed historical representation for all those whose relationships don’t fit into simple boxes.
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