The Russian composer Ella Overbeck was born on this day some time between 1870 and 1895. The oft-forgotten, yet accomplished musician was known in her time for her “manly” way of dress and her not-so-secretive relationship with other women.
Ella Overbeck photographed, date unknown (x).
Agnes Elizabeth Overbeck was born on October 10 in either 1870 or 1875 – sources differ on the exact year. She was born in Düsseldorfer Stadtkreis, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany to Russian parents, but eventually moved to England with her family as a young child. Her parents died not long after the move and Ella, as she was called, was adopted by a wealthy English woman. Her adoptive mother paid for her to be educated at the prestigious Royal College of Music. She started to gain notoriety in 1894 for her composition of the music for an adaptation of the play No Trifling With Love at Uxbridge Town Hall, but she was even more well known in polite society for her rather “unpolite” relationship with the socialite Edith Craig.
Edith Craig was the sister of Gordan Craig, the playwright who worked in collaboration with Ella for multiple productions and it is suspected that it was through Edith who introduced the two artists to each other. In her biography of the Edith and Gordon’s mother, author Nina Auerbach refers to Ella as “Edy’s [Edith’s nickname] cross-dressing friend, the Baronness ‘Jimmy’ Overbeck.” Although Ella continued to compose well-reviewed violin sonatas and other music throughout her career, once again, the public’s attention continued to be focused on her various lovers.
After Edith came the Russian poet Zinaida Gippius. Zinaida publicly wrote about her bisexuality and her identity as an androgynous woman, so her relationship with Ella was practically ready-made scandal. In her memoirs, Zinaida writes of meeting Ella for the first time in the summer of the late 1890s in the island of Taormina with the passage: “Taormina, Taormina, white and blue town of the most humorous of all loves – homosexuality! I am speaking, of course, about its external form. It is equally good and natural for each person to love any other person.” Ella and Zinaida eventually moved to Russia together for a time, where Ella saw a good bit of success with her compositions being performed at the Alexandrisky Theater in St. Petersburg.
As Ella grew older and her trysts with society women began to fizzle out, unfortunately so did her fame in the music world. She is described in the book Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity as a “shadowy figure.” What we do know about the later years of her life is that she did not seem to have much camaraderie with the lesbian and bisexual subculture of London during the the early 20th century and preferred to spend her days in the South West area of England. In the 1910s, her music became a mainstay at Frank Winterbottom’s “Symphony Concerts” in Plymouth and she would pass away on November 19, most likely 1919 in Stuttgarter Stadtkreis Baden-Württemberg, Germany.