One of the most popular songwriters of the Victorian period
and fringe member of “The Souls,” Maude Valérie White, was born on this day in
1855 in Normandy, France.
One of the only known photographs of Maude shows her posing with one of her pet dogs in hand (x).
Although she was born in France, Maude’s family moved to
England when she was just a year old. Growing up, she was a rabid pianist and
studied music with legends such as Oliver May and W. S. Rockstro. By the age of
seventeen, Maud had written her first composition and it was sure to not be the
last. It wasn’t until she became the first woman to ever be awarded the prestigious
Mendelssohn Scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music that Maud was finally
able to convince her mother to allow her to pursue music as a career. Ironically,
it was only after her mother’s death that Maud began to really see the first tastes
of success. Her musical adaptations of Byron and Shelley poems began to be
spread around England in the 1880s and 1890s, with The Musical Times magazine calling Maud “the foremost of English
songwriters.” Another popular publication called Dictionary of Music and Musicians declared her song “My Song is An
Enchanted Boat” as “one of the best in our language.”
Florence Upton’s 1909 painting shows an older Maude Valérie White sitting at her piano (x).
Maude never married in her lifetime. When the topic was broached
in her memoirs she sarcastically calls herself a spinster and writes, “I am a
person with some idea of proportion, and an overpowering sense of duty has
compelled me to restore the balance of things as far as lies in my power.”
Throughout her two memoirs, she never admits to having had any relationships
with men or women, but it is generally believed that she had at least two
affairs with women – one with Edith Santley and the other with Mary Wakefield,
who were both English singers. Maude’s friend also included notable gay artists
such as Margot Tennant, Liza Lehmann, and Mary Anderson, and together they made
up half of a famous squad of gay musicians and artists that called themselves “The
Souls” and bopped around London in the 1880s. If Maude was not guilty by association,
then let me introduce her 1894 song so aptly titled “Soft Lesbian Airs.” Maude originally
dedicated the song to her friend Liza Lehmann, but her publishers changed the
titled to “Soft Lydian Airs” and struck the dedication from the printed version
of the song (*double eyes emoji*).
When Maude set Lord Byron’s famous poem “So We’ll Go No More A Roving” to music it instantly became one of her most well-known compositions.
After retiring from music, Maude wrote two memoirs; Friends and Memories was published 1914 and
then My Indian Summer was published later
in 1932. Maude passed away in 1937 at the age of 82, but her music lived on in
the many patrons, students, and protégés she entertained throughout her life. You
can read more about Maude Valérie White and the particularly gay company she
kept in Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity by Sophie Fuller and Lloyd