PROFILE ON BRITISH COMPOSER STEPHEN ADAMS
WAS HE THE BROTHER OF JACK THE RIPPER?
by Derek Strahan
THIS FILE MAY INTEREST AND INTRIGUE MUSICIANS AS MUCH AS IT MAY CHALLENGE RIPPEROLOGISTS! ...
There is much literature and there are several websites dedicated to exploring the mystery of one of the great unsolved crimes of the late nineteenth century - the question of the identity of that most notorious of all serial killers, Jack the Ripper (read on for a link). What, you may justifiably ask, has Jack the Ripper got to do with one of Britain's best loved composer of light music of the late nineteenth century? For most musicians and opera buffs, the only connection Jack the Ripper has with music is that he appears as a character in the last act of Alban Berg's opera "Lulu" .
Well, it certainly surprised me, and it will probably surprise you, to learn that the latest contender for the dubious privilege of having been Jack the Ripper, had a brother who was an internationally successful writer of ballads and concert pieces, and was equally well-known in London as a concert singer and concert entrepreneur. He wrote under the pseudonym of Stephen Adams, and he collaborated with an equally successful librettist, Fred Weatherly, who was also a successful London barrister. Weatherly also wrote libretti for a number of other celebrated British composers, including Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan, and Eric Coates, one of the best known of British composers of light music.
The question of Jack the Ripper's identity is still unresolved, but Stephen Adams did have to contend with a well-documented family drama involving the death of this same brother, supposedly by arsenic poisoning, for which alleged act his young American wife was convicted and jailed for 15 years. Her trial caused a sensation, and, indeed, was one of the first trials to be taken up by the media, in the 1889, a prototype media event presaging the many other other yellow press scandalfests which characterised press reporting throughout the 20th century. This trial was also widely believed to have been an appalling miscarriage of justice, and lead to significant reforms in the British legal system, involving the ways in which evidence is presented, and, in particular, in the way that women are treated by the justice system.
I don't think anyone has played devil's advocate for Michael Maybrick and, as a fellow composer, I hereby make a first step in this process - not to provide moral exoneration for his behaviour, but to seek a rational explanation for it. He was, after all, at the height of his career, and it was not of his asking that his brother should become ill and die in suspicious circumstances. At the time of this family crisis Michael Maybrick, under the name of Stephen Adams, had more music being published than Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert & Sullivan fame, and was regularly appearing in concerts, such as the London "Ballad Concerts" inaugurated in 1888. The trial of Florence Maybrick was devastating enough, and it is astonishing to suppose that there were further complications brought into Michael Maybrick's life by the behaviour of his brother.
I am even inclined to wonder if Fred Weatherly might have been the chief architect of the manipulation of the trial of Florence Maybrick and of the cover-up of her husband's identity as Jack the Ripper (if that be true) - to the degree that Michael Maybrick might have been following his friend's legal advice when he was called in by the family to oversee the family crisis at the time of James' illness and death. I am truly surprised that Ripperologists have not (to my knowledge) taken into consideration the fact that Weatherly was barrister in seeking out possible sources of archival information. The tendency has been, as I have mentioned, to demonise Michael Maybrick. A less biased approach, a more even-handed exploration of psychological truth, might lead to the discovery of new and valuable evidence. If there is anyone who respects the memory of Michael Maybrick, and who has information, he or she is not going to volunteer it in the context of a "get Michael" witch-hunt! As we have learned, Michael was a high-level Freemason, with extensive social contacts, reaching into the highest levels of society. Was Fred Weatherly also a Mason?
Click below for some more music written by this composer-librettist team, and this one comes with a family anecdote provided by my friend Amanda, which came down from her father. It concerns one of the great Adams-Weatherly hits, a ballad titled "Thora", which was still being sung world-wide in the 1940s, including in Western Australia. It seems "Thora" was being sung at a concert in W.A., and was being particularly well-received by a female member of the audience who happened to be named Thora. The husband was so incensed he marched up on stage and shot the singer in the foot! With some justification, apparently, since the lady and the singer were having an affair! Your chance to judge how provocative the ballad is comes from this CD collection titled Favourite Ballads sung by Stuart Burrows, tenor, with John Constable, piano, on the Belart label (Cat. No 461 316-210). By the way, you may also be interested to know that the familiar words of Danny Boy were written by Fred Weatherly, as were the words of the Haydn-Wood classic "Roses of Picardy".
Click here to hear an extract from "Thora"
Let's us turn to Shirley Harrison's book "The Diary of Jack the Ripper" for some extracts which afford a brief biography, not entirely free of moral disapproval - but then many composers, indeed many artists generally, have attained renown not for their character, but for the work they bequeathed. In a passage exploring aspects of Michael's personality, Shirley Harrison writes that, at the time of the family crisis, 1888, Michael (aged 49) was "unmarried ... and was looked after by a housekeeper". She continues:
"For a man who had already achieved something of star status, both as a singer and a composer, Michael is an enigma. Surprisingly little is known of his professional or private life; he is hardly ever mentioned in the diaries or reminiscences of his many famous contemporaries, with whom his relationships appear to have been on a superficial level. Apart from his appearances at the London Ballad concerts and on the concert stage, he was a member of the Constitutional Club and could be seen sporting the uniform of the Artists Rifles Volunteers, where his training would have included bayonet practice. He had enrolled in 1886 at the age of 45. According to the muster roll, the rest of the recruits that year were in their twenties. So Michael obviously docked five years and signed on as "age 40". His chest measurement is given as 41" and his height "6' 01/2".
He had also by this time achieved considerable status as a Freemason, where he was a member of the Athenaeum and St. Andrew's Lodges and founder and first Principal of the Orpheus Lodge for Musicians. He rose to the coveted level of 30 degrees rite. By 1889 he had reached the even greater position of organist to the Grand Lodge. Musical historian Tony Miall says of Michael Maybrick: "He is one of the less attractive musical figures of the period. His endless pursuit of respectability and money is at variance with the image of an artist concerned with his art. One seeks in vain for a sympathetic bone in his body."
In another passage, Shirley Harrison summarises Michael Maybrick's early life and musical training:
"Nothing is known about the (Maybrick) parents' Influence and personality, and little about the boys' childhood or schooling. James probably attended Liverpool College, like Michael, but records were lost during World War II. We do know that the boys threw themselves into sport, especially cricket. From an early age, according to a later profile in The New Penny Magazine, Michael was the shining star, with the musical gift of "harmonious invention." At 14, one of his compositions was even played at the Covent Garden Opera in London, and he was awarded a Book of Sacred Music for his performance in the choir of St. George's Church. The dedication reads: "Presented to Master Michael Maybrick as a token of regard for his musical perception." William and Susannah encouraged Michael to study in Leipzig.
From there he went to the Milan Conservatoire, where he discovered that he possessed a fine baritone voice. He went on to join the Carl Rosa Opera Company, before entering the Victorian equivalent of the pop scene, touring concert halls in Britain and in America. Michael gave himself the stage name Stephen Adams, and formed a partnership with the librettist Frederick Weatherly. Together they wrote hundreds of songs such as 'Nancy Lee' and 'A Warrior Bold.' By 1888 Stephen Adams was Britain's best-loved composer of popular songs. Indeed, in 1892 his 'The Holy City',was published, an extremely successful song still selling today. This was followed, ironically, by a lively nautical ditty called 'We All Love Jack'".
These facts about and comments on Michael are nothing if not enigmatic, and, if anything, serve to increase the mystery about him. Though, if you accept that he was gay, and was circumspect about his sexual preference, there is no mystery at all! All of is took place around the time of the trial of Oscar Wilde!
Even on the web, it is hard to find anything at all about him. You can visit a website A TWENTY-NINTH GARLAND OF BRITISH LIGHT MUSIC COMPOSERS The text is drawn from Philip L. Scowcroft's book "British Light Music Composers" (Thames Publishing). Here the entry for Stephen Adams speaks kindly of his musical achievement, (despite refering to him as Michael Maybreak! The entry reads:
"Finally, a mention for arguably the best-remembered ballad composer of all, Stephen Adams (1844-1913) whose real name was Michael Maybreak. A Liverpool-born baritone singer, he soon began composing songs of his own and The Star of Bethlehem, The Holy City, Thora and Nirvana among many other titles achieved enormous popularity. They can even be heard today. Songs need words, of course, and "Adams" established a profitable partnership with barrister Fred Weatherly (1848-1929) who wrote possibly 3000 song lyrics for many composers besides Adams, Eric Coates, Henry Trotter and Wilfrid Sanderson."
Although the journal which came to light in 1993, purporting to be written by James Maybrick during the period of the murders, is still regarded as suspect, it has not yet been conclusively proved to be a fraud, and one of Britain's foremost Ripperologists, writer Colin Wilson, now regards Maybrick as the most credible candidate. But our focus today is on the impact James Maybrick's misfortunes had on the life of his brother, Michael, a hugely successful composer of light music. I've mentioned that my interest in Michael Maybrick arose from my own close association with my friend Amanda, whose great-grand-uncle Edwin Maybrick was the youngest brother of James and Michael Maybrick. I've also mentioned the family mythology regarding Michael, that he had a long-term gay relationship with his librettist, Fred Weatherly, who was also a London barrister. Michael's sexual orientation is obliquely referred to by Shirley Harrison, author of the 1993 hit "The Diary of Jack the Ripper", in which she provides brief but valuable biographical insights to Michael's life, albeit revealing little sympathy for Michael himself. The narrative picks up in 1893, 3 years after the trial of Florence Maybrick, and suggests that it had become too difficult for Michael to maintain his social and musical life in London. According to Amanda's family mythology, by then Michael and Fred Weatherly had parted company.
"In 1893 Michael Maybrick decided to break totally with the memories of his past -although the year before he had even more music in print than the great Sir Arthur Sullivan himself. He married his house-keeper, butcher's daughter Laura Withers, at Marylebone Register Office and retired to the Isle of Wight. It was not a love-match, they had nothing in common and never even holidayed together. But Laura was happy enough driving her monogrammed carriage to Ryde's main street in order to give shop- keepers the pleasure of saying they served her. Her husband's impact on the town was astonishing. In November 1900 he was elected Mayor. Speeches at his inauguration referred to his ability to "produce grand harmonies from discordant notes." It was an honour to which he was re-elected five times. He visited Osborne when Queen Victoria was there, he welcomed King Alfonso of Spain and and represented the island in Westminster Abbey for the Coronation of George V. He undoubtedly worked hard to promote the island's image. His funeral was the largest the island had ever seen but is remembered with some amusement by island historians today. Solicitor John Matthews says: "He was a chameleon type of man. He had no deep emotions and no close relationships. He dabbled in every committee possible in the island--but participated in very little. At his funeral, amongst the astonishing array of wreaths was one from the Temperance Movement (but he drank), several from the churches (but he didn't go to church) and from the cycling club (he had no bike). His one-time world of international musical fame was hardly represented."
Michael likewise persuaded his brother Edwin to abandon his bachelor life. In 1892, at the age of 41, Edwin married Amy Tyrer and they had a daughter, also called Amy. Many years later, daughter Amy described her father in these words: "He was absolutely a bachelor at heart. All his friends were bachelors. Some came over from America and they were all bachelors. Father used to invite them to dinner in the evening but there were never any women with them. At Easter he would go off motoring with his men friends. He made me feel I was an unwanted child. He was never loving. I got my ears boxed on many occasions!" ... Young Amy Maybrick sometimes spent the summers there, too (with their uncle in the Isle of Wight.) She dreaded those visits. "All the Maybricks were cold, very formal."
This profile on composer Michael Maybrick has not reached any conclusion about the identity of Jack the Ripper, and whether or not Michael's brother James was that unhappy man. But I hope that this article has drawn attention to the work of one of Britain's greatest composers of light music, whose work is so much better known than the man himself. The fact remains that Michael Maybrick ceased composing music at the age of of 52 when he was at the height of his fame, and at the height of his powers. He joins the ranks of composers whose creative urge deserted them, and these include Rossini, Sibelius, and also Beethoven who wrote practically nothing during the seven years he was preoccupied with legal matters pertaining to the battle over custody of his nephew, Carl.
Such abdication is always a matter of regret, and, in the case of Michael Maybrick, the matter deserves some attention from music historians. Shirley Harrison is to be thanked for making reference to the mystery, and for suggesting a possible reason. Jack the Ripper apart, the scandal and personal trauma surrounding the trial of Florence Maybrick would have been cause enough! What else might "Stephen Adams" have written? What did he write that was not published? He made a significant contribution to British music, and left some works which are acknowledged masterpieces of song writing. His melodic writing reveals a gift of a very high order.
As for the possibility that "Stephen Adams" was gay, surely no one today is shocked by such a revelation. If he was, he has company among composers, namely Handel, Weber, Tchaikovsky, and Britten to name but four.
If anyone has, among their collection of sheet music, any songs or works by Stephen Adams, I would be most interested to know about it., as I collecting his music. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To access information about Stephen Adams' work and a list of his songs click here to go to the web site of James Whitehead.