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date: 02 June 2020

Kemble, Adelaidefree

  • W.H. Husk
  • , revised by George Biddlecombe
  •  and Catherine Hutchinson

(b London, 1814; d Warsash, Hants., Aug 4, 1879). English soprano. She was a member of Britain’s foremost acting family in the early 19th century; her father was the actor-manager Charles Kemble and her aunt was Sarah Siddons. Kemble studied singing in Paris with Giulio Bordogni (1831–4) and later in Italy where she had lessons with Giuditta Pasta (1838), as well as with Gian Orazio Cartagenova, Saverio Mercadante, and Nicola Vaccai (1839–40). Kemble’s early performances were as a concert singer. In 1835 she sang in the Concerts of Ancient Music on May 13 and 20, in a performance of Messiah given by the Royal Society of Musicians on June 10, and at the York Festival in September. Kemble went on to perform in central Europe (1837), where she gave several concerts with Josef Dessauer, during which she demonstrated that she had the range and coloratura ability to become an operatic soprano.

Kemble’s first opera engagement was as Norma at La Fenice on December 2, 1838. Other notable parts included the title roles of Lucia di Lammermoor at La Scala (1839) and Mantua (1840) and Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda at the S Carlo, Naples (1840–41), where she also sang Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello. In addition, Kemble sang at Trieste, Padua, and Bologna. Kemble returned to England in 1841 because her father was dangerously ill. That summer she gave a concert tour in Belgium and Germany with Franz Liszt accompanying, during which she performed operatic arias and detached opera scenes and also sang in Norma. On return to Britain, Kemble appeared in an English version of Norma at Covent Garden on November 2, 1841. During the following year, she also sang in English versions of Mercadante’s Elena da Feltre, Le nozze di Figaro, La sonnambula, Rossini’s Semiramide, and Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto, in London and other parts of the British Isles. Her friend, the social critic Anna Jameson, indicated that in performing Italian opera in English, Kemble may have wished to ‘naturalize the Italian lyrical drama’ and make it available to a middle-class public.

Kemble retired from professional singing at Christmas 1842, following her marriage to Edward John Sartoris and after an operatic career lasting exactly four years. Yet, she continued to perform at private events and charitable concerts, singing both operatic and non-operatic numbers, including songs that she herself had composed. 13 of Kemble’s songs were published under her married name Adelaide Sartoris between 1859 and 1877. Most of these songs are strophic and reflect parlour songs of the time. They range from simple songs to numbers with greater intricacy in the piano part and vocal line plus some charming word-painting. Kemble also wrote two books: her novel, A Week in a French Country-House (1867), has many references to music, while Past Hours (1880) includes an essay, ‘A Recollection of Pasta’, about visiting the singer at her home on Lake Como.

Kemble performed in London to packed audiences: she was particularly known for her compelling acting and the individual interpretations she gave to operatic characters, in which she communicated their mixed emotions. The intensity of her performances meant that she excelled in tragic roles, notably Norma and Semiramide; her performance of lighter parts such as Susanna (Le nozze di Figaro) had less popular appeal. In her early concerts, Kemble sang as a contralto and her voice was not very flexible. However, with further study she acquired a wide range and her voice became more supple: she sang all her operatic roles as a soprano and became known for her elaborate if unconventional ornamentation. In line with other writers, George Hogarth (Evening Chronicle, October 3, 1842) described her voice as ‘full and voluminous in its lower notes, and in the higher of ethereal sweetness and purity’. Yet Kemble was criticized for her intonation: this may have been due to forcing her voice upwards as her sister claimed; yet as a naturally gifted actress, her lapses in tuning seem to have arisen at heightened moments in the drama. English critics took chauvinistic pride in Kemble who was perceived as being of a higher standard than other English singers of the time, and on a level with the continental performers who dominated English music. Consequently, when she retired, articles in the London press mourned the loss for English music.



Incipit (if different from the title)




Solo Songs

Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes

Hark the Mavis evening sang

R. Burns



Dream, Baby, Dream

B. Cornwall



Dreams of the Past

Through the dark silent night



Jenny Out from Home

Oh wild raving west winds!

W. Barnes



Pass thy Hand Thro’ my Hair Love

F. Kemble



The Music of the Sea

I have not seen the glorious sea

H. Aidé



The Old Days

Let the tears flow



The Waterfall is Calling Me

Mrs. Kemble



O do not Sing Again

F. Kemble



The Mother to her Child (Cradle Song)

In vain, in vain



Then Sing Again




An Evening Prayer

Good night love

Mrs. Kemble



Good Night

P.B. Shelley


? 1859


  • as A. Sartoris: A Week in a French Country-House (London, 1867)
  • as A. Sartoris: Past Hours (London, 1880)


  • DNB (L.M. Middleton, rev. K.D. Reynolds); ES (H.R. Beard)
  • R.H. Horne: ‘Madame Pasta and Miss Adelaide Kemble; with Notes on Malibran, Schroeder and Grisi’, The Monthly Magazine (Dec 1842), 630–5
  • A.B. Jameson: ‘Adelaide Kemble: and the Lyrical Drama in 1841’, Memoirs and Essays, Illustrative of Art, Literature and Social Morals, ed. A.B. Jameson (London, 1846), 67–121
  • H.F. Chorley: Thirty Years’ Musical Recollections (London, 1862), i, 113n, 212–4
  • J.R. Planché: The Recollections and Reflections of J.R. Planché (London, 1872), 52–3, 57–9
  • F.A. Kemble: Records of a Later Life (London, 1882), ii, 123–5, 133, 293–5
  • A. Luzio: Carteggi verdiani (Rome, 1935–47), iv, 77, 276
  • C. Gatti: Il Teatro alla Scala nella storia e nell’arte, 1778–1963 (Milan, 1964), i, 95; ii, 40
  • C.M. Roscioni, ed.: Il Teatro di San Carlo (Naples, 1968)
  • A. Blainey: Fanny and Adelaide: the Lives of the Remarkable Kemble Sisters (Chicago, 2001)
  • C.L.J. Hutchinson: ‘Naturalising Semiramide in 1842: Adaptation, Spectacle and English Prima Donnas’ (diss., Goldsmiths, U. of London, 2019)
  • M. Thom Wium: ‘Adelaide Kemble and the Voice as Means’, London Voices, 1820–1840: Vocal Performers, Practices, Histories, ed. S. Rutherford and R. Parker (Chicago, 2019)
  • M. Thom Wium: ‘Adelaide Kemble and Opera Arias in Concert and Drawing Rooms’, Opera outside the Box: Cultural Reflections and Notions of Opera in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain, ed. R. Marvin (Abingdon, in preparation)
Enciclopedia dello spettacolo
Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 1885-1901, suppls., 1901-96)