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Marianne Helene Mathy (1890–1978)

by John Carmody

This article was published:

Marianne Mathy, n.d.

Marianne Mathy, n.d.

Marianne Helene Sara Mathy (1890-1978), teacher of singing, was born on 23 June 1890 at Mannheim, Germany, only child of Dr Richard Michael Kahn, lawyer, and his first wife Martha, née Fürth. Marianne was baptized a Lutheran at Trinity Church in 1896, though her father belonged to a wealthy Jewish family. His putative cousins included Robert Kahn, a composer and friend of Brahms, and Otto Hermann Kahn, a banker who financed the Metropolitan Opera Company, New York. The family home, decorated by a pupil of William Morris, was a centre of Mannheim's musical and intellectual activity. There Marianne met many musicians, among them the violinist Joseph Joachim and the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler.

From the age of 8 she learned the piano and began to attend concerts with her father, a passionate music lover. In spite of his wish that she become a pianist, she took singing lessons at secondary school from Anna Rodre-Heindl. Marianne attended classes in acting (including deportment, breathing and voice projection) at the Städtische Hochschule für Musik and Theater Mannheim. Impressed by the stress that Professor Max Friedländer laid on the importance of the text and its contribution to the emotion of the music, she later emphasized these principles to her Australian students.

One of her earliest concert experiences occurred in September 1910 when she sang in the chorus at the première performance of Gustav Mahler's eighth symphony, which he conducted at Munich. About 1912 Marianne married Colonel Erich Mathy of the Imperial German Army. Following the declaration of war in 1914, he went to the front and she trained as a nurse. After he was seriously wounded, she transferred to a field-hospital to care for him. He was killed in action in 1915.

A coloratura soprano, Marianne Mathy made her operatic début in 1918 as Gretel in Hänsel und Gretel. She was soon singing such roles as the Queen of the Night (Die Zauberflöte) and Gilda (Rigoletto) at Wiesbaden. Deeply interested in the English composer Purcell, she wrote out her own performing copies from material in the Preussische Staatsbibliothek, Berlin, and sang his music in an authentic way, with harpsichord and strings. As well as standard German lieder, she added to her repertoire works by less familiar composers, among them Telemann and Rameau. In Berlin on 12 August 1921 Marianne married Franz Martin Friedenstein (d.1955), a Jewish architect and amateur violinist from Poland. They lived comfortably in Berlin and she continued her career as Marianne Mathy until the ascendancy of the Nazis in 1933. Protected by Furtwängler, they lived under surveillance and she was not allowed to perform. Her students were eventually told that they would not be engaged if they took 'lessons from the Jewess, Mathy'. Through the intervention of Sir Thomas Beecham's secretary Dr Berta Geissmar, Franz was finally permitted to leave Germany in 1938 and Marianne in 1939.

On (Sir) Malcolm Sargent's advice, they decided to emigrate to Australia. Friedenstein reached Sydney in April 1939; Marianne followed in October in the Siraimedliv. By that time Sargent was conducting there. He introduced her to members of the Anglican hierarchy with musical connexions, which led to her first concert, at the Australia Hotel on 29 November 1939. A critic noted her 'highly schooled style' and found her 'charmingly fluent' in the 'more florid pieces'. Engagements with the Australian Broadcasting Commission followed—including a concert of Schumann lieder and as the soprano soloist in Handel's Messiah—until the Australian government banned broadcasts of spoken or sung German. Despite restrictions on their movements, the Friedensteins changed their name to Frisdane and were naturalized in December 1944. They had moved into a cottage at 45 Manning Road, Double Bay (which would be her home and studio until her death). Separated about 1951, they were to be divorced in 1952, with Walter Jackson (a member of their ménage à trois) named as co-respondent.

Known professionally as Madame Mathy, she had begun to accumulate the first of a distinguished list of pupils, including Alan Light, Eleanor Houston, Margaret Martin, Sergei Baigildin, Lyndon Terracini, Meg Chilcott, and June 'Bronhill' whom she persuaded to change her surname from Gough. Many of her students were to win the Sun Aria competition. A council-member (1950) of the short-lived New South Wales National Opera, she started the Mathy Opera Group in 1952 to give her students experience. Their first performance was Hansel and Gretel (with Bronhill as Gretel), supported by the Rockdale Municipal Orchestra. Yielding to the persuasions of (Sir) Eugene Goossens, Mathy taught (1954-72) voice production at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. She also taught briefly at the National Institute of Dramatic Art. In 1965 she published The Singer's Companion. She long described herself as a 'Professor of Singing'.

Madame Mathy engendered loyalty in many of her students, and hostility in others. They spoke of her grasp of style, and of the skill with which she conveyed her knowledge. She was very affectionate to her favourites: June Bronhill called her 'my second mother'. Terracini found it 'a huge revelation' when Mathy spoke to him 'in artistic language', but he agreed that she was invariably tough and could be 'an absolute vixen'. She 'was very impatient with talented people who did not want to progress as fast as possible' and she was sometimes manipulative and ruthless. In her view, nothing, not even marriage, should stand in the way of a career. Werner Baer, another Jewish refugee, often accompanied her performances. She considered it disloyal when he played for others.

An excellent cook, Marianne Mathy was an elegant hostess who took great pains over her make-up and dress. At the age of 73, fearful of old age and death, she visited the Privat-Klinik Bircher-Benner, Zürich, Switzerland, for 'rejuvenating' injections of 'monkey-glands'. She died on 15 October 1978 in her Double Bay home and was cremated. Her modest estate formed the nucleus of funds used to establish an award for singing known as the Marianne Mathy scholarship.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Musical News, 1 Mar 1950, 1 Jan 1953
  • Con Brio, Mar 1973
  • Opera Australia, 1978
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Nov 1939, 17 Jan 1952, 14 Nov 1953, 19 Oct 1978, 3 June 1982
  • Mathy file, 21317 (ABC Archives, Sydney)
  • Frisdane, naturalisation file A446/184, item 54/13581 and A1067/1, item IC46/90/34 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Carmody, 'Mathy, Marianne Helene (1890–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Marianne Mathy, n.d.

Marianne Mathy, n.d.

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Friedenstein, Marianne Helene
  • Kahn, Marianne Helene

23 June, 1890
Mannheim, Germany


15 October, 1978 (aged 88)
Double Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.