This is part of the story of an extraordinary Australian.
Frederick Septimus Kelly is one of Australia’s greatest sons. A century after his death on the last day of the first Battle of the Somme, the time has finally come for his music to be played again, for the notes to rise off the page, like ghosts taking form, and move towards us through time with arms outstretched, before finally embracing us, here, in the present. This is a gift to all who love beauty – the music of a deeply, sensitive soul, who was an Olympic Gold medal-winning athlete, Pablo Casals’ preferred pianist and a composer of real genius – Australia’s Vaughan Williams. It is time to finally hear his music and savour the sweetness of his flowers – for Australia to love its lovely boy.
The person who probably knew ‘Sep’ Kelly best was his brother Bertie, himself an amateur violinist who had studied with Joseph Joachim. “Born in 1881, as the youngest member of a musical family, Sep soon decided to copy his elders,” Bertie wrote. “I can remember him as a baby climbing onto a music stool and imitating the actions of a pianist.”
“For a while Sep was limited to what he could create with his small closed fist, but clearly he was not satisfied with that. To the astonishment of his family he rapidly succeeded in playing what he wanted. He seemed to pass in one bound from the stage of a boisterous child using the piano as a toy, to that of a miniature musician. I cannot remember him ever learning the piano. He just seemed to play it as a duck suddenly finds it can swim.”
At 12-years old, the child virtuoso went from Sydney Grammar to Eton for specialist tuition. Here began Sep’s introduction to rowing as a cox, then stroke, of one of their boats. Having spent his youth on Sydney harbour sailing with his father, he had always loved the water. Within a few short years he would be considered the greatest amateur sculler of his time.
Sep had composed music from his teenage years and his early songs are unusually eloquent. He had always preferred to play music by heart. He wrote music in his head without referring to a piano, polishing the works to perfection before committing them to paper. There are very few corrections in his mature works, if any. There are very few drafts. As with Mozart, the pieces seemed to come into being perfectly formed, as if they had always existed.
After Oxford, Kelly studied piano and composition for five years at the Frankfurt Conservatory, the leading music school of the time, where Percy Grainger also studied. In 1908, Kelly ended his studies to train for the London Olympics. He aimed to beat the Canadian rower L.F. Scholes, the only man who had ever bettered him. He rowed in the eights and won Gold in commanding fashion – his Australian nationality no obstacle to rowing for England in those very different days. However, his fame as an oarsman presented many obstacles to his musical career. The public thought he was an athlete dabbling in music, rather than the other way round. Reviews of his piano performances always referred to him as a sculler and Kelly eventually would realise that only in composition would he be able to escape his own shadow.
Kelly’s professional musical life commenced in earnest after the 1908 Olympics. He quickly took on a leading role in London, becoming the cellist Pablo Casals’ recital partner and also appearing as soloist with the London Symphony Orchestra, amongst others.
Kelly’s great return to Australia occurred in 1911 when he appeared as piano soloist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the Sydney Town Hall. The Bulletin review said: “The orchestra had the help of F. S. Kelly, a returned Australian, in Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto for piano and orchestra. This was his first appearance in Sydney after many European successes and his brilliant performance justified a remarkable outburst of enthusiasm!” He followed this with three marathon piano recitals in ten days, two chamber recitals, and conducting a chamber orchestra concert, all of which featured his works.
When war broke out, Kelly was back working in London. He rushed to sign up and was soon commissioned in the Royal Naval Division (RND). He became part of the famous Latin Club, a group of officers from the Hood Battalion. Kelly served alongside the poet Rupert Brooke, the composer William Denis Browne, the British Prime Minister’s second son “Ock” Asquith, and New Zealand’s Bernard Freyberg, later commander of their WWII forces and finally their Governor General. The war would take all of them except Asquith, who lost his leg, and Freyberg, who was wounded seven times, eventually dying from one of those wounds when it ruptured 50 years later.
By the time war broke out, Kelly had composed enough music to fill five CDs but there was far more that remained in his head, un-notated. “Before dinner I looked through my recent unpublished works and revised some passages before going to bed,” he wrote on Sunday January 3, 1915. “In view of going to the front I am somewhat conscious of Keats’ sonnet:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain
“I am anxious to leave my unpublished work as far as possible ready for the press. Unfortunately there is no time to notate the works in my head – the Symphony in E Major, the Lyric Phantasy for large orchestra, the F Minor Piano Sonata, the Aubade for flute and strings, a String Quartet in E Minor and about a dozen songs.”
In the remaining 22 months before his death at the Somme on November 13, 1916, there never was enough time to write them all down and record them for history. They live now only as titles, the music dying with the bullet that cleaved his ‘teeming brain’.
In Australia artists are called many things, but rarely war heroes. Kelly was certainly that. More importantly, he wrote the most music of any composer who served. His war music is remarkably serene, as elusive as trying to collect moonlight.
Quickly written poems or drawings in the trenches are often cathartic, expressing and expelling bitter experience. Music, on the other hand, requires weeks of sustained concentration. It becomes a place of refuge on the battlefield – an oasis of calm transporting the mind to a more peaceful place. Kelly – like Mandela in Robben Island prison – transcended his environment, writing music in his mind over months at Gallipoli and France. He was able to sustain musical ideas coherently, notable for their lack of angst, even amidst danger and chaos.
Kelly fought throughout the Gallipoli campaign. He was wounded in the foot, allowing him the chance to notate his masterpiece, the Elegy for his friend Rupert Brooke. In the second half of the campaign, he wrote a sonata for the great Hungarian virtuoso, Jelly D’Aranyi, the most famous female violinist of her day. When the Royal Naval Division was transferred to the Western Front, Sep continued to compose, including trying to notate his aforementioned F Minor Piano Sonata, but which remained unfinished at the time of his death.
Kelly was a soldier who seemed to have no real hatred of his enemy. He spoke German fluently from his studies in Frankfurt and had mastered the musical language of Schumann and Brahms. He blended that with a very English sensibility, much like Handel did, creating a musical language that is closest to Ralph Vaughan Williams, but remains clearly his own. If Vaughan Williams had also died at 35, their two catalogues would be almost identical in quality and quantity, with Kelly writing more piano music and Vaughan Williams more chamber music.
There are layers of contradictions with Kelly: he was an Australian living within the highest levels of English society, whose manner was the epitome of an English gentleman but who was not accepted as such. He was often laughed at by his fellow officers for writing music in his dugout, along with his habit of constantly wearing gloves (though logical for a pianist protecting his hands), which they took as proof of his eccentricity. His Australian directness of expression caused fits of laughter, as did his love of cats, which he seemed somehow to collect in the trenches, particularly in France. However, it is very moving to read, how, after his death, his fellow officers came to realise how much they missed him – how life was a lot less interesting after he was gone.
Kelly’s last completed work was written on October 28, 1916 in Mesnil, near Thiepval, opposite Pozières. Lt. Commander Bernard Freyberg wrote: “Kelly and his fellow officers are situated in a small cellar of a bombed out house – indeed the whole town of Mesnil has been reduced to rubble by shell fire, and in this basement, only a few feet square, they cook, eat and sleep – the staircase serving the dual role of chimney and entrance.”
The work is an introduction and theme for a planned set of orchestral variations which Kelly marked Lento and Lamentoso, and which history will remember as The Somme Lament. The manuscript, in his perfect handwriting, scored as if for piano but with some details of orchestration, is impossibly clean, with no trace of dirt or soot, and not a single correction or error. It seems as pristine as if it had been written yesterday. It will shortly be orchestrated in order to represent the nearby battle of Pozières in the upcoming Diggers’ Requiem, the bookend companion piece to the Gallipoli Symphony, which will premiere in 2018 to mark the centenary of the end of the Great War.
On X Day, November 13, 1916, the day of the big push to take to take Beaumont-Hamel, the final battle of the Somme, Freyberg wrote: “On the extreme right I stopped to talk to Kelly who was in command of B company. We had been daily companions for the last two years and he, Asquith, Edgerton and I were the sole survivors of the Battalion who left Avonmouth for Gallipoli in February 1915. I wanted to take both his hands and wish him ‘God speed’ but somehow it seemed too theatrical, so instead we talked awkwardly and synchronised our watches.”
“Owing to our heavy casualties, it was never known really how Kelly was killed, but it appears that someone on Kelly’s left had missed a dugout entrance from which the enemy was starting to shoot. The situation was critical. Unless the strong point was captured at once enemy machine guns would pop up everywhere. Hesitation would have endangered the success of the whole attack on our front.”
“Kelly, being an experienced soldier, knew this quite well, as he must have known the risk he was taking, when with the few men he had hastily gathered, he rushed the machine gun. A few men reached the position, but Kelly, with most of them, was killed at the moment of victory.”
Freyberg, wounded four times, won the Victoria Cross. Kelly’s surviving men, as a sign of respect, carried him back through No Man’s Land in order that he might be properly buried. He is the only one of the dozen composers killed in the Somme to have a marked grave.
On the occasion of the centenary of Sep’s death, we must come at last to realise just how immense his loss was to our young culture. Our small population did not have composers to spare. Like so many countries, we paid a preposterous price in the First World War. The stories from this period are our modern-day Greek Tragedies, yet too often they are stories we do not know. If we did we would not risk war again.
We cannot recover Australia’s 60,000 dead from the Great War, but we can bring back Kelly. Following his death, Sep’s obituary was run in almost every major paper in England, Scotland, Ireland and Australia, and yet now he is largely forgotten. It is well past time for us to grieve for Kelly, to realise just what we lost, and to finally know him through his music, as Kelly himself foresaw when he quoted Callimachus in the foreword to his Elegy for Rupert Brooke:
Still your works live on, and Death, the universal snatcher, cannot lay his hand on them.