F. S. Kelly (1881-1916), pianist and composer

Frederick Septimus Kelly is remembered today as one of the “lost” generation killed in World War I – specifically as part of the Hood Battalion of the Royal Navy, where so many of Britain’s young elite of talent and birth served as officers before being killed. But he was also a professional pianist and composer. A native of Australia, he was born the year before another Australian pianist and composer, Percy Grainger, whom he encountered in England. Kelly’s only work to achieve fame was the “Elegy for Strings” composed in memoriam for his friend and comrade, the poet Rupert Brooke.1In recent years more of Kelly’s compositions have been performed and recorded. This blog post contains an interview with pianist Alex Wilson, who recorded all the piano musicSome of his diaries have been published with the title Race Against Time, which refers both to his career as a sculling and rowing racing champion and to a full life cut short by the War at age 35.2Race Against Time: the Diaries of F.S. Kelly, ed. Thérèse Radic (Canberra: National Library of Austria, 2004). The war years of the diaries have also been published with the title The Lost Olympian of the Somme.

Kelly’s diaries are valuable to music historians because he was a meticulous chronicler, and he lived during a time when the arts were at their most exciting. He had interesting reactions to Salome and Elektra; saw the latest ballets of the Ballet Russes; visited exhibitions of the Post-Impressionists. More to my purpose, he associated with many friends and family of Joachim in England. He was even reportedly the unrequited love of Joachim’s great-niece Jelly d’Aranyi. He was a regular at musical gatherings at Edward Speyer’s country estate, Ridgehurst, and was flatmates with the pianist Leonard Borwick, who had been Clara Schumann’s favorite student.

The Leander Rowing Club

Kelly was on the rowing club representing the United Kingdom that won the gold medal in the Olympics in 1908. The three pictures from the British magazine Vanity Fair above are of Kelly's teammates Raymond Etherington-Smith, Guy Nickalls, and B. C. Johnstone. Most of the personalities to be featured with a "man of the day" caricature were aristocrats, politicians and military figures. Their inclusion indicates how much these sports celebrities were admired by upper-crust society.

F. S. Kelly and D. F. Tovey as part of the English Joachim network

The musical activities chronicled in Kelly’s diary provides information about the way students and friends of Joachim continued his legacy in English musical life. Kelly became part of this circle through Donald Francis Tovey (1875-1940), his friend and some-time teacher. Tovey was the first Nettleship Scholar at Balliol College at Oxford, and Kelly was the second. They were similar in that both composed prolifically and gave piano recitals, and both were involved with the chamber music concert series that was designed as the successor to the Joachim Quartet concerts.

They led similar lifestyles, consisting of constant travel and socializing at the country houses of their upper-class friends. They composed and practiced where they stayed, since most of their hosts were also musical. They were members of a kind of traveling artists’ colony, participating in private concerts, informal music making, and late-night musical discussions. They both had phenomenal memories: Kelly composed works in his head and wrote them down later; Tovey had an eidetic-like aural and visual memory. As performers, though, both were characterized by critics as lifeless, inexpressive, dry, mechanical, objective, and lacking any musical feeling.

Kelly got to know members of the Joachim family through Tovey and the banker Edward Speyer, the founder of the Joachim Quartet Concerts Society in 1900, which was continued by the Classical Concerts Society. Kelly served on that Society’s committee and in 1912 became its chairman. He made music with other Joachim associates, such as Marie Soldat, Wilma Norman-Neruda, the Klingler Quartet, George Henschel, Fanny Davies, and Leonard Borwick. Some of the last generation of Joachim students are mentioned as part of the music-making, including Ralph Wetmore, Charles Bruce, and Marie Motto.

Tovey with Joachim

Of Artistry and Englishness

My initial impression of Kelly from his journal entries was of a rigid, coldly determined personality whose style of diary favored precise time keeping over introspection. The first entries cover a period during which he tried to cure his various ailments through hypnotic suggestion; he seriously considered becoming a Christian Scientist.

Kelly rarely expressed any emotional reactions when recounting the never-ending house parties made up of nobility, statesmen, and artists, including the political families of Asquith and Balfour. He took part in music making everywhere he went, but also played bridge, golf, tennis and other games. He and his sister used their two motor-cars, “Clara” and “Emma,” extensively to travel between London and their house near Henley-on-Thames. After he took part in the rowing races in 1908 that won his crew an Olympic gold medal, his diary started to record rare moments of happiness. (“After dinner I lay out in the dinghy in mid-stream gazing at the stars and feeling thoroughly happy. The apricots are at last beginning to get really ripe though they have been eatable for just over a week.” 6 August 1908)

He made the most of the opportunities to take in the historic concerts, operas, ballets, and art exhibitions of the pre-War period. For instance, in 1913, returning from a holiday in St. Moritz, Kelly stopped in Paris to hear a concert of contemporary French music. He thought Debussy’s playing was “very straightforward and in a sense disappointed me…he didn’t show many signs of interpreting his music.” He was also surprised by Ravel, whose “attitude as a conductor was not very free and the strongest impression I got was one of considerable precision on his part. For the author of ‘Le Gibet’ there was a surprising lack of poetry both in his appearance and his manner.”

The following week, back in London, he saw Petrouchka with Nijinsky and Nijinska at Covent Garden. With guidance from Roger Fry and others, he found more to like in the Post-Impressionist painters every time he visited their exhibitions. He loved the performances of pianists Leopold Godowsky and Raoul Pugno, and thought Fritz Kreisler was the best of the violinists. He was also interested in plays, cinema, and Welte-Mignon recordings.


Kelly made his professional debut as a pianist in his native city of Sydney in 1911. When he returned to London he gave a series of solo concerts. Critics seem to have dismissive because he was already known to them as a sportsman. The discouraging reception led to him giving up the ambition of becoming a great soloist, but he continued to assist on chamber music concerts with Pablo Casals and the Rosé Quartet, among others.

Kelly's impressions of other fellow pianist-composers

Ignace Paderewski’s B Minor Symphony “lasted seventy minutes and was one of the dreariest compositions I have ever heard. The instrumentation was very thick, though not effective, and unvaried. His new instrument, the ‘Toni Truone’, reminded one of the Hydrophone in the ‘Ode to Discord’. It was only capable of one effect and every time that was produced the orchestra seemed to lead up to it in the same way. His tunes are repeated far too often. There was a good deal of applause partly, probably, because the audience wanted to put him in a good humour for his performance of the [Beethoven] Emperor Concerto. This was fairly straightforward but not good enough for the ostensibly greatest living pianist.”  —8 November 1909

“Ernest Schelling’s Fantastique Suite showed a certain musical talent for taking tunes and light instrumentation both of rather a commonplace order. Its second movement, a scherzo, I thought the best of its four movements. The 4th movement composed of American folk tunes I thought extremely vulgar, especially the combination of ‘Way Down Upon the Swanee River’ with ‘Dixie Land’.” —22 November 1909

“I went to a concert given by C. Saint-Saëns in the Bechstein Hall with an orchestra of about 35 performers (six 1st, six 2nd violins, four violas, four cellos, three double basses) at which he played four Mozart Concertos – in C major (K. 503), in F (K. 413), in G (K. 453), in A (K.488). On the whole it was a very enjoyable concert and the four works were played with true understanding. His touch, however, like that of most French pianists, was hard when it wished to be expressive….I was disappointed in the cadenzas of which, what there was, was of a very meagre character and contained no thematic treatment of the materials of the movement. I have no recollection of his playing a cadenza to the first movement of the C Major Concerto and am almost certain he left it out altogether.” —8 June 1910

After attending Percy Grainger‘s concert of his own compositions at Aeolian Hall: “Altogether it was a most entertaining evening….My whole impression was of a composer of a rather restricted emotional range, but of decided originality. There was nothing deep although there were moments (such as ‘Willow Willow’) that were genuinely pathetic and moving. It was the music of a grown-up child, immensely clever but which gave no indication of deep emotional experience. In a sense it was all playing with toys and not with the real things of life. There was a large and enthusiastic audience.” —21 May 1912

Ferruccio Busoni “has a great pianist talent, but he struck me as being an empty-headed buffoon…I got no impression of an individuality or any strong musical feeling behind Busoni’s compositions, but the Suite [from Turandot] had some novel instrumental effects. On the whole it was mildly boring and a great deal too long (it lasted 40 minutes). He had a great reception from the house about two-thirds full.” — 5 June 1912

There was a meeting with Ernst von Dohnányi, during which “he amused us both a good deal by playing us a few extracts from Schönberg’s Three Piano Pieces op. 11. It was an interesting little luncheon party, but our talk might have been more interesting were it not for a certain egotistic obtuseness on our guest’s part. He was too ready to put forward his tastes or his prejudices (as in the case of Debussy, of which he was evidently quite ignorant) as indisputable facts. There is, however, a good deal of charm and geniality about him.” —12 November 1912

Kelly on D. F. Tovey and E. J. Dent

By 1910, Kelly had become fed up with Tovey. They had to deal together with the business of the  Classical Concerts Society and Tovey was by all accounts impossible when it came to practical matters. The quintessential absent-minded professor even before he became a professor, he could not remember to answer letters or arrive on time for his own concerts. He lacked the ability to read people and social situations. He probably would have been diagnosed as autistic today. It didn’t help that Kelly was said to be taciturn and blunt when he did speak. In his diary over the years he tried to analyze the problem of Tovey.

After hearing his Piano Quartet in F minor in 1910, he wrote that it was characterized, like his playing, by “a sort of egotistic brutality,” elaborating: It has singularly the same effect upon me that D.F.T. has personally. One is struck by the grip, learning, and mastery, by the total lack of charm and, finally, in such places as slow variations, the tedium is exactly what one experiences when in conversation, he spends 10 minutes in spinning out what you have guessed in the first few sentences – especially when he is enunciating commonplaces.3Race against Time, p. 167, entry dated 2 March 1910.

Kelly was struck by how Edward J. Dent, musicologist and fellow of King’s College Cambridge, was similar to Tovey in personality and in the way he presented himself. In 1913 Kelly traveled to Cambridge and stayed with Dent for two nights.

Dent is in many ways like D.F.T. except that, instead of thinking most of the world is against him and putting down all his troubles to the malice or apathy of the public, he directs all his bitterness against older musicians like Stanford whom, he imagines, have tried to keep him out of his due! He resembles D.F.T. in a certain physical awkwardness and in some of his egotistic weaknesses. They are both fond, too, of having a following of disciples but Dent is certainly more genuinely interested in his followers than D.F.T. and is not at all dictatorial with him. Dent is no Pope, like D.F.T., but his relations with the young are colored by a sentimental attachment to which, no doubt, is joined a bitter-sweet consciousness that they are having a better chance than his superiors allowed him! There’s certainly abundance of material in him for the caricaturist.4Race against Time, pp. 290-91.

Apparently Tovey and Dent were too alike to be able to stand each other. Dr. Erik Chisolm from Glasgow once gave a dinner party which included both Tovey and Dent, who were in town for a performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens. Chisholm recalled, “It wasn’t our most successful party for although the two great musical scholars were civilised enough to hide their – I suppose you would call it – rivalry, an undercurrent of gentle hostility could be felt.”5Dr. Erik Chisholm, “Men and Music: Donald F. Tovey” (lecture series given in 1964) http://www.erikchisholm.com/menandmusic/tovey.php

The observances of the 100th anniversary of WWI brought about several websites about composers and music during WWI. For more about F.S. Kelly, see the websites War Composers, The Flowers of War, Music Behind the Lines, and Hear the Boat Sing.

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