F. S. Kelly: A Virtuoso at the Oars and the Piano

Alex Wilson, who studied for a music degree at York University and graduated from the Royal College of Music with an MA (distinction) followed by studies with Andrew Ball, will release a solo CD this summer with music by Frederick Septimus Kelly, who many HTBS readers will recognise as a brilliant oarsman in the 1900s.

27 February 2019

By Göran R Buckhorn

Frederick Septimus Kelly had two great passions: rowing and music. HTBS has several times written about this remarkable oarsman, but now it is high time to take a closer look at his music. Alex Wilson, who lives in Devon, England, a soloist and chamber musician who has performed in Britain, Europe and Russia, will release his first solo CD with music by composer F. S. Kelly.

Oxford’s 1903 Boat Race crew. F.S. Kelly is top row, second from the left.

As many of you readers know by now, HTBS has some rowing ‘heroes’ who we constantly come back to. One of them, Frederick Septimus Kelly (1881-1916) – he was the seventh child of Thomas Herbert Kelly and his wife, Mary Anne (née Dick) – was a multi-talented oarsman, who stroked Eton’s eight to victory in the Ladies’ Challenge Plate at Henley Royal Regatta in 1899; rowed for Oxford against Cambridge in the 1903 Boat Race (the Dark Blue lost); won the Diamond Sculls at Henley in 1902, 1903 and 1905, the latter year he set a course record that would stand for more than 30 years; won the Wingfields in 1903; took the Grand in 1903, 1904 and 1905; won the Stewards’ in 1906; and rowed in the Leander eight that won the gold medal at the Olympic rowing regatta in Henley in 1908.

F.S. Kelly in his single sculls.

Besides rowing, Kelly had another interest – music. After 1908, he would wholeheartedly concentrate on his music, as a pianist and composer. Though he would now and then be reminded about his extraordinary rowing career. In an HTBS article from September 2009, I wrote

After giving a concert on 17 October 1910, Kelly and his friend, the cellist Pablo Casals, were reading the newspaper critiques on a train from Newcastle to London. Kelly wrote in his diary on 18 October 1910: ‘On the whole they were fairly just, but one critic said a thing which I foresee will be repeated wherever it is known that I was a sculler – i.e. my playing was perhaps a little too muscular for an interpretation of Chopin.’

Kelly made his professional debut as a pianist in his birth city, Sydney, Australia, with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Town Hall on 17 June 1911. He played the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, op.59. He made some other professional performances thereafter, but at the outbreak of the war in 1914, he enlisted in the 63rd Royal Naval Division. When sailing to the Dardanelles with the Hood Battalion, Kelly befriended fellow pianist and composer William Denis Browne and the poet Rupert Brooke, whose most famous lines are from his poem “The Soldier”: If I should die think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England… /

The young poet never reached the Dardanelles. En route, he contracted septicaemia after a mosquito bite and died on 23 April 1915. He was buried on the Greek island of Skyros, present were his friends Kelly and Browne. Both Kelly and Browne were wounded at the ill-fated campaign at Gallipoli. While recuperating, Kelly wrote the Elegy for string orchestra in memory of Brooke. Although not fully well, Browne rejoined his unit and was fatally wounded at the Third Battle at Krithia on 4 June 1915. His body was never found. Kelly returned to Gallipoli in July and was among the last soldiers to be evacuated off the Gallipoli Peninsula. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry’ at Gallipoli.

At the end of the Battle of the Somme, Kelly was killed on 13 November 1916, age 35, while leading an attack against enemy lines at Beaucourt-sur-Ancre. He now rests in a grave at Martinsart British Cemetery, Somme.

While HTBS has celebrated Kelly as the fine oarsman he was, his musical side has sadly disappeared into the fog of forgetfulness. But this will change when English pianist Alex Wilson will walk into a recording studio in April to record his first solo CD, the first complete recording of Kelly’s “24 Monographs” and “12 Studies”. The disc will be released later this summer on the Toccata Classics label.

But how on earth did Alex Wilson stumble over F. S. Kelly? HTBS decided to ask Alex and contact was made over emails.

HTBS: How did you first come in contact with F. S. Kelly?

Alex Wilson

AW: I have always been fascinated by the music of composers who fall outside of the mainstream. Beethoven, Bach and Mozart are wonderful, of course, but I much prefer playing music that no-one else has played, music that makes an audience think ‘I really enjoyed that, I want to go and discover more about this composer.’ This interest in neglected composers led me to explore the music of forgotten composers who died in World War I – I could honour those who died as part of the recent Centenary, tell some fascinating individual stories, and give these talented artists an opportunity to be discovered by new audiences 100 years on. The problem I initially encountered was that it seemed like all the composers at the time were only writing music for singers, and there was less music being written for piano – a problem for a solo pianist! The name ‘F.S. Kelly’ popped up in my research as one of the few wartime composers who had written for the piano, and I managed to unearth a few pieces at the British Library that I performed in concert in 2014. I then discovered his back story – including his entirely unique position as a pianist/composer who also rowed at the Olympics – and I knew that I had to explore further!’

HTBS: What was it in Kelly’s music that drew you to him/his music?

AW: I was initially drawn in by his story – he was a polymath, a young man who turned his head to various disciplines with skill and ‘thereupon decided to be a great composer’ after reading Psychology and Life’s Ideals by Professor Hammer. He performed with the greatest musicians of the day, toured the world with his music and took to serious rowing almost on a whim, winning the Olympics before giving it up and returning to composition once again. His music is so appealing because it is unlike the other music being written by his contemporaries in Britain. Much of the music of the time was influenced by folk tunes, fairly light in style. Kelly, on the other hand, studied in Germany and was influenced by European composers as well as those in Britain, creating a unique sound world that it is really fascinating to try and make sense of. His music is enigmatic, hard to categorise, but is still very accessible and has proven to be popular every time I have performed it.

Alex Wilson by his piano. He said about Kelly: ‘His music is enigmatic, hard to categorise, but is still very accessible and has proven to be popular every time I have performed it.’

HTBS: Why would you like to record his “24 Monographs” and “12 Studies”?

AW: I knew there was other piano music in Kelly’s catalogue that I hadn’t come across in print or at the British Library. An email to the editor of some of Kelly’s other piano works put me in contact with Chris Latham, the director of the Australian The Flowers of War, an organisation set up to promote the Australian contribution to World War I. Kelly, who was born in Sydney, is now regarded in Australia as one of their greatest cultural exports. Latham is an expert on Kelly’s music and, on discovering my interest, sent me the complete scores to the Monographs and Studies. Most of them remained unplayed and unrecorded – and he suggested that I might like to record them in their entirety. The Flowers of War have now recorded most of Kelly’s works, and my recording of the Monographs and Studies ensures there will be a complete catalogue of recordings of Kelly’s music. As an enthusiast of discovering neglected music of the past this opportunity seemed too good to pass up, so I was very happy to commit to learning the music.

HTBS: What is so special with Monographs and Studies?

AW: The “24 Monographs” and “12 Studies” were written over a number of years, started before the war and continued during the war years. Kelly was revising and editing the music from the trenches, preparing it for publishing after the war. It is unclear how close he was to completing this task when he lost his life, though one can assume that the revisions were largely completed as he had already performed a number of the works in concerts during the war. They paint an intriguing picture of a young man bursting with ideas and full of the influences of his contemporaries and past composition masters. They cover a range of emotions that may reflect the chaos of the lifestyle he was having to live, from anger and drama to lightness and charm. These are youthful works, full of exuberance – unrefined at times but always exciting!

They also particularly appeal to me precisely because they have mostly never been performed before. I have no point of reference – no pianists of the past have interpreted the music, so I am left with a blank canvas, the opportunity to play the music my own way, choose my own speeds and interpret as I like without any expectation that I should play it any other way. After all, no-one knows the music as well as I do!

HTBS: For someone who is not so used to listening to classical music, try to explain what that person should ‘look for’ when listening to Kelly’s works.

AW: Kelly’s music is very accessible, it is full of beautiful melodies and dramatic harmonies. There is a difference between the two sets of music – the Monographs are mostly very short (under 2 minutes each), a lot are very light in style, with some sounding like hymn-tunes and others like songs. Some have a very ‘British’ quality – almost march-like, much like the music you will hear at the Last Night of the Proms. The Studies each test a different area of a pianist’s technique – for instance, there are some that require me to play a lot of notes very quickly. The music here is a lot more dramatic – very noisy at times, a lot more virtuosic. The Studies are also a little longer, although they are rarely longer than 5 minutes each.

HTBS: How do you see Kelly in comparison to his contemporary musicians and composers?

AW: Kelly had a unique musical voice compared to a lot of his contemporaries, a style influenced by a range of composers – he had the pianistic brilliance and beautiful melodies of Chopin, the British charm and flair of Elgar and the dramatic harmonic language of Rachmaninov. Chris Latham suggests that ‘if Ralph Vaughan Williams had also died at the age of 35, their musical output would be an almost exact match in quality and quantity, but with Kelly writing more piano works, and Williams writing more chamber works.’ Vaughan Williams grew into one of Britain’s most successful and loved composers, and one can only imagine that Kelly might have developed in a similar way.

HTBS: So, if Kelly had not been killed at the Battle of Somme in 1916 and had survived the war, he would have become a successful pianist, musician and composer?

AW: Kelly died at the age of 35, an age at which he was fully trained as a musician but only just beginning to make sense of his musical voice, combining the many influences on his composition into a cohesive musical voice. His music would have become more refined given more time, his musical style more individual, and I have no doubt that his name would be much better known as a result. As a pianist, he worked with the most famous performers of the day (such as legendary cellist Pablo Casals) and performed in the most prestigious venues, and I believe that these collaborations would have continued and Kelly the performer would have been equally as well regarded as Kelly the composer.

HTBS: Do you see any connection between Kelly’s rowing and his music?

AW: As a character, Kelly committed wholeheartedly to any activity he was passionate about, and his two greatest passions were music and rowing. He was considered to be one of the finest ‘skulls’ of his generation, with an effortless technique that led him to much success on the water. It was the same devotion to mastering technique and rising to the top of his profession that led him to similar successes in musical performance and composition. Much of Kelly’s music – the many fast-flowing passages that require a confident technique, a great sense of drama and a rhythmic approach to performance – can relate to his time as a successful rower and I am convinced that without his rowing prowess his music wouldn’t have developed in the way it ultimately did.

HTBS: Thank you for your time, Alex, and good luck with the CD.

AW: Thank you.

Alex Wilson by the piano.

Here Alex is playing Kelly’s “Monograph No. 24” – ‘full of the drama you can well imagine coming from a successful pianist, composer, rower and naval officer,’ Alex said.

This project is a complete labour of love that has taken years in the making. However, the record studio and producer do not come for free. To be able to go through with his Kelly CD, Alex has started a fundraising campaign to be able to raise the necessary funds for the recording. By backing Alex’s project, you will help Kelly’s music meet a new audience, and maybe getting a CD by doing so – it all depends how much money you are willing to pledge. Read more about Alex and the project here. Go to the fundraising page here.

All photographs of Alex Wilson are from his website.

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