Kelly, Frederick


Kelly, Frederick

Elegy (in memoriam Rupert Brooke) for string orchestra & harp


Frederick Kelly

Elegy (in memoriam Rupert Brooke) for string orchestra & harp

Frederick Kelly was the seventh child (hence the name Septimus) and fourth son of Thomas Hussey Kelly, a wealthy businessman who had emigrated to New South Wales from Ireland in 1860 and who had married the Australian-born Mary Ann Dick, settling in Sydney. Thomas Kelly became director of several financial institutions and mining companies and could afford to have three of his sons educated at Eton College in England. From Eton, the boys graduated to Oxford University, Frederick entering Balliol College.

 Frederick’s two principal interests seem to have been playing the piano (he was eventually to become a proficient concert soloist) and rowing, being a regular member of the Oxford University crew and belonging to the prestigious Leander Club. It was his ability at rowing that was to lead eventually to his being one of the victorious crew in the Men’s Eights at the 1908 Olympic Games, held in London. Frederick Kelly may have been the only Olympic gold medallist to have also been a serious performer and composer.

 When he was 14, Kelly had met and come under the influence of the French pianist, Antoine-François Marmontel, who had been a pupil of Chopin. It was Marmontel who convinced the young boy that he had a future as a pianist and in due course, after Oxford, Kelly entered the Hoch’sche Konsevatorium in Frankfurt as a pupil of Iwan Knorr (composition) and Ernst Engesser (piano). Quite why he chose to attend Frankfurt is not clear, but in doing so he was following the example of an earlier Australian emigré, Percy Grainger, who had also been a pupil of Knorr. Whilst at Oxford, Kelly had received composition lessons the scholar-musician Donald Tovey, and his influence may also have contributed to the decision since the Frankfurt conservatory was associated with the ‘school’ of Schumann and Brahms, having been founded by (among others) Clara Schumann. Tovey was a great Brahmsian.

 As a performer, Kelly gave solo recitals (including one he shared with Maurice Ravel), and appeared with Pablo Casals and Jelly d’Aranyi in chamber concerts. His diaries reveal a young Edwardian gentleman at home at formal dinners, in clubland, with many women admirers, and very much at ease among the higher levels of social strata. It is not surprising, then, that he met and became a friend on another handsome young athletic gentleman, the poet Rupert Brooke.

 By the outbreak of war in 1914, Brooke and Kelly were good friends and, in a group that included the composer W. Denis Browne and the Prime Minister’s son, Arthur Asquith. Both men volunteered for the navy, being assigned to the Hood Battalion of Royal Naval Division (a sort of reserve navy that was used in the meantime as infantry). They embarked for Gallipoli to take part in the invasion of Turkey. Tragedy struck fairly quickly when Rupert Brooke developed blood-poisoning from an infected mosquito bite. He declined rapidly and died on 23 April 1915. It seems that Kelly began to sketch his Elegy as he sat beside the dying Brooke in the French hospital ship. Whether or not that happened, most of the piece was written in hospital at Alexandria, where Kelly was recovering from a wound he had received ay Gallipoli. The score is dated 27 June, which is presumably the date of completion. Although dedicated to Brooke – and primarily depicting his burial – Kelly must also have been aware that W. Denis Browne had been killed at Achi Baba on 4 June.

 Rupert Brooke was buried on the Greek island of Skyros on the day he died. Kelly recalled in a letter to Donald Tovey, “…arrangements were at once made to bury him on the island he loved so well…It was about a mile from the shore to the grove, over very difficult stony ground…We reached the grove at 10.45 pm, where, in the light of a clouded half-moon, the burial service was read…It was a most moving experience. The wild sage gave a strong classical tone, which was so in harmony with the poet we were burying that to some of us the Christian ceremony seemed out of keeping…The body lies looking down the valley towards the harbour, and, from behind, an olive-tree bends itself over the grave as though sheltering it from sun and rain. No more fitting resting-place for a poet could be found than this small grove, and it seems as though the gods had jealously snatched him away to enrich the scented island”.

 He later wrote: “Ever since Brooke’s death I’ve been composing an Elegy for string orchestra, the ideas of which are coloured by the surroundings of his grave and the circumstances of his death. The modal character of the music seems to be suggested by the Greek surroundings as well as Rupert’s character, and some passage-work from the violins by the rustling of the olive trees – the leaves of the olive tree which bends over his grave.

Kelly himself survived the Gallipoli campaign, being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and promoted to the rank of Lt. Commander, but died in France in November the following year leading an assault on a machine-gun nest in the final action of the Somme campaign.

 The score of the Elegy bears the last lines of an epigram by Callimachus of Alexandria, which translate as “but they live, your nightingales, upon whom Hades who takes all shall not lay his hand”. The poet is remembering his friend, the brother-poet Heraclitus, who may be dead but whose poems live on for ever.

 The Elegy is almost entirely in the Dorian mode, which gives it a ‘strong classical tone’ like the wild sage around the grave. Also prominent is the breeze rustling through the leaves of the olive-tree behind the grave. Kelly added a harp part less than a month before he died. There can be little doubt that the composer was familiar with Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910) but it is a strikingly evocative work nevertheless.

 The Elegy was first performed at Rugby School on 28 March 1916, conducted by Frank Bridge at a memorial concert for Rupert Brooke. Bridge repeated it at the Wigmore Hall on 2 May 1919 at a memorial concert for Kelly, and Donald Tovey conducted it at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on 19 February 1921.

 It is perhaps fitting to quote Rupert Brooke’s best-loved poem, a sonnet called The Soldier that might stand for anyone killed in foreign parts (substitute any country you desire):

 If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.


And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;

And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,

In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Rupert Brooke, 1887 – 1915

Phillip Brookes, 2014


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