★★★½☆ A timely reminder of the life and work of Frederick Septimus Kelly.

St. James’ Church, Sydney
October 23, 2016

Most Australians seem to remember their great sportsmen. However, one whom they have forgotten is the champion sculler, Frederick Septimus Kelly – maybe it’s a form of retribution, since his Eight which won a Gold Medal in the 1908 Olympics was the English squad: understandably so, because he had lived most of his life there, in privileged circles. More seriously, perhaps, this amnesia is probably because he was a concert musician – a seriously accomplished pianist and composer.

Because this year is the centenary of his death (on November 13, 1916, during the final week of the notorious Somme campaign in WWI) it was a timely reminder of his life and work – which have slowly become better-known since the publication of his entry in Volume 9 of the Australian Dictionary of Biography (1983) – when the entire second half of this concert, Three Treasures, was devoted to Kelly’s music.

The venue, indeed, is a mere dozen paces from the hall where Kelly gave a number of concerts when he briefly returned to Australia in 1911 – concerts which might have provided the first public performances of a number of piano works by Debussy and (almost certainly) Scriabin in Sydney.

This recent concert was a fruit of The Flowers of War project which is spearheaded by Christopher Latham, violinist and former Director of the Canberra Music Festival. Kelly shared the Sydney programme (and one a few days earlier in the High Court in the ACT) with a French composer, Claude Duboscq (1897-1938) and the aristocratic German, Botho Sigwart zu Eulenburg (1884-1915), a pupil of Reger.

Though there was far too much talk involved (especially from Lathan, himself, but from three consuls, as well), the event was a fascinating window into a world of wantonly destroyed creativity and – though the calibre of the pieces was varied – there was enough material of genuine quality to make it an authentic musical as well as memorial experience. There was variety, too, with songs for soprano (Louise Page) and mezzo (Christina Wilson), together with the polished accompaniments of the pianist Alan Hicks, together with piano solos (Tamara-Anna Cislowska) and some duos with violin.

Eulenburg’s song, Erwachen des Wälder (Awakening of the forest), is a small masterpiece: it is eloquently Mahlerian without the self-indulgence: Page sang it with a sublime “inner” quality which gave its glowing climactic expansion a genuine profundity.  Two of his sacred songs made a fine effect as did the Adoration of the shepherds movement from his Christmas Sonata; that work for piano has a restrained joyousness in its bell-effects and Cislowska’s performance was most convincing.

There were bell-sounds, too, in Duboscq’s Debussy-influenced song, La Cloche fêlée (The cracked bell), which were no less noteworthy for their reflective softness, though I found his other songs less gripping: several of his pieces which we heard tended to lack discipline, I felt.

Kelly’s music was – without my being reflexly patriotic – the most cogent on the programme: some eloquent songs (the fine Shall I compare thee amongst them, though it does seem more suited to a baritone); but Latham’s arrangement of Kelly’s masterpiece (the Elegy, for string orchestra, which he wrote on the death of his fellow officer, the poet Rupert Brooke) did not seem to work well for violin and piano. However, the really poignant moment was a reminder – by the way in which the Adagio of Kelly’s Piano Sonata fragments into a single line of music and then ends abruptly – that he was, amazingly, writing it at night on the battlefield right up to his death. We should be lamenting not so much the death of a fine Australian sportsman but of a formidably accomplished musician: we had few enough of them then.

Kelly’s futile death was a melancholy reminder of our habitual neglect of our musicians.