Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Kelly, Frederick Septimus

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KELLY, FREDERICK SEPTIMUS (1881–1916), musician and oarsman, was born at Sydney, New South Wales, 29 May 1881, the seventh child and fourth son of Thomas Hussey Kelly, of Glenyarrah, Sydney, by his wife, Mary Dick. He was educated at Eton (1893–1899) and at Balliol College, Oxford (1900–1903), where he was Lewis Nettleship musical scholar. There can have been few in whom gymnastikē and mousikē were more happily combined, and his excellence in either field would have made him a remarkable man. Kelly was one of the most promising English musicians of his day, a fine oar, and one of the greatest scullers of all time. He stroked the Eton eight in 1899, rowed for Oxford in 1903, won the Grand Challenge cup at Henley in 1903, 1904, 1905, the Stewards' cup in 1906, and rowed in the veteran English crew which won the Olympic eights in 1908. His sculling was beautiful to see: unspoilt by professional coaching, he sculled as he rowed, and his natural sense of poise and rhythm made his boat a live thing under him, perfectly controlled. His swing was not very long, but the length of his stroke in the water was considerable, the blades being instantly and evenly covered and driven through with a steady, equal pressure and a simultaneous finish, so that no ounce of his strength was wasted. Few scullers have ever equalled the precision of his blade work and the perfect counterpoise of the two sides of his body. His style was so easy that when going his fastest at the hardest moment of a race it looked as if he were paddling. He first won the Diamond sculls at Henley in 1902 (in 8 minutes 59 seconds) when he entered as a novice, the final heat being probably the finest, though it was not the fastest, race of his life. Both by his style and his determination he recalled the classic win of T. C. Edwards-Moss in 1878. He won again in 1903 (in 8 minutes 41 seconds), was beaten in 1904 when he was not properly trained, and won in 1905, lowering the record by 13 seconds to 8 minutes 10 seconds, a time which has never since been beaten. In 1903 he won the Wingfield sculls with great ease.

As a child Kelly had a remarkable talent for the pianoforte, but his real musical education did not begin until he left Balliol in 1903, when he settled down in earnest to a prolonged course of study (1903–1908) in Frankfort-on-Main under Professors Knorr and Engesser; and until 1914 his life was devoted to realizing his dual ambition—‘to be a great player and a great composer’. As in sculling, so in music, his genius lay in the direction of infinite painstaking, and he set himself a most exacting standard of musical discipline. In 1912 he gave a series of concerts in London, in which he played some of the great test pieces. No one could question the soundness of his craft or the brilliance with which he engaged. A strong masculine touch, clear articulation, abundant power of attack, an even-handed facility, and thoroughly safe command—these were some of the results, wholly admirable, of his intensive cultivation of ‘technique’. But there was a certain immaturity; traces of the workshop were still evident in his performance. Even so, the concerts were a fine achievement and gave great promise for the future.

Although musical ideas came to him only fitfully, Kelly left a wide range of compositions, two volumes of songs, several pieces for the pianoforte, a serenade for the flute and string orchestra (1911), a violin sonata (1915), and two organ preludes which were masterpieces of small genre. All his work had individuality; he owed little to others except perhaps to Chopin, and here and there to Schubert. The predominant note was lyrical, and he had a great sense of orchestration and colour.

At the outbreak of the European War in 1914 Kelly joined the Royal Naval division, and was in the Hood battalion with Rupert Brooke [q.v.] and Charles Lister. He served throughout the Gallipoli campaign, and won the distinguished service cross for his conspicuous gallantry. In 1916 the division went to France, and on 13 November Kelly was killed at Beaucourt-sur-Ancre when rushing a German machine gun that was holding up the attack. He was unmarried.

No record of Kelly would be complete without a mention of almost his last work, a lovely elegy for string orchestra written in memory of his friend, Rupert Brooke, who was buried in Scyros in April 1915. Kelly wrote in his diary: ‘As we slowly made our way behind the coffin to the olive grove, the phrase

(d-e-f-e-d-c-a displayed on stave)

constantly occurred to my mind. The work is a true portrayal of my feelings on that night—the passionless simplicity of the surroundings with occasionally a note of personal anguish.’

Kelly died just as he seemed to be entering on a period of great fertility; in composition as in playing he was freeing himself, finding himself—throwing off, in his playing, restrictions acquired through a long routine and habit of practice, and gaining for his composition not only greater vigour and freshness in his ideas, but a new judgement and discrimination in the use of all resources.

He wrote an article on sculling in The Complete Oarsman (1908), and published the following musical compositions (the dates being those of composition): Op. 1, Two Songs (1902 and 1904); Op. 2, Waltz Pageant for Pianoforte Duet (1905), for Pianoforte Solo (1911); Op. 3, Allegro de Concert for Pianoforte (1907); Op. 4, A Cycle of Lyrics for Pianoforte Solo (1908); Op. 5, Theme, Variations, and Fugue for two Pianos (1913); Op. 6, Six Songs (1910); Op. 7, Serenade for Flute and String Orchestra (1911); Two Organ Preludes (1915); Elegy for String Orchestra in memoriam Rupert Brooke (1915). He also left several volumes of unpublished compositions.

[Balliol College War Memorial Book, 1924; personal knowledge.]

H. B. H.