05 November 2016

Composing music in Gallipoli’s trenches: Frederick Septimus Kelly

The Edwardian years (until 1913) were full of music, arts, science, sports, workers’ rights, medical progress, café society and hopes for world peace. How ironic that WW1 (1914-8) brought more barbaric murders, disease, starvation and destruction of cities than at any time in human history.

In 2016 The Flowers of War project held a series of concerts and convers­at­ions throughout the year in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and France. Beautiful and rarely played songs, an elegy, musical compos­itions and pipe tunes were all connected with WW1's Battle of the Somme.... they were performed in a concert called Sacrifice - The Lost Songbirds of the Somme to commemorate the 100th anniversary of that battle. This deeply moving event was a special way of honouring 12 musicians from 6 Allied and Axis nations (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Britain, Germany and France) who composed music there, until they died. Thus the concert presented music composed in the trenches or hospital, and pieces written just before the composers joined up. In the French villages that were devastated by the artillery bombardments of both sides, including Pozieres and Fromelles, the 2016 concerts were performed in churches.

Frederick Septimus Kelly, 1881-1916
WW1 composer

Because nations normally consider only the economic and material costs of battles, Christopher Latham, director of Flowers of War, aimed to measure the cultural costs of WW1. Humanity lost so many brilliant composers and musicians in WWI that Latham produced Three Treasures – The Rediscovered Music of Three Lost World War I Composers. We lose culture in war, he said. We lost the works they would have composed, the students they would have taught, the regeneration that would have occurred. European culture was at its absolute zenith in 1913… then within a short time, it was not.

One of the three treasures was Frederick Septimus Kelly (1881-1916), an Australian child from a large Sydney family who made a comfortable living from the wool trade. After grammar school in Australia, Frederick and his five brothers were sent to Eton in 1893, then he went up to Baliol College Oxford in 1909.

War Composers said that music had always been his passion; he had apparently memorised Mozart piano sonatas by 5, and began composing soon after. Sensibly his parents dissuaded him from leaving Eton to attend a conservatoire too early, and Frederick found a substitute in sporting pursuits - especially rowing.

Frederick was internationally famous as a young rower, winning the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley 1903 and 1905, and a gold medal at the 1908 London Olympics in the men’s eight. And as a single sculler.

He may not have gained the finest degree at Oxford, but Kelly had made the connections and friends he needed. Sadly his father died in 1901 and his mother in 1902, so it was a terrible period for a 20 year old. But at least the large inheritance from both parents left the composer in a stable financial position. Frederick soon bought a fine manor house on the banks of the River Thames in Berkshire, where he lived with his sister and hosted musical salons.

Oxford had given him the opportunity to mix with like-minded individuals and after his parents’ deaths he recommenced a more serious study of music. From 1903, for 5 years, he attended the Hochschule Konservatorium in Frankfurt to study piano and composition. Was this choice influenced by the attendance there of another Australian, Percy Grainger, a man Kelly had already met.

Rupert Brooke
WW1 poet

It must have been a busy time. Already by 1907 Kelly was touring with several concert programmes around the UK and Australia where he performed national premieres of new works by Debussy. For the next five years his experience as a concert pianist fluctuated – sometimes triumphant and sometimes disappointing. Meanwhile, he composed steadily. He gave concert recitals in 1912, then concertos with the London Symphonic Orchestra later that year.

At the outbreak of war in August 1914, Kelly was quick to volunteer, joining up in September 1914 with his friend, the poet Rupert Brooke (1887-1915). Kelly sailed towards the Dardanelles in the eastern Mediterranean. After the ensuing battles at Gallipoli, Kelly was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for great bravery during the evacuation in January 1916. He was one of the last three officers to be evacuated from Gallipoli.

Throughout the war years, Kelly continued to write music. Brooke’s tragic 1915 midnight burial, on the Isle of Skyros among the olive groves, was moving and famous. While recuperating from  Gallipoli, Kelly composed his Elegy for strings and harp "in memoriam for Rupert Brooke", one of the few works by Kelly to have been recorded.

The composer was next posted to the Somme. On 13th November 1916, while leading a suicidal attack on a German machine-gun position at Beaucourt-sur-Ancre, Kelly was shot dead. He was 35.

Like most Australians, I did not even recognise Kelly’s name before seeing the Flowers of War project. But that might change. While he was a celebrated musician and Olympic sportsman, Kelly was also a great diarist whose writings were published after the war. Only his last diary, recording his final days on the battle field, had been lost. However even this last diary was recently discovered in an English bookshop, totally by accident. This volume will eventually form the final chapter of Kelly's published life.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Kelly's story is an impressive and moving one. We hear so much about the war poets, but not so often about the equivalent war musicians (not counting the more popular type war song composers).

By the way, as soon as I saw the words Music and Septimus in your headline, I thought of Septimus Winner, the famous 19th century American composer of "Listen to the Mocking Bird" and a host of other works. The name Septimus must inspire lyrical gifts.

Andrew said...

Just one of many with an incomplete life story who was lost to the futility of war. Kelly does sound interesting, so thanks for the knowledge.

Ex Pat said...

Me too. I only knew about the war poets.

Hels said...


The name Septimus is really rare in my experience, possibly because a little boy might be tormented by his school mates and called Septic. But Septimus Scott (born 1879) was an important artist and Septimus Winner (born 1827) was your composer. Kelly was born in 1881, so we might assume it was a more popular name in the 19th century than later.

Hels said...


I have long been interested in history writing from WW1, its poetry, sculpture, memorials etc. But not its music. Then the Flowers of War project popped up a few times in the history journals, and I started to pay attention. It seems the highlights were the concerts played in the French towns of Pozieres and Fromelles.

Joseph said...

Ex Pat

In this blog I have referred many times to the young men who were poets and writers before WW1 started. Why oh why didn't the British Armed Services use the lads' skills in suitable jobs (training, Intelligence, history writing, ambassadorial services etc), rather than in machine gun nests?

Now I can say the same thing about professional musicians and composers.