I first encountered the music of Frederic Septimus Kelly (29 May 1881 – 13 Nov 1916) a few years ago, when writing some copy for an orchestra putting on one of the many Anzac-flavoured concerts in 2014. I was very struck by the mixture of nostalgia and new imaginings in his famous — his only famous — work, Elegy – in Memoriam Rupert Brookes. I listened to it over and over, hearing layers and layers of tradition and identity and innovation and raw emotion in the music. Then I finished writing the copy, sent in the invoice and thought no more about it.
Fast forward two years and I’m heading to a concert at St James featuring multiple works by Kelly, alongside the music of two of his contemporaries, Claude Duboscq (1897-1938) and Botho Sigwart zu Eulenburg (1884 – 1915). It’s being presented by Chris Latham’s The Flowers of War, a four year program in which Latham seeks to rediscover some of the cultural losses of the Great War. It’s an ambitious and impressive endeavour: Latham has trekked all over Europe and coralled the Australian War Memorial, the National Library of Australia, the Musée de l’Armée and Bibliotheque National de France into pooling resources. He’s dug up manuscripts and rustled up funding and booked concerts in Sydney, Paris and London. It all culminates in a new work, The Diggers Requiem, commissioned for performance in 2018.
But back to 2016. Latham has assembled a cracking team to perform these works. In the generous acoustic of St James’ Church Tamara-Anna Cislowska drew a radiant haze from piano, while singers Louise Page and Christina Wilson, sensitively accompanied by Alan Hicks, combined pinpoint accuracy and consistent beauty of tone with a range of emotions from awe to fragility.
And what about the music? I confess, it’s difficult to write about with any critical distance. It’s not unlike parsing the poetry of Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brookes. Chris’s concert was a feast of discoveries — more than ten Australian premieres — and when listening to something new I’m often listening for context, connections, comparisons — the brain trying to tame a new experience by categorising it alongside something it already feels comfortable with. But the strange thing about all of these works is that they already feel comfortable. They all have an immediacy, a heart-on-sleeve glow, a nobility of expression which clashes awkwardly with the environment in which these works were conceived, to the point that they could be considered nostalgic. Sentimental, even. And for a world which still lauds modernism that’s getting close to dismissive.
The strange thing is that in amongst Kelly’s yearning, eloquent melodies, there are strange harmonies and weird scraps of something other, but they don’t stick out. In fact, that — the unspoken, unspeakable, within the familiar — seems to me the point. The prevailing impression is of intense beauty and elegaic melancholy. It’s a bit like Owen’s neologisms and startling turns of phrase, hinting at the gulf between the language he knows so well and its complete inadequacy to express the alien world around him.
Who knows what FS Kelly might have done if his life had not been cut short on the Somme. He could have gone on to train Olympic rowing athletes. He could have become, as Latham proposes, one of Australia’s greatest composers, comparable to England’s Ralph Vaughan Williams. But with the images of war blazing silently in my mind as I try to listen it’s almost impossible to separate the music from the moment. Perhaps modish Modernism (in music and art and poetry) is for those outside the crisis, looking on. When you’re in it, living the unimaginable, your art is your best defense.
ABC Classics has just released a double CD of the music of F S Kelly, featuring Chris Latham and colleagues involved in the https://player.vimeo.com/video/174986191“>Flowers of War project. It’s worth a listen.