Joseph O'Kelly (1828-1885)

Born as Joseph Toussaint Kelly in Boulogne-sur-mer, 29 January 1828; died Paris, 9 January 1885; composer, pianist, and conductor.


Joseph O'Kelly is the best known member of the O'Kelly family in France. He is the only one with an entry in some of the major musical dictionaries, although it has to be said that these perpetuated a number of mistakes. The first of these articles was in Arthur Pougin's 1880 revision of Fétis's Biographie Universelle des Musiciens which claimed that he was born in 1829 and contained a number of errors in his work-list. These have simply been taken over (and translated) by other, later, dictionaries. As a consequence I have spent some time and energy correcting errors.



O'Kelly studied piano in Paris with Frédéric Kalkbrenner and the Irish pianist George Alexander  Osborne (himself a Kalkbrenner pupil), presumably in the early to mid-1840s (Osborne left Paris in 1844), as well as composition with Fromental Halévy and Victor Dourlen. His largest early score was Paraguassú, an opera in three acts on a Brazilian historical legend, produced at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris on 2 August 1855 (also in Monte Carlo, 1888), for which in 1859 he was conferred a Knighthood of the Imperial Order of the Rose by the Brazilian emperor Don Pedro II. He wrote at least nine further stage works, all one-act light operas, and some expressly written as salon operas to be performed in the fashionable Paris salons of his day. In all relevant reference works so far, he has been named as the composer of a one-act comic opera on an Irish theme, Le Lutin de Galway (1878), but this is in fact by his brother George. He also wrote a cantata for the centenary of Daniel O'Connell, performed in Dublin in 1875. Other cantatas of his were performed at Amiens (1867) and Versailles (1878).

O'Kelly was employed in a senior position with the piano maker Pleyel, Wolff & Cie. at least from the early 1860s. His activities included conducting the Orphéon Pleyel-Wolff, a choir of 50 voices. He also frequently conducted orchestras in Paris and the provinces. During the International Exhibition at Porto in 1865, O'Kelly was the representative of Pleyel-Wolff and used the opportunity to perform his own virtuoso arrangement pf the Portuguese national anthem (Marche de l'Exposition de Porto), for which he received the national order of merit. In 1881 he was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur. He died prematurely of bowel cancer.


The music

O'Kelly's main work consists of piano music and songs, usually in a lighter vein, but some expressing sincere melancholy as in his popular Vieille chanson du jeune temps (1861) to words by Victor Hugo which ran through several editions. However, he excluded songs from his list of opus numbers, thereby indicating that his (mostly virtuoso) piano music had higher artistic value. Some of his piano music was reprinted by publishers in Germany (Fr. Hofmeister, Schott), Italy (F. Lucca) and Spain (Romero y Marzo). He also belonged to a small number of minor composers in France who believed in opera and who had a fair measure of success in gaining performances.


Contemporary reviews of his stage-works applaud his gift for melodic invention, but frequently criticise the overall structure. Fétis/Pougin and other contemporary sources describe him as a composer with talent and taste, but without greatness. Some critics accused him of belonging to an 'old school' of composition which is probably true for his larger works and for much of his early salon repertory, but less so in his more advanced song and piano repertory since the 1860s.


His Irish heritage is reflected in some works such as a piano arrangement of Moore's 'Last Rose of Summer' (La Dernière Rose, 1866), a Mac-Mahon Marche (c.1871) for brass band, an Air irlandais op. 58 for piano (1877) and some dedications of works to other French-Irish families. In some contemporary periodicals his amenable personal character was attributed to his Irish background. He was a member of the Irish community in Paris called the 'Anciens Irlandais'.


The Spanish national library (Biblioteca Nacional de Espana) has digitised quite a few of Joseph's music. This includes the Air irlandais, the largest score here is the opera La Zingarella (1878); see link.


Private life

Joseph's private life has some very clear happy and tragic phases. After a period of early publishing and performing successes he married Henriette Gobert in November 1856, just a few weeks after his father had died, and he clearly assumed the 'head of family' role. His daughter Marie was born in Oct. 1857, his son Henri in June 1859, and another son called Maurice in June 1862. He dedicated a series of children's piano studies (Les soirées enfantines, 1863-4) to his 'petite fille' (little daughter). 


Henriette died in late December 1877 and Joseph found a new wife in the pianist Marie Léonie Davignon in February 1879. He had two further children with her, but both died in child age. Before this happened, however, his daughter Marie died aged 23 in June 1881. Then little Raymond Marie Joseph, born in March 1880, died in March 1884. After his death in January 1885, J.P. Leonard wrote in an obituary for an Irish newspaper: "Sensitive and kind-hearted, he was ill calculated to buffet the storms of life, of which he had his share. Like his great master Chopin, of whom he spoke to me with enthusiasm on his deathbed, he succumbed in the battle of life from feeling too deeply the 'slings and arrows' of fortune." Following his death, the apparently overburdened second wife went mad, neglected their second common child (Joseph's fifth), the daughter Marie Thérèse (1882-1888), and died herself, aged 43, in February 1889. Very clearly, in those days without a public health or pension system, the death of Joseph probably meant that there was no more income which resulted in utter poverty.


Of Joseph's 5 children, only Henri and Maurice reached old age, Henri becoming a composer and musician as well.


Joseph O'Kelly: List of works (as of January 2013)
PDF-Dokument [246.2 KB]