Joseph O'Kelly

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Joseph O'Kelly (29 January 1828 – 9 January 1885), composer, pianist and choral conductor, was the most prominent member of a family of Irish musicians in 19th- and early 20th-century France. He wrote nine operas, four cantatas, numerous piano pieces and songs as well as a limited amount of chamber music.


O'Kelly, the first child of the Dublin-born piano teacher Joseph Kelly (1804–1856) and his wife Marie Duval (1803–1889), was born as Joseph Toussaint Kelly on 29 January 1828 in Boulogne-sur-Mer. Of his four brothers, two also became notable musicians: the music publisher Auguste O'Kelly (1829–1900) and the composer and pianist George O'Kelly (1831–1914).

Around 1835 the family moved to Paris, where they lived at various addresses in the Faubourg Poissonnière area of the 9th arrondissement. Joseph received his early musical training from his father. As a foreign national he was not allowed to attend the Paris Conservatoire, instead he continued his education on the piano with George Alexander Osborne (1806–1893) (before 1844) and Frédéric Kalkbrenner (1785–1849) (mid-1840s) and in composition with Victor Dourlen (1780–1864) and Fromental Halévy (1799–1862).[1] His earliest published compositions date from 1847. He has always used the name O'Kelly in his public appearances, although the official change of name from Kelly to O'Kelly did not occur before January 1859 when all brothers O'Kelly took this step simultaneously before a 'Tribunal Civil' in Boulogne-sur-Mer.[2] Until 1855, his vocal output consisted exclusively of salon romances; after a break in vocal writing he returned in the 1860s with a series of settings of poems by Victor Hugo. In these considerably more ambitious pieces he dispenses with a strophic structure, employs more dramatic development and some technically advanced piano writing. His music for piano solo is altogether more ambitious and was influenced not only by his piano teachers Osborne and Kalbrenner, but also by Field, Berlioz and particularly Chopin, whom he greatly admired. With influences such as these, O'Kelly did not belong to the modernists in French music, which contributed to his early neglect. Nevertheless, his music is always tastefully written, technically demanding and rewarding for performers.

Throughout his life O'Kelly showed a keen interest in opera. All of his nine operas are one-act comic operas, four of which were published. Stella (1859) was expressly written as a salon opérette, but his best-known works were La Zingarella (1878, libretto by Jules Adenis and Jules Montini), performed in February and March 1879 at the Opéra Comique in Paris,[3] and La Barbière improvisée (1882, libretto by Paul Burani and Jules Montini), performed in April and May 1884 at the Bouffes-Parisiennes.[4] Of his four cantatas, the first, Paraguassú (1855, Théâtre Lyrique), was the most extended piece, dealing with a 16th-century episode from Brazil, for which he was awarded with the Knighthood of the Order of the Rose by the Brazilian emperor Don Pedro II. The third, the Cantate des Irlandais de France au Centenaire d'O'Connell, to words by another Franco-Irishman, the Viscount O'Neill de Tyrone, was performed in excerpts at the O'Connell Centenary in Dublin in 1875 – the only instance when O'Kelly visited Ireland.[5] The fourth, Justice et Charité (1878) was a commission to celebrate the renovation of the chapel at the Castle of Versailles.[6] Although O'Kelly never assumed French citizenship, according to J.P. Leonard, he "didn't speak a word of English".[7] Yet he clearly identified himself as Irish: the change of name in 1859 is one proof for it, but he was also a member of the 'Anciens Irlandais' community of Irishmen in France and composed works relating to Ireland such as the Mac-Mahon Marche op. 41 (1871) and an Air irlandais op. 58 (1877). He also dedicated several of his works to members of the Irish community in Paris.

Besides the 1859 award from Brazil, O'Kelly was also decorated with Portugal's national order of merit, the Order of Christ (in 1865)[8] and became a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur in 1881.[9] Joseph O'Kelly died of bowel cancer on 9 January 1885 in Paris, in the apartment of his brother George in the 17th arrondissement. Camille Saint-Saëns played the organ at his funeral mass in the church of St. Ferdinand.[10] He was buried on the Cimetière de Passy, but the grave is no longer extant. One of his sons, Henri O'Kelly (1859–1938), became a noted pianist, organist and composer.


For details of performances, publications, dedications etc. see the O'Kelly Catalogue of Works (OKC), Appendix 2 in Klein (2014; see References below)


  1. ^ F.-J. Fétis: Biographie universelle des musiciens et bibliographie générale de la musique. Supplement et complement, Arthur Pougin (ed.) (Paris: Firmin-Didot & Cie., vol. II, 1880), p. 286-7. Attention: contains mistakes!
  2. ^ Copy in Archives Municipales, Boulogne-sur-Mer
  3. ^ Le Ménestrel, 2 March 1879, p. 107; Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris, 2 March 1879, p. 66-7 & numerous other reviews researchable via Gallica
  4. ^ Le Gaulois, 3 May 1884, p. 3; L'Europe Artiste, 7 September 1884, p. 3; Le Parnasse, 1 January 1885, p. 4
  5. ^ The Irish Times, 10 August 1875, p. 6; The Nation, 14 August 1875, p. 13
  6. ^ Journal des débats, 13 June 1878, p. 3
  7. ^ See J.P. Leonard's obituary 'Death of an Eminent Franco-Irish Composer' in The Nation, 31 January 1885, p. 5
  8. ^ Le Ménestrel, 26 November 1865, p. 414
  9. ^ Gil Blas, 12 January 1881, p. 4; Le Ménestrel, 16 January 1881, p. 54
  10. ^ J.P. Leonard in The Nation (see above); Le Figaro, 12 January 1885, p. 4


  • Axel Klein: O'Kelly. An Irish Musical Family in Nineteenth-Century France (Norderstedt: BoD, 2014), ISBN 978-3-7357-2310-9.
  • –– : "Joseph O'Kelly and the 'Slings and Arrows of Fortune'", in: Études irlandaises 39.1 (2014), pp. 23–39.

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