Michael Kelly (17621826)



  • Singer
  • Composer
  • Administrator

Paul F. Rice, Memorial University of Newfoundland
March 2023

Michael Kelly was born in Dublin, the eldest of fourteen children. The family enjoyed prominence in the community; his father was the master of ceremonies at Dublin Castle, in addition to being a wine merchant. The family was musical and the young Kelly was given tuition in keyboard and singing. He was fortunate that there were Italian musicians in Dublin who could impart traditional Italian training. Kelly records in his Reminiscences that his first vocal teachers were Niccolò Peretti (fl.1746–82) and “Signor Passerini of Bologna” (Reminiscences, 1826). Peretti had enjoyed a Continental career after 1746, before moving to London where he sang the title role in the premiere in Thomas Arne’s opera Artaxerxes (1762) at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. As to Signor Passerini, the reference is likely to Giuseppe Passerini, the violinist, who had moved from London to Dublin in 1762. His wife Cristina was a singer who had performed in the concerts of the Edinburgh Music Society between 1751−53. Mention of Kelly’s Reminiscences requires some explanation, however.

Kelly’s autobiography was ghost-written by Theodore Hook (1788–1841) and published in 1826, the year of Kelly’s death. The singer was too ill by this time to have undertaken the job himself, but Hook’s participation was not made public. The latter’s fondness for pranks was likely too well known to have encouraged public belief in the authenticity of he Reminiscences. Included in Hook’s many stunts was the infamous Berners Street hoax (1810) which brought a large part of London to a standstill for an entire day. Once it became known of Hook’s collaboration in the publication, red flags were raised with scholars. Erich Hertzman refers to the Reminiscences as “fanciful though charming stories” (“Mozart and Attwood,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 12, no. 2/3, 1959). More recently, Jane Girdham found proof to authenticate one of the more often questioned events in the biography, but still concludes that “we should certainly treat his statements with due caution, but perhaps with less suspicion than they sometimes provoke” (“A Note on Stephen Storace and Michael Kelly,” Music & Letters, 76, no. 1, 1995). Modern, edited publications will draw attention to the contested content, and the British newspapers amply documented aspects of Kelly’s career in London.

The young Kelly made a name for himself in Dublin by performing in amateur musical productions. His professional debut came in 1777 before his voice had changed, when he replaced an indisposed singer in Piccinni’s La buona figliuola. Later that same year, Kelly sang the title role in Michael Arne’s Cymon. The famed castrato Venanzio Rauzzini (1746–1810) visited Dublin in 1778 and gave Kelly some lessons. Rauzzini was impressed with the young singer and suggested to his parents that he be sent to Naples for further training. Accordingly, Kelly sailed for Naples, arriving there on May 30, 1779, where he studied at the conservatory of San Maria di Loreto. He continued his studies in Palermo in 1780, now as a tenor. There, he met two people who were to be influential in his life: Stephen Storace (1762–96) and his younger sister Nancy (1765–1816). Kelly made rapid professional progress and was soon performing in Florence and Venice. In 1783, He accepted a contract from Emperor Joseph II to sing opera buffa in Vienna. Nancy Storace accepted a similar contract at the same time. They spent four years in Vienna and both took part in the premiere of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro in 1786. Kelly took the parts of Don Curzio and Don Basilio, and Nancy a leading part as Susanna. While in Vienna, Kelly also sang in operas by Giovanni Paisiello (1740–1816), Vicente Martín y Soler (1754–1806), Antonio Salieri (1750–1825), and Giuseppe Sarti (1729–1802). Stephen Storace who had returned to Britain for a time after his Italian studies, joined his sister in Vienna in 1784. Likely through her influence, Storace was commissioned to compose two Italian operas; Kelly sang: Valente in Gli sposi malcontenti (1785), and Eufemio in Gli equivoci (1786). Kelly also circulated in the highest echelons of Viennese musical society. He became friendly with Mozart and met Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) and Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–87).

After four years in Vienna, Kelly, the Storaces (including their mother Elizabeth), and the composer Thomas Attwood (1765–1838) returned to Britain. On their way they visited Salzburg where they met Mozart’s father and then travelled on to Paris, before crossing the English Channel. Kelly marked his arrival in London as March 18, 1787. He was quickly engaged at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and made his debut there on April 20, 1787, in Dibdin’s Lionel and Clarissa, to considerable acclaim. It was his first appearance with the soprano Anna Maria Crouch (1763–1805), to whom he became romantically attracted. Crouch and her husband separated in 1791, and she lived with Kelly for the rest of her life. Until her retirement from the stage in 1801, the couple performed in London during the theatre season and toured in the provinces at other times.

Writing in 1825, James Boaden praised Kelly’s strength of voice, his considerable range, and his steadiness. Furthermore, “in vigorous passages he never cheated the ear with the feeble wailings of falsetto, but sprung upon the ascending fifth with a sustaining energy, that often electrified an audience” (Memoirs of the Life of John Philip Kemble, Esq., 2013). Unlike many tenors of the era, Kelly used full voice up to the tenor high Bb; audiences were duly impressed. Boaden also noted that Kelly’s Italian training enabled him to partake in stage movement without it diminishing his singing. This was rare in English operas, and the author believed that this ability greatly increased the enjoyment of the audience.

Kelly took part in the new works composed by Stephen Storace between 1788 and 1796. These were tailor-made to suit his voice, and presented him in the best possible light. At the same time, Kelly maintained ties with the Italian opera company in London during his career. Between 1792 and 1794, he co-directed the company with Stephen Storace after fire destroyed the King’s Theatre. He was also listed in the 1796 winter newspaper advertisements as being the company’s chorus master. The Reminiscences state that, on April 7, 1796, Kelly sang in Gluck’s Alceste for the benefit evening of the tempestuous soprano Brigida Banti (1757–1806). Kelly writes that he had learned the role of Admetus in Vienna under Gluck, and that Banti specifically requested Kelly to appear in the benefit evening. That he did, but Kelly’s memory played him false when it came to the date. The newspaper advertisements show that the performance took place on April 30, 1795. The opera then entered into the theatre’s repertoire for the rest of the season with Kelly singing. Until 1820, Kelly acted as the company’s stage manager without pay, except for an annual benefit evening.

Following the unexpected death of Stephen Storace, Drury Lane needed to find a composer for their new offerings. The theatre engaged Samuel Arnold (1740–1802) and Thomas Attwood (1765–1838), but neither was as successful as Storace had been. The theatre needed someone with a recognizable name and it was known that Kelly had composed some music. Kelly began a series of operas (more like spoken plays with songs) in 1797 with A Friend in Need. He claimed to have composed sixty-two such works, although these were pastiche pieces, as was the custom of the time. Kelly had a gift for creating attractive melodies, but he lacked the technical background to create sound harmonies and orchestrations. Such matters were farmed out to other musicians. Kelly composed individual songs, as well, some of which achieved considerable popularity.

In his later years, Kelly diversified his career even further. In 1802, he opened a music shop and publishing business. Sadly this enterprise went bankrupt in 1811, and he remained in undischarged bankruptcy for the rest of his life. Kelly made his farewell performance at the Drury Lane theatre in 1808, singing in Stephen Storace’s No Song, no Supper, although he continued to be in charge of the music there until 1820. In 1807 he was invited to supervise the Italian opera season in Dublin, and he returned there in 1811 at which time he sang for the last time on any stage. In 1820, he composed his last opera for the Drury Lane theatre: The Lady and the Devil. Kelly’s final years were plagued with legal and health problems, severe gout being a major impediment to work and travel. One abiding joy in his life was the patronage of George IV. After Kelly’s death on October 9, 1826, the Caledonian Mercury (October 21, 1826) recorded the following:

His present Majesty has always shewn great personal kindness and liberality to Michael Kelly. When his Reminiscences first appeared, the King sent him one hundred guineas, and a similar sum was annually given on his benefit night at the Opera House.
Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

KELLY, MICHAEL (1764?–1826), actor, vocalist, and composer, born in Dublin about 1764, was the eldest of the fourteen children of Thomas Kelly, wine-merchant and master of ceremonies at the castle. His mother's maiden name was McCabe. Kelly showed talent at an early age; began his musical studies with Marland, and continued with Cogan and Michael Arne, for the pianoforte; and with Passerini, Peretti, San Giorgio, and, later, Rauzzini, for singing. His father destined him for the medical profession, but the influence of Neale, the surgeon and a clever violinist, encouraged his musical tastes. Rauzzini advised that Kelly should be sent to study in Italy, and the father consented. Kelly had appeared upon the Dublin stage in 1779 during the illness of a performer. The opera was Piccinni's ‘La Buona Figliuola,’ and Kelly in the part of the Count, written for high soprano, surpassed expectation. He had a powerful treble voice (Reminiscences, i. 18), pronounced Italian well, and was tall for his age. He next sang at the Dublin Crow Street Theatre as Cymon, for three nights, and as Lionel on the fourth, for his benefit. On 1 May 1779 Kelly sailed for Naples, having earned enough to supply all his wants for some time. Sir William Hamilton and the prior of the Dominicans befriended him; and Finaroli took him as a partly private pupil of the Loreto Conservatoire, until Aprile offered him free instruction at Palermo. Kelly was the first foreigner to sing a solo at the Chiesagrande on a festival day. He was reported to be the first Englishman who had sung in Italy when, after giving a concert at Leghorn with the assistance of the Storaces, he sang at the Teatro Nuovo, Florence, in the spring of 1780. He was engaged at Gratz (Styria), Brescia, Verona, Venice, and Parma; and for one year, at a salary of 200l. and expenses, for the Italian opera then revived at Vienna (1783). Kelly was a principal tenor during that and some four subsequent years in comic opera in the Austrian capital. His successes in operas by Salieri, Paesiello, &c., encouraged him, when playing in one of Righini's operas, to mimic the peculiarities, dress, and manner of Da Ponte, the librettist. His Antipholus of Ephesus was exceptionally popular, and his Gaforio (in ‘Re Teodoro’) won him an addition of 50l. to his salary. Gluck himself instructed him in the part of Pylades (‘Iphigenia in Tauride’), and Mozart trained him in Basilio, for the first performance of ‘Le Nozze di Figaro.’ Kelly had the audacity to differ with the master on the rendering of his part in the sestet of act ii., but was allowed his own way. Mozart gave Sunday concerts, at which Kelly never was missing. Kelly pleased him by a little melody which he had composed to Metastasio's canzonetta, ‘Grazie agl' inganni tuoi.’ Mozart ‘took it and composed variations upon it which were truly beautiful;’ and, moreover, played them ‘wherever he had an opportunity.’ Kelly printed the air in his ‘Reminiscences’ (i. 226–7). Mozart, however, dissuaded him from a study of counterpoint.

Kelly obtained leave to visit England, with permission to return to the Vienna company if he wished. He left Vienna with the Storaces in February 1787, arriving in London on 18 March. Kelly first appeared at Drury Lane on 20 April 1787, in the part of Lionel (‘School for Fathers’). From this date until 1808 he was constantly heard in English opera, then prospering at Drury Lane with the aid of such composers as Linley, Storace, Attwood, Kelly himself, and others. Kelly was also engaged during this period for the Handel Commemoration, 1787; the performances at Cannons, 1789 or 1790; Norwich musical festival of 1789; at Oxford and York Minster in 1791; and oratorios at Ranelagh 1792, Covent Garden 1793, and Drury Lane 1794, and many concerts. At the Ancient concerts (1789–91) his realistic rendering of Handel's ‘Haste thee nymph’ caused Bates to regret having engaged so dramatic a tenor in succession to Harrison, but the king and many of the subscribers were pleased, and the number was repeated, by request, four times during one season (ib. i. 325). Kelly sang in 1788 as Almaviva in ‘Il Barbiere’ for Signora Storace's benefit at the Opera House, and in 1793 was appointed serious tenor for Italian opera at King's Theatre during the absence of Viganoni. His provincial tours (chiefly for English opera) extended to Scotland and Ireland. Kelly visited Dublin with Catalani and an Italian troupe on several occasions.

In the meantime he acted as musical director at Drury Lane; was joint director with Stephen Storace of the Italian opera at King's Theatre, from 1793 (in which year the Drury Lane company opened the Little Theatre in the Haymarket two nights a week), and manager from 1796. Kelly describes the burning of several theatres, in one of which (Drury Lane, 1809) his manuscripts were destroyed; the falling of the walls of King's Theatre in 1795; a riot there in 1805, when the curtain was dropped one Saturday at midnight, on the Bishop of London's orders; and the attempt to shoot the king at Drury Lane in 1800. After this incident Kelly sang an additional stanza (written by Sheridan on the spur of the moment) to ‘God save the King.’ In 1797 Kelly began the production of his long series of musical settings of plays (ib. ii. 361). One of the most notable was Sheridan's ‘Pizarro,’ first performed on 24 May 1799. ‘Pizarro,’ he says (ib. ii. 159), ‘was advertised, and every box in the house taken, before the fourth act of the play was begun; nor had I one single word of the poetry for which I was to compose the music.’ Sheridan at last came to dinner, and managed to suggest his ideas to Kelly by the help of inarticulate ‘rumbling noises.’ Kelly employed a poor author to write words for the choruses, but the actors did not have their speeches for the fifth act until the fourth act was being performed in public. The play was a great success. Colman's ‘Bluebeard’ and ‘Love Laughs at Locksmiths,’ Kemble's ‘Deaf and Dumb,’ and Coleridge's ‘Remorse’ were greater successes than ‘Monk’ Lewis's plays and Moore's ‘Gipsey Prince’ (Haymarket, 24 July 1801). About the latter Moore wrote to his mother: ‘Poor Mick is rather an imposer than a composer. He cannot mark the time in writing three bars of music; his understrappers, however, do all that for him, and he has the knack of pleasing the many. He has compiled the “Gipsey Prince” exceedingly well, and I have strong hopes of its success.’ Kelly, in setting to music Colman's adaptation of ‘Gay Deceivers,’ observed that the English taste in music ‘required more cayenne than that of any other nation in the world.’ Yet whatever is original in Kelly's own work cannot be said to possess this quality. It was doubtless apparent in his acting and singing, of which the Earl of Mount-Edgcumbe wrote: ‘Though a good musician and not a bad singer … Kelly had retained or regained so much of the English vulgarity of manner that he was never greatly liked at the King's Theatre.’ His voice was said to be wanting in sweetness and melody; and his ‘rather effeminate features allowed of little expression; yet he was a good actor’ (Pohl). His intelligence and experience were exercised most favourably for the spread of musical culture when he acted as stage-manager and musical director.

In the midst of his prosperity Kelly was induced to buy the lease of an old house at the corner of Market Lane in Pall Mall, and use it as a shop for his compositions. It opened on 1 Jan. 1802. A door led from it to the stage of the Opera House, and subscribers were allowed to go through on payment of two guineas yearly. Sheridan proposed to inscribe on the saloon ‘Michael Kelly, Composer of Wines and Importer of Music;’ it does not appear that Kelly ever took up the wine trade, Sheridan's joke being suggested by some casual remarks. The new business, not receiving proper attention, turned out disastrously, and in September 1811 Kelly was declared bankrupt.

The death, in 1805, of Anna Maria Crouch [q. v.], with whom he had been very intimate, was keenly felt by Kelly. He resolved upon leaving the stage, and his last appearance at Drury Lane was in ‘No Song, no Supper,’ 17 June 1808; his last on any stage was at Dublin on 5 Sept. 1811, in the theatre where he had first appeared. After several years of suffering from gout, Kelly died at Margate on 9 Oct. 1826. He was buried in the churchyard of St. Paul's, Covent Garden (Annual Biography, xi. 34).

Kelly wrote airs (and generally an overture) for the following pieces at Drury Lane Theatre: Conway's ‘False Appearances’ and ‘Fashionable Friends,’ 1789; Hoare's ‘Friend in Need,’ Cumberland's ‘Last of the Family,’ Porter's ‘Chimney Corner,’ Lewis's ‘Castle Spectre,’ in 1797; Colman's ‘Bluebeard,’ Franklin's ‘Outlaws,’ Hoare's ‘Captive of Spielberg,’ and Boaden's ‘Aurelia and Miranda,’ 1798; Colman's ‘Feudal Times,’ and Sheridan's ‘Pizarro,’ 1799; Dibdin's ‘Of Age To-morrow,’ Miss Baillie's ‘De Montford,’ and Fenwick's ‘Indians,’ 1800; Kemble's ‘Deaf and Dumb,’ Lewis's ‘Adelmorn,’ and (at Haymarket) T. Moore's ‘Gipsey Prince,’ 1801; Spencer's ‘Urania,’ Cobb's ‘Algonah’ and ‘House to be Sold,’ 1802; Dimond's ‘Hero of the North,’ Allingham's ‘Marriage Promise,’ and (at Haymarket) Colman's ‘Love Laughs at Locksmiths,’ 1803; James's ‘Cinderella,’ Franklin's ‘Counterfeit’ (and at Haymarket, Dimond's ‘Hunter of the Alps’ and Colman's ‘Gay Deceivers,’ at Covent Garden Reynolds's ‘Bad Bargain’), and Holt's ‘The Land we Live in,’ 1804; Tobin's ‘Honeymoon,’ Pye and Arnold's ‘Prior Claim,’ and Dimond's ‘Youth, Love, and Folly,’ 1805; Colman's ‘We Fly by Night,’ and Dimond's ‘Adrian and Orilla’ (at Covent Garden), Ward's ‘Forty Thieves,’ 1806; Dimond's ‘Young Hussar’ (Morton's ‘Town and Country,’ at Covent Garden), Lewis's ‘Wood Daemon’ and ‘Adelgitha,’ Luke's ‘House of Morville,’ and Siddons's ‘Time 's a Tell-tale,’ 1807; Cumberland's ‘Jew of Mogadore’ (Colman's ‘Africans,’ at Haymarket) and Lewis's ‘Venoni,’ 1808; Dimond's ‘Foundling of the Forest’ at Haymarket, and Arnold's ‘Jubilee’ at Lyceum, 1809; Dimond's ‘Gustavus Vasa’ at Covent Garden, and Des Hayes's ballet at the Opera House, 1810; Dimond's ‘Peasant Boy’ at Lyceum, and ‘Royal Oak’ at Haymarket, and Lewis's ‘One o'Clock,’ 1811; Horace Smith's ‘Absent Apothecary,’ T. Sheridan's ‘Russians’ and ‘Polly,’ Arnold's ‘Illusions,’ and Dibdin's pantomime, 1813; Coleridge's ‘Remorse,’ 1814; Arnold's ‘Unknown Guest,’ 1815; Dimond's ‘Fall of Taranto,’ at Covent Garden, 1817; ‘Bride of Abydos,’ 1818; Planché's ‘Abudah,’ 1819; and Dimond's ‘Lady and the Devil,’ 1820. ‘Zoroaster,’ never produced.

His songs were: ‘Art thou not dear;’ ‘The Boy in Yellow;’ ‘The Boys of Kilkenny;’ ‘Wake, gentle breeze;’ ‘Destined by Fate;’ ‘Doubt, O most beautiful;’ ‘No more shall the spring;’ ‘Flora MacDonald;’ ‘The Green Spot;’ ‘O Woman’ (sacred song); ‘The Friar of Nottingham;’ ‘Hamlet's Letter to Ophelia;’ ‘The Truant Bird;’ ‘The Husband's return;’ ‘I hope your eyes speak truth;’ ‘Love and Time;’ ‘Poor Fanny, the Sweeper;’ ‘I sigh for the days;’ ‘Emsdorff's Fame;’ ‘Rest, warrior, rest;’ ‘The Woodpecker;’ ‘Six English airs and six Italian duets,’ 1790; ‘Elegant Extracts for the German Flute,’ bk. i. 1805.

The ‘Reminiscences of Michael Kelly of the King's Theatre and Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, including a Period of nearly Half a Century’ (2 vols. London, 1826), were written by Theodore Hook from materials furnished by Kelly (GROVE); they are among the best of such compilations, although containing some inaccuracies. The frontispiece is a portrait of Kelly, engraved by H. Meyer from a drawing by Wivell.

[Dictionary of Musicians, 1827, ii. 6; Grove's Dictionary of Music, ii. 49; Georgian Era, iv. 263; Mount-Edgcumbe's Reminiscences, p. 32; Young's Memoirs of Mrs. Crouch, vol. ii.; Pohl's Mozart and Haydn in London, ii. 65 et passim; Russell's Memoirs of Moore, i. 123; Parke's Musical Memoirs, ii. 126 et passim; Kelly's Reminiscences.]

L. M. M.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.171
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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355 ii 30 Kelly, Michael: for 'O haste read 'Haste