Sunday, September 7, 2014

All by Myself

by Axel Klein

NOTE: Musicologists working in Paris archives always raise their eyebrows when stumbling across the exotic name O'Kelly, as inevitably they do. Here Axel Klein gets the family story properly told. But we invited him to contribute this post for another reason: the newfangled, dare we suggest paradigmatic?, ways Klein's book was researched and published.                        —DKH

O’Kelly — An Irish Musical Family in Nineteenth-Century France (2014) was a new departure for me in several respects, especially technically and technologically. I did most of the research from home, designed it (layout, typography, illustrations), and published it within the shortest time imaginable.

I usually research Irish classical music. I go to libraries in Dublin and London, buy antiquarian scores, and generally spend ages trying to find what I am looking for. This book, however, takes place in France, mostly in Paris and in the northern town of Boulogne-sur-Mer. These were the destinations of an Irish émigré in the 1820s, a piano teacher named Joseph Kelly (1804–56). His sons, all born in France, made themselves even more Irish by changing their name to “O’Kelly,” while at the same time wholly integrating French music and manners. Thus, for a change, nearly all the field research needed doing in France.

Or did it? I am deeply grateful for a trend in librarianship without which this study would have taken very much longer: digitization. In fact, had I started five years earlier, the book might not have happened at all. Now it was possible to do nearly all the basic research from my computer in Germany. First of all, Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, is a fantastic resource. It features an increasing number of digitized scores, but what’s more, the newspapers and music journals at the core of such inquiry. I could type “Joseph O’Kelly” (the most prominent name in the family) into the search engine and get hundreds of responses relating to his compositions, performances, and publications. And beyond Gallica, I could do genealogical research online and thus follow the family members’ various addresses in Paris by the digitized état civil (the family registers). And this is not only true for Paris, but for local centers like Boulogne, too.You can't go away unimpressed.

I did do some on-site research, though could have managed without it. This amounted to added color: photographs of the houses where the O’Kellys lived and of the graves at Père Lachaise and in Boulogne. I took down plate numbers of printed music during three afternoons at the BN.

Henri O'Kelly, senior
recording a pianola roll for Pleyel, 1907

Who knows even the best-known composer, Joseph O’Kelly (1828–1885), not to speak of his brothers, sons and grandson? And why were they forgotten? Joseph was the author of nine operas and three cantatas, but mainly of songs and piano music. Some 230 of his works were published. He was a pupil of Halévy and Kalkbrenner, and was well acquainted with most of his better-known contemporaries. Saint-Saëns played organ at his funeral. His son Henri (1859–1938) was a fellow-student of Debussy and Pierné at the Conservatoire and equaled or surpassed both on the piano. I have a theory about where their reputations went, developed in the book.

Despite the advances of the digital age, the project had been going on for five years. (I have a day job.) Then a conference was scheduled for the end of May 2014 in Dublin on the topic of Franco-Irish musical relations. Here, obviously, was an ideal forum for launching the book, but it was only six months away. One Irish publisher had already declined the manuscript; should I really spend time writing proposals to British or American publishers, waiting for their notoriously unpredictable reviewing schedules? should I not just finish?

This was when I decided for print-on-demand and for doing the rest by myself. There were obvious  disadvantages: no professional editing or proof-reading, no peer-review, no automatic channels of distribution, no established “series” that libraries subscribe to.  But there were immense liberties and opportunities in the self-publishing scheme. My “publisher” is a German company called BoD (Books on Demand), but these companies exist everywhere now. They provide an ISBN number and cooperate with a printer. I chose one of their page size options, formatted my pages accordingly, chose a font I liked, bought a scanner and scanned music examples and photos, and was able to place each music example exactly where it fitted. Finally I would choose from a set of cover designs and produce a PDF. I called up the company to ask how long would they need from (online) delivering of the book-block to the day of delivery of the printed book. With this information, I actually wrote the manuscript until mid-May and carried my printed copies to Dublin ten days later. It is a fine hardback print of almost 500 pages, and the e-book version is a byproduct of the process.

Axel Klein is an independent scholar based in Frankfurt, Germany, specializing in the history of music in Ireland. He has written Die Musik Irlands im 20. Jahrhundert (Hildesheim: Olms, 1996) and Irish Classical Recordings — A Discography of Irish Art Music (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001); co-edited Irish Music in the Twentieth Century (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2003; with Gareth Cox) and The Life and Music of Brian Boydell (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2004; with Gareth Cox and Michael Talor); and been editorial advisor for MGG2 and the Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2013). His website is

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