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Kirby, Mancell Flo (1897–1996)

by Patricia Duke

This article was published online in 2020

Mancell Flo Kirby (1897—1996), harpsichordist, was born on 24 January 1897 at Ballarat, Victoria, elder daughter of South Australian-born Thomas Henry Kirby, commercial traveller, and his locally born wife Christina Harriet, née Sinclair. Her father died in 1900 and her mother, after moving to Melbourne then remarrying in 1908, died in 1911. Subsequently raised by her stepfather, Mancell was educated at Canterbury State School and Fintona Presbyterian Girls’ Grammar School, Camberwell (1912-14). She was ‘a very gifted child, with a wonderful memory’ (Australian Musical News 1915, 299), studying piano with her mother and then with J. Alfred Johnstone. In 1912 she won the open solo piano section of the South Street competitions in Ballarat. The next year she was awarded a licentiate by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, London.

Kirby began teaching piano in 1915 while continuing her studies at the Albert Street Conservatorium, East Melbourne (DipMus, 1918), where her teacher was Jessie Masson. After graduating she took a position as a piano teacher (1919–23) at Frensham, Mittagong, travelling often to Sydney to study with Laurence Godfrey-Smith. Returning to Melbourne, on 22 June 1923 she married Reginald Spencer Ellery (d. 1955), a medical practitioner, at Holy Trinity Church of England, Kew. Her husband would become a distinguished, albeit controversial, psychiatrist. Retaining her maiden name in her professional career, she was heard occasionally in concerts and radio broadcasts in the 1920s and early 1930s. In 1933 she moved with her husband and son to a mansion overlooking the Yarra River at Hawthorn, which they named High Wycombe.

In 1936 Kirby accompanied her friend Evelyn Godfrey-Smith, the wife of her former teacher, on a trip to England and Europe. During a stay of several months in Munich, Germany, she purchased a two-manual harpsichord from the firm of Maendler-Schramm. She also visited the firm’s workshop to learn about construction and maintenance and had lessons from Julia Menz, a former pupil of the renowned Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. Having been joined by her husband and son, Kirby continued her travels through Europe to the Soviet Union, then returned to Australia with the harpsichord in June 1937. After replacing the leather plectra, which had deteriorated during the voyage, in October she gave a recital at her home for the British Music Society, which was broadcast nationally. Her concert auditorium, a converted billiard room, was used for most of her broadcasts thereafter, using a high-quality landline installed by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC).

In August 1938 Kirby performed Haydn’s Keyboard Concerto No.6 with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO), conducted by (Sir) Malcolm Sargent. The concert was broadcast nationally and widely reported, stimulating great interest in the Maendler-Schramm instrument, which Kirby believed to be the only harpsichord in Australia in playable condition. A report in the Argus described her as ‘a most charming figure seated at her lovely harpsichord’ (1938, 4). She subsequently moved away from the classical repertoire to focus on early music, maintaining a busy schedule of concerts and recitals. By 1954 she had made nearly one hundred broadcasts for the ABC, playing harpsichord, clavichord, or virginal.

Kirby had travelled again to England in 1949, meeting the harpsichord makers Thomas Goff and the Dolmetsch family, and purchasing a virginal built by Alec Hodsdon. Worried that she would not be able to obtain parts from Maendler-Schramm, which had been bombed during World War II, she ordered a Dolmetsch concert harpsichord in 1951. From 1950 Leonard Fullard’s annual Bach Festival at Christ Church, South Yarra, provided Kirby with a regular platform. She performed the major solo repertoire of the harpsichord and ensemble works, including the Brandenburg Concerto No.5 and The Art of the Fugue, also playing continuo for Bach’s major choral works. She was often engaged for continuo work with the MSO (from 1949 to 1965 the Victorian Symphony Orchestra). A featured artist at a Bach Festival held in Adelaide in 1954, she returned for the inaugural Adelaide Festival of the Arts in 1960. Her performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1962 and 1964 at Fullard’s festival, the first in Australia on a period instrument, were a source of special pride for her.

During her long performing career, Kirby pioneered early music performance practice in Melbourne, including the use of harpsichord for continuo. She generally refused to teach the harpsichord, the two exceptions being her pupils Harold Fabrikant and Alvin Miechel. Eta Harich-Schneider’s The Harpsichord: An Introduction to Technique, Style and the Historical Sources (1954) was her main reference. By 1970 her deafness had ended her career as a performer, also preventing her from enjoying the historically informed performances which blossomed in that decade. A lifelong member of the Lyceum Club, she was a keen member of its French circle later in life. She began to study Russian in her nineties. Survived by her son, she died on 20 February 1996 at Kew and was cremated. Monash University holds the manuscripts for a number of keyboard works written for her.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Musical News. ‘Miss Mansell Kirby L.A.B.’ 1 May 1915, 299
  • Argus (Melbourne). ‘Dressing at Concert.’ 8 August 1938, 4
  • Crotty, Joel, and Helen Gifford. ‘Mancell Kirby: A Pioneer of Early Music in Australia.’ Mousike: Monash Music News 5 (1995): 7–9
  • Duke, Patricia. ‘Foundations of Early Music in Melbourne: Leonard Fullard and Other Pioneers.’ PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, 2005
  • Duke, Patricia. ‘Mancell Kirby: Melbourne’s First Harpsichordist.’ In Music Research: New Directions for a New Century, edited by Michael Ewans, Rosalind Halton, and John A. Phillips, 104–12. London: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2004
  • Fullard, Jennifer. ‘Talent, Persistence Made Kirby a Musical Pioneer.’ Age (Melbourne), 24 April 1996, 18
  • Kirby, Mancell. ‘A European Holiday.’ Melba Conservatorium Magazine 4 (1937): 5–6
  • Monash University Library. EF 780 K58M, Mansell Kirby Collection

Additional Resources

Citation details

Patricia Duke, 'Kirby, Mancell Flo (1897–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kirby-mancell-flo-30211/text37491, published online 2020, accessed online 28 July 2021.

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