Her presentation revealed a tender recollection from a child’s point of reference, of a jovial character with a multiplicity of talents. Kirby’s vision well exceeded his time and yet it is important to see the context in which the book was originally written.
Kirby loved life and was inexhaustible in his quest to record and save the instruments he saw vanishing before his eyes. Kirby left his mark on the country’s musicians and musicologists and the collection of musical instruments now housed at UCT is an incalculable gift to the nation.
Van Wieringen offers readers a fuller sense of the enormity of the task Percival Kirby undertook:
Percival Kirby was my grandfather. I have been asked for reminiscences about him but he died 45 years ago, so while I remember him very well, my actual memories are mainly those of a child.
I remember that he was very funny – he had a wonderful sense of humour and loved jokes, word play and limericks. If he was here this evening, I imagine that he would be showing off his famous party trick, which was to sing and whistle at the same time. He was short and rotund with a broad Scottish accent and a shock of white hair. I remember him as a kindly grandfather who loved to talk.
After his death, my mother spent many years of her life sorting out his incredible library and ongoing correspondence. Finding a home for the Kirby Collection of Instruments was just one of the multitude of issues she had to deal with. I have continued dealing with his legacy. Kirby has been described to me in various ways – “a character”, “a legend” – and I believe that he was a household name during his years in Johannesburg. Certainly the huge number of newspaper articles about him testify to this.
Percival Kirby was born in 1887 in Aberdeen, in Scotland. He came from a musical and academic family. His father was an organist and choir trainer and his mother a teacher. His early musical education started like many Celtic boys, with the tin whistle and a set of homemade drums. After training as a primary school teacher and gaining a Master of Arts in Aberdeen, he went to the Royal College of Music in London where he studied the flute and the piano, and composition with Charles Villiers Stanford. He was by then a professional timpanist having spent a lot of time playing in various orchestras in Aberdeen and having devised a new method for tuning the timpani.
He came to the Natal Colony in 1914 as the Inspector of Music in Schools. In 1921 he was appointed to Wits University to start the music department and he remained there until his retirement in 1952.
Kirby was an extraordinarily dynamic, energetic and inexhaustible person. He only needed about four hours of sleep per night and he filled up the rest of the time with his many pursuits. He was fascinated by so many things, incredibly brilliant and throughout his life he pursued a huge variety of research subjects in a meticulous and detailed way. His life in Johannesburg was filled with developing the music department at Wits, teaching and examining all around the country, conducting, performing, composing incidental music and producing plays and operas almost annually. He was President of the Museums Association and of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science and he was co-founder and co-conductor of the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra.
His research topics were extensive and in no way restricted to music. Articles and books were written on “The Kettledrums”, “The Trumpets of Tutankhamen”, “Sir Andrew Smith”, “Le Vaillant”, “Saartjie Baartman”, “Dr James Barry”, “Captain Gordon, the Flute-Maker”, and “The Wreck of the Grosvenor”. His interest in indigenous music which started when he was in Natal, continued at Wits. He undertook many trips to Venda land, Bechuanaland, Swaziland, the Northern Transvaal and Bloemhof in his Model T-Ford in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The book, the culmination of this research, was written in three months in 1933.
He was widely acknowledged during his lifetime as an authority on African Music and had many honours conferred upon him. Some of these were; The South African Medal for his outstanding scientific research; the Dvorak Medal from the Society of Composers of Czechoslovakia in Prague. He had an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from Rhodes, and of Music from Wits conferred upon him. He was also elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
He loved collecting – manuscripts, books and musical instruments. His library was a phenomenal collection of books on a diverse variety of topics, manuscripts, scores and first editions of many precious books. The instrument collection was primarily of the instruments that he heard, learned to play and were either given to him or bought from the local chiefs. There are about 600 African instruments, making this collection the most comprehensive and compete collection of instruments from Southern Africa, in the world. Over the years, he acquired all sorts of instruments from Europe as well and they too form part of the collection.
He had a couple of sayings that he loved. One was “Music will out”. He was a firm believer that musical talent could not be suppressed. And then I found a variation “Music, like the truth, will out” and yet another, “Music, like murder, will out”. While he was an academic, Kirby was also an excellent practical musician. In his autobiography Wits End he writes that, “A practical musician is rather like a man-eating tiger, who, having once tasted human blood, cannot do without it.” He continued to play the flute well into his late 70s, playing in ad hoc orchestras in Grahamstown where he had retired. It seems that he could play anything and in Wits End I found a passage where he writes about playing the viola part in a Mozart string quartet.
Most importantly Kirby loved life – he had fun researching, writing, composing, teaching, conducting, performing as a flautist and timpanist, producing plays, musicals and operas, telling jokes, building his houses, making chairs and icing cakes. As he writes in Wits End, “My many interests have enabled me to get a great kick out of life.” In writing about the dangers of superficiality from having too many interests, he states that “I hope that I may have succeeded in completing some investigations which are of some permanent value”. I think that he would be pleased to know that this is indeed true.
The Musical Instruments of the Indigenous People of South Africa was first published in 1934 – 81 years ago. Some years ago, thanks to comments made by Carol Muller of the University of Pennsylvania and Tracey Wheeler of Solms-Delta, I realised that a new edition of this timeless and irreplaceable book was necessary. It had been out of print for many years and because of the changing shape of South African society, this incredible document of life and music in South Africa before 1933, remains the definitive work on the topic.
A lot of time was spent sourcing the correct photographic negatives (my thanks to Leslie Hart for her help) and rescanning them, as the original plates were destroyed. The photographs have been moved from being plates at the back of the book, to within the text. The musical examples had to be reset using Sibelius and the text scanned. The text has remained unchanged.
It has been a great honour and a privilege to bring this extraordinary work to light again and I would like to thank Veronica Klipp and Melanie Pequeux of Wits Press for making this publication possible and to Karen Lilje for the text design and layout.
My thanks also go to Michael Nixon for being such a meticulous curator of the precious and irreplaceable collection and to Rebekkah Sandmeier for helping to host and organize this event.
Finally, Kirby had a son and a daughter, and I am glad to say, that of his descendants, two grandchildren, four great grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren are here today.