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Power and Grandeur


GORDON RUMSON investigates Wilfrid Mellers the composer


 << Continued from part I 

Perhaps the most vivid work is Life Cycle for orchestra and youth choir. Inuit ('Eskimo') melodies and free improvisation combine for an incantatory effect. He demonstrates that music is not merely a decorative art, nor merely a tool of advertising, not even merely the expression of the lone personality, but an art form of significance and import in its own right and for the entire social structure.

One danger for a composer of such wide erudition as Wilfrid Mellers is that the creator's voice can be lost in a maze of allusions and borrowings. A second great danger is that the unique voice will be extinguished in a welter of disparate influences and faddish changes of direction: now some jazz, now a touch of folk music, now some esoteric philosophy and finally something else.

The dangers are real and Mellers is fully aware of them. Perhaps for this reason he has been severely self-critical. He has withdrawn many works and destroyed some of them. In a moment of sincere self-criticism he wrote in a letter (September 30, 1997):

  Well, looking back, I reckon that about once every seven years I produced a REAL composition that I hope MIGHT survive;...  

In answer to the question of dangers, the answer must be unequivocal: Wilfrid Mellers does have a distinct voice, has produced music of importance and has avoided mere faddishness.

In order to prove this with any degree of finality in the public forum, it would of course be necessary for the works to be widely available in modern recordings and published in a complete edition. But in the meantime, armed with the extant scores and a recent recording it is possible to form a clear idea of Mellers' distinct genius.

As befits a man of such wide intellectual culture, Mellers' music has been influenced by philosophy and Jungian ideas. For example, the Opus Alchymicum for organ -- recently recorded by the brilliant Kevin Bowyer -- takes up the principles of alchemical studies interpreted by Jung as a starting point for musical processes. Mellers writes in a preface to the work which was composed in 1969, revised in 1972 and revised again in 1995:

  This work is based on the three times three 'stages' of mediaeval alchemy. There is nothing arcane about this: for musical composition is of its nature an 'alchemical' transformation of something (pitch relationships, rhythms, metres, harmonies, timbres) into something else; and Jung has demonstrated that the metamorphoses of alchemy are, like those of music, not so much material as psychological.  

From the depths of the cluster chord come sounds distant and yet secure: fourths and fifths. The mood is mysterious and pregnant with potential. It is also perfectly fitted to the ancient alchemical doctrine of the golden tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, the primary source of alchemical teaching according to the best traditions: 'As above, so below.' Out of the primal matter - the cluster chord - come the invertible intervals of fourth and fifth. We may comment on the Pythagorean mathematics of it, the quiet reference to the Semitic Deity's reflection upon the waters of chaos, the mirror image of the inversions, the alchemical process of transformation from the earth (the chord), the play of reality and its multitudinous phenomena upon the basic 'ground' of Being and the source of consciousness itself. Given Wilfrid Mellers intellectual arsenal these are not gratuitous suggestions - rather they are likely both conscious and unconscious influences upon the organic seed of the work. Altogether the effect is magical. And so begins a 'magical' - in many senses of the word - composition.

When illumination comes it comes with power and grandeur, wild abandon and the absorption of all elements into a new alloy.

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Copyright © Gordon Rumson, October 17th 1999


Wilfrid Mellers - a web page and Works List

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