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Power and Grandeur


GORDON RUMSON investigates Wilfrid Mellers the composer


Perceptions probably play a more crucial role in our understanding of the world than intellect. There are many things we should 'know', but in a way don't. It's almost as if we are looking in another direction. The literary, scholarly and intellectual output of Wilfrid Mellers has blinded us to what is clearly present.

In every encyclopaedia article about Wilfrid Mellers there is a compositions list. Here is a composer of several operas (and others now destroyed by the composer), many works for chamber ensembles, two large-scale compositions for keyboard instruments and a host of songs and choral works. And yet when we think of Wilfrid Mellers we think of his books and insightful articles.

What can we make of this? Well, very little if we don't know the music. Some recordings have been made and Wilfrid Mellers' works have been performed at numerous festivals and concerts, but the critical mass of perception necessary for the general public and the musical community to recognise his compositional out-put has not occurred. The good news is that performances continue, works have been published and new publications are planned.

Wilfrid MellersProfessor Mellers read both English and Music at Leamington College and Cambridge between 1933 and 1938, and received an MA in 1939. His primary composition studies were with Edmund Rubbra and Egon Wellesz, both on the faculty of Oxford University. Early compositions seem to have a neoclassic tendency with an emphasis on fluid but unusual lines, and fundamentally triadic, though not tonal, harmony. With each new work Mellers expanded his vocabulary and extended his techniques; however, the tendency towards flexible counterpoint (and sometimes a modified triadic harmony) remains important even into the most recent compositions.

A brief consideration of the works list shows a crucial feature: Wilfrid Mellers is a composer for the human voice and for the words of poetry. Important songs, operas, choral works all appear. He is also a dramatic composer - for one obvious reason and one less well known reason. First, he has written works of overt drama, like the Rose of May: A Threnody for Ophelia after Shakespeare for speaker, soprano and small ensemble, and of course, the operas.

The second reason is that Wilfrid Mellers is a composer of literary and social music with an emphasis on the ritual aspect of music. He has taken up jazz, folk and indigenous music as representations of the social forces of music which cannot now be ignored by the 'serious' composer. In his 1969 Proms commission work Yeibichai he combined a jazz trio with scat singer, chorus, coloratura soprano, orchestra and electronic devices; in Natalis Invicti Solis for solo piano Mellers makes use of corn dances of the Tewa Indians of New Mexico in two movements of this frenzied virtuosic master work.

Thus Wilfrid Mellers, who in his musical and scholarly research has been almost obsessed with the question of 'What is music for?' and the defence of the proposition that 'Music matters', has attempted in numerous compositions to conjoin the potency of words and music into larger ceremonial events - making him a composer of dramatic works in the widest sense.

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Copyright © Gordon Rumson, October 16th 1999


Wilfrid Mellers - a web page and Works List

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