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.
Professor 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
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
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.
Copyright © Gordon Rumson, October
Wilfrid Mellers - a web page and Works List
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