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Wilfrid Mellers at ninety -
an appreciation by PETER DICKINSON


Wilfrid Mellers has had an enormous influence on several generations of British musicians at their most impressionable phase -- as university students. He started the Music Department at York University in 1964 and it quickly became a beacon of enlightenment at a time when new universities were being founded and there was a real need to redefine Music in this context. Unlike most British university music departments, which were dominated by musicologists, York started with a faculty of young composers -- Peter Aston, David Blake, Bernard Rands and the late Robert Sherlaw Johnson -- and also gave performance a high place in the curriculum. Mellers may have been aware that the Literature and Materials programme, started at the Juilliard School, New York, in 1947, was also largely staffed by composers. One of them, William Bergsma, outlined their philosophy:

'Independent teaching approaches, using the literature of music as basic text; the presentation and contrast of music from different periods; and the indivisible relation between musical techniques -- all this approached through performance.' ('L & M Revisited' in The Juilliard Review, Fall 1955, 29-36).

Wilfrid Mellers
Wilfrid Mellers

Mellers' starting point was close to this. Music was not music until it was heard and so he felt that there should be no separation between theory and practice. This is widely accepted today. With this credo Mellers put contemporary ideas at the centre of his new Department and, thanks to him, most of these beliefs have penetrated higher education in Britain. In the next round of new departments those such as Keele (which I started in 1974) and at City University in London (started by Malcolm Troup, a York graduate) were able to build on the foundations of York. More recent departments in the newer universities have since been able to do the same.

Many of the causes Mellers advocated then are now part and parcel of our flourishing musical culture at all levels. He brought music for young people into the curriculum in the same natural way that Britten composed for children. Composition was encouraged, leading towards the opportunities now available within the national curriculum in schools. Mellers was open to all kinds of musical expression, anticipating the pluralism and multi-culturalism of the scene today rather than the inherited distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow taste.

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Copyright © 25 April 2004 Peter Dickinson, Aldeburgh UK


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