<< -- 2 -- Peter Dickinson SEEING MUSIC WHOLE
The centre of all this was Mellers himself. His lecturing technique
has always been uniquely charismatic: approachable and elucidatory at the same time,
he has always known how to enthrall an audience.
In the later 1930s Mellers went up to Cambridge to read English and then
Music, teaching there in both fields. At Downing College, where he was made
an Honorary Fellow in 2001, he became a disciple of F R Leavis and wrote articles
and reviews for his famous magazine, Scrutiny. Some of Mellers' early articles
caused trouble. He saw through the gentility of Stephen Spender's poetry
and felt Virginia Woolf was finished after To the Lighthouse.
A lengthy letter was published which objected to the fact that his writings were
not 'tempered with the
same degree of critical rigour as the generality of articles in Scrutiny'
and to the excessively enthusiastic tone of everything Mellers wrote. ('A
Letter on the Music Criticism of W H Mellers', by Boris Ford and Stephen
Reiss, Scrutiny, Vol XI, No 2, Dec 1942, 109-116). In the same issue
Mellers defended himself strenuously, replying at similar length but
observing that all this was a waste of paper in wartime. He noted that a
reputation for critical rigour was more easily gained through the negative
approach often found in Scrutiny rather than his own positive and
inclusive attitude. He said that if he took away his enthusiasm there would
be little left of his writing. Almost sixty years after those early
Scrutiny reviews we can recognise the generosity of his affirmative
outlook, which is still too rare.
But far from being opposed to 'critical rigour', Mellers has exemplified it in
his own way. He developed his approach, based on applied historical
knowledge, from the study of literature where the context is used to inform
understanding of the work itself. Music is not just notes to be played, but
emanates from people. No wonder Mellers made a special contribution
with his two volumes in the influential series called 'Man and his Music' --
The Sonata Principle and Romanticism and the Twentieth Century.
He has always been a pioneer with an uncanny ability to see the way things were
going, to find music that was not well known but ought to be and eventually
would be. These enthusiasms have always been supported by the broad
knowledge of Western Music of the kind that emerged from the ancient
universities but expanded through awareness of other cultures and popular
forms. This kind of background, which developed for Mellers as the twentieth century
unfolded, is barely available today. Study has become too specialised and
the demands of 'research assessment' impinge on university teachers.
Copyright © 25 April 2004
Peter Dickinson, Aldeburgh UK