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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.

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Copyright © 25 April 2004 Peter Dickinson, Aldeburgh UK


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