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<<  -- 4 --  Peter Dickinson    SEEING MUSIC WHOLE

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Another dimension of Mellers, which is complementary to his writing, is of course his own music. He started composing in an English idiom rather close to his teacher, Edmund Rubbra, and in the mid-1930s shared British suspicion of Stravinksy and Bartók. So Mellers' Scrutiny articles are indicative of the provincial English climate in which he grew up but he soon moved on in ways reflected by his music. The String Trio (1946) starts out with a naked minor ninth resolving onto a major seventh -- a clear reminiscence of 'O might those sighes and teares' from Britten's The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, premièred by Pears and Britten in November 1945. A second theme is close to a blues, or an English false-relation; the second movement dances like early Tippett; and the last movement is a fugue.

Most of Mellers' works are vocal or theatrical, with a vast range of texts and subjects. Some pieces are simply practical, for local demand and performers who happened to be around. For example, when Mellers was at Pittsburgh he wrote a piece for choir and piano for a largely black school in a poor area. This was A Ballad of Anyone (1962: Novello & Co, London, 1965), an enchanting setting of the e e cummings poem in jazzy style where the score invites improvisation or added percussion.

The American experience caused Mellers to see music whole, bringing in jazz, pop and ethnic musics. This altered his critical stance and also affected his composing. After this his concern for music education developed and led him to produce projects such as The Resources of Music (Cambridge University Press, 1969) based on the cantata Life Cycle. These were the days when Peter Maxwell Davies had brought composing for schools into the news and Gordon Crosse, extending the Britten tradition, wrote several of the most successful works of this type. But the vocal lines of Mellers' Life Cycle must have been far too difficult for the young performers for whom it was intended. On the other hand, Resurrection Canticle (1968), a setting of Hopkins for sixteen solo voices, is a tour de force where virtuosity is entirely in place.

A major landmark was his BBC commission, Yeibichai, at the 1969 Proms. Mellers tried to put his American experience into practice as a composer too, taking on board the pluralism of Berio's Sinfonia or some of John Cage's more elaborate spectacles. Yeibichai was pure 1960s in the way it brought together a coloratura soprano, a scat singer, an improvising jazz trio, orchestra and tape and, as with his writings, it showed Mellers' uncanny ability to identify with the permissive young and their clamouring concerns. Appropriately it was Yeibichai which was the climax of the York University concert for Mellers' retirement in 1981. Unfortunately exploration of his music is limited by the fact that there are only two of his works currently available on CD. This is a deplorable situation, but Kevin Bowyer has included the half-hour organ work, Opus Alchymicum (1972), based on the medieval science of alchemy, on a two-CD collection entitled Mandelion (Nimbus NI 5580/1). This is in a serious mainstream modernist style, without the charm of the vocal settings and no suggestion of popular idioms.

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Copyright © 25 April 2004 Peter Dickinson, Aldeburgh UK

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