Wilfrid Mellers: A 70th-Birthday Tribute

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  • Wilfrid Mellers: A 70th-Birthday TributeAuthor(s): Peter AstonSource: The Musical Times, Vol. 125, No. 1697 (Jul., 1984), pp. 373-374Published by: Musical Times Publications Ltd.Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/961810 .Accessed: 16/12/2014 03:36

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  • Wilfrid Mellers: a 70th-birthday tribute Peter Aston

    On 26 April Wilfrid Mellers celebrated his 70th birthday. Those who know him only through his music or his work as a writer may be surprised to discover that he was born before the outbreak of World War I. His compositions and writings seem to reflect a continuing process of self-discovery and his delight in the excitement of discovery has lost none of its keenness. During the 25 or so years I have known him he has grown more interested in the world around him and has pursued his scholarly inquiries with ever-increasing energy. Though he has never abandoned his interest in English music and in that of the wider European tradition, his concern with music as an expression of human experience has led him to investigate its nature and function in other cultures and subcultures. This interest in the social background of music was evident in his earliest published writings in the late 1930s, and it has never left him. It has been the starting-point for each of his books (many of which also examine relationships between music and the other arts), it forms the basis of his work and thinking as a teacher and it has had important consequences for his own compositions. The qualities of mind (Mellers himself would say of heart) that are constantly alive to the assertion of the human spirit in a changing and complex world are the very qualities which, together with his readiness to explore new paths, have made him one of the outstanding English composers of his generation and one of the most influential musical thinkers and teachers of this century.

    Mellers was born in Leamington in 1914. He was educated at Leamington College and at the University of Cambridge where he read first for a degree in English literature and then for a degree in music. From 1945 to 1948 he was col- lege supervisor in English and lecturer in music at Down- ing College, Cambridge, after which he became staff tutor in music in the extra-mural department of Birmingham University, a post he held for almost 12 years. In 1960 he went to America as Andrew Mellon Professor of Music in the University of Pittsburgh, returning to England in 1963 when he was awarded the degree of DMus by Birmingham University and was elected to the first chair in music at the University of York. He took up this appointment at York in 1964, continuing as head of the music department there until his retirement in 1981.

    It is impossible to praise too highly Mellers's contribu- tion to the musical life of the centres and institutions to which he has been attached. At Birmingham there was hardly a worthwhile musical activity in the area in which he did not show interest or was not directly involved. Com- posers, conductors, singers and instrumentalists all knew and loved him, especially the young whom he was particu- larly ready to help. He is remembered best in the Midlands for his work in adult education, especially for the series of

    music summer schools he organized at Attingham Park in Shropshire to which he attracted as visiting tutors promi- nent composers, performers and scholars, many from over- seas. But however distinguished these visiting musicians may have been, it was always Mellers's own lectures, delivered in his inimitable manner, that were the highlights of each course. His ability to communicate his enthusiasm for the music and to illuminate particular points (usually by way of analysis at the keyboard) gave colleagues and students fresh insight into even the most familiar works.

    It was at one of these summer schools in the mid-1950s that I first met him. Shortly afterwards he invited me to go to him for composition lessons and he soon became my principal composition teacher. The interest he showed in my development as a composer, and the guidance he gave me, have remained a source of inspiration to this day. Unlike most composition teachers he has never concerned himself with technique, much less with method. His aim has always been to lead his pupils towards discovery of their individual identity. What he did for me (as he has since done for others) was to stimulate my imagination, at the same time manag- ing to convey the sense that he was gaining as much from me as I was from him. Later, when I was a lecturer in his department at York University, I came to realize that this approach to teaching sprang from his belief that education is a two-way process, a mutual adventure between teacher and pupil. During the 17 years he was at York he led numerous others towards self-discovery. Many of his students have since become established composers, some with international reputations. This in itself is remarkable; what is more remarkable is that each has developed a per- sonal voice distinct from that of all other Mellers pupils and from that of Mellers himself.

    The diversity of style among his composition pupils and the achievements of those of his students who have gone into the profession as performers or have distinguished themselves as scholars not only testify to Mellers's abilities as a teacher but reflect the enormous range of his interests. This breadth is clear from the great variety of subjects ex- plored in his books and articles. His earliest writings dealt mainly with aspects of 20th-century music; some were published collectively in 1948 as Studies in Contemporary Music. Throughout his career he has returned to contem- porary themes, notably in the later chapters of his history of American music, Music in a New Found Land (1964), in his work on 20th-century pop music and jazz and in Caliban Reborn (1967). But his writings have by no means been con- fined to modern music. In 1950 he produced a brilliant and scholarly study of Francois Couperin, the first comprehen- sive account of Couperin's music in English or French; 15 years later came Harmonious Meeting, a more subjective but


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  • no less significant study which examines the interrelation- ship of music, poetry and drama in 17th- and 18th-century England. In 1957-8 Mellers contributed two volumes to the important and widely acclaimed four-volume history of Western music, Man and his Music, which has become stan- dard reading for music students and has appeared in numerous editions and in several foreign-language transla- tions. The two Mellers volumes (on the Classical period and on Romanticism and the 20th-century) point the way to his more recent writings which are all concerned with

    music as an expression of human experience and with the conditions of life that created it. Thus he can write with equal conviction about the music of Bach or the Beatles; about Beethoven or Bob Dylan; about Renaissance vocal polyphony or black and white jazz and the music of the American avant garde. In each case he asks what the music has to say here and now, and in suggesting answers he enables the reader to share his own excitement of discovery.

    The same sense of adventure and wide interest are evi- dent in his compositions. Though he has written several purely instrumental works, the starting-point for most of his music has been words. As might be expected with a com- poser who is also a literary scholar, his choice of texts has been wide-ranging: he has found inspiration in, for exam- ple, the liturgy of the Christian church, the poetry of Hopkins and Blake, the traditional songs of eskimos and pygmies, children's verse and the work of various modern American writers. He is essentially a vocal composer and his early interest in opera developed into a preoccupation 374

    with music-theatre. His natural sense of theatrical projec- tion was apparent even in the 1940s and 1950s, and not only in the stage works. The direction his music was to take became clear during the early 1960s in works such as Spells, settings of poems by Kathleen Raine for soprano and chamber ensemble (1960), Voices and Creatures for speaker, flute and percussion (1962) and the vividly dramatic and emotionally charged threnody for Ophelia, Rose of May (1964). From such pieces was to evolve a more total music- theatre idiom in which the performers are all to some degree also actors, as in TheAncient Wound, a monodrama for sing- ing actress, two speakers, instrumental ensemble and tape (1970) and in Venery for Six Plus (1972).

    As a composer, Mellers has developed a highly individual style which, not unnaturally, has evolved in harness with, and been influenced by, his musicological concerns. Even before his first period in America (he has since returned many times to lecture and give recitals of his music) he was greatly interested in jazz and jazz-derived forms, but the experiences he gained in the USA during the early 1960s stimulated his desire to explore relationships between con- cert music, jazzland pop. Since then he has written several works incorporating folk and jazz elements, notably Chants and Litanies of CarlSandberg(1962) and Yeibichai for colora- tura soprano, scat singer, jazz trio, orchestra and tape (com- missioned for the 1969 Proms). But Mellers's compositions still reveal a strong sense of his native English musical tradi- tion. Much of his work has recognizable roots in English vocal polyphony; and while this no doubt springs from his love of Elizabethan and Jacobean music and poetry it also reflects the continuing influence of Edmund Rubbra, from whom he took composition lessons during the 1930s. His principal composition teacher, however, was Egon Wellesz, whose music he still loves and reveres. His admiration for Wellesz was movingly demonstrated in these pages (MT, cvi (1965), p.766) when he wrote an 80th-birthday tribute to his friend and former teacher, and again nine years later in the funeral oration he delivered in St John, Smith Square.

    Like Wellesz, Mellers has shown no loss of vigour with advancing years. Since his retirement from York Univer- sity he has completed his two-volume study of Bach and Beethoven as religious composers, taught at the Guildhall School of Music, visited various universities to lecture, given papers to conferences and learned societies and continued his travels to various parts of the world. His book on Bob Dylan is due out later this year, a revised and enlarged edi- tion of his Couperin book is scheduled for publication in 1985, and he has just completed the first draft of a study of female jazz and pop singers, to be called The Singing Eves.

    In 1982 Mellers was awarded the OBE. He has recently been made Professor Emeritus at York, has been given an honorary degree by the City University and has been ap- pointed visiting professor there. Other honours will no doubt follow; but however many may be accorded him he will always remain the same unaffected, lovable and loving observer of his fellow men and women and their creative aspirations.

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    Article Contentsp.373p.374

    Issue Table of ContentsThe Musical Times, Vol. 125, No. 1697 (Jul., 1984), pp. 365-420Front Matter [pp.365-418]Editorial [p.372]Wilfrid Mellers: A 70th-Birthday Tribute [pp.373-374]A New Wind Work from Holst [pp.375-377]Giles Swayne [pp.377-381]Bennett's Versatility [pp.381-384]A Note on Tavener's Recent Works [pp.384-385]The ECYO in China [pp.386-387]Book ReviewsPurcell Revised [p.388]Essence of Operetta [pp.388-389]Wagner on Wagner [p.389]Books Received [p.389]

    Record ReviewsPiano [p.391]Late Viennese [p.391]

    Music ReviewsYoung British [p.392]British Piano, Duet... [p.392]... and Solo [pp.392-393]Guitar [p.393]Song [pp.393-394]Critical Janek [p.394]Szymanowski at Work [pp.394-395]Modern Orchestral [p.395]Baroque trio sonatas [p.395]Classical Wind [p.395]Strings and Piano [p.397]Romantic Chamber [p.397]18th- and 19th-Century Flute [p.397]Flute and Strings [pp.397-398]

    Music in London [pp.399-403]Reports [pp.404-405]Church and Organ MusicAn Emerging US Organ-Building Movement-2 [pp.407-409]Royal College of Organists [p.410]New Organ Music [p.410]New Choral Music [p.411]Organ Recitals [p.412]

    London Diary for August [pp.419-420]Back Matter