Wednesday January 20 2021
Regarded by several generations of harpists as one of the key exponents of the instrument, Osian Ellis has died aged 92. During a long career that saw him collaborate with many performers he established a lengthy, creative friendship with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.
Ellis’ mastery of the harp first attracted Britten’s attention in January 1959 when he performed in A Ceremony of Carols at Westminster Cathedral under George Malcolm’s direction. He later played the harp obligato with the London Symphony Orchestra in the first London performance of Britten’s then recently composed Nocturne (op. 60). Britten invited Ellis to Aldeburgh the following year to join the orchestra for his new opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A difficulty arose when circumstances decreed that Ellis ended up having to play both first and second harp, but his handling of the situation clearly reinforced Britten’s admiration. This was the first of many engagements as an orchestral player performing with the English Opera Group, the English Chamber Orchestra and also as a member of the Melos Ensemble. The Melos was the chamber orchestra in the first performance of War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral in May 1962. Britten, who frequently composed with the ‘voice’ of certain musicians in mind wrote the harp part especially for Ellis.
Similarly, Britten asked Ellis in 1963 if he would be interested in joining the small ensemble for a chamber opera he was composing for church performance at Orford for the following year’s Festival. ‘Only by the end of the first performance [of Curlew River] … did the power of the work become apparent,’ Ellis later observed, ‘especially after the spiritual quality of Peter’s singing and the plaintive, ethereal tones of the boy’. Ellis played in the premiere of all three of Britten’s Church Parables throughout the 1960s. A former member of the English Opera Group remembers how the rigour of touring the Parables was lightened one warm afternoon by Ellis strumming tunes on a Celtic harp during a lengthy bus journey. A passionate student of the harp’s place in Celtic culture, Ellis produced a book about the history of the harp in Wales in 1991.
Ellis can be heard on many Britten recordings and he can also be glimpsed working with the composer in various television programmes. He is one of the instrumentalists in Tony Palmer and Humphrey Burton’s documentary about the Decca recording of The Burning Fiery Furnace (1967), and he is a member of the English Chamber Orchestra in Music for a Royal Occasion, the re-opening of the Snape Maltings Concert Hall (1970). His evaluation of Britten as conductor gives insight into their strong personal and professional friendship. Britten, he said, ‘wrote with great imagination and originality for all instruments of the orchestra, and he had the gift for drawing out the best from his players so that what appeared difficult or even impossible at first sight was magically transformed under his warm-hearted direction’.
One of Britten’s strongest acts of appreciation for a musician often took the form of his writing a special piece for them. In Ellis’ case there were several. The first is the Suite for Harp, op. 83, which Ellis premiered in its entirety at the 1969 Aldeburgh Festival. Britten gave the work a personal mark by including variations on the Welsh hymn St Denio in the final movement. Other works written for Ellis arose to some extent from Britten’s own later inability to partner Pears on stage. In the years following his heart operation, which ended his performing career, he wrote Canticle V The Death of Saint Narcissus, op. 89 (1974) for tenor and harp and A Birthday Hansel, op. 92 (1975), which was composed for the Queen Mother’s seventy-fifth birthday.
This ‘new’ working relationship between Ellis and Pears was artistically rewarding, popular with audiences and genuinely affectionate. Pears’ biographer Christopher Headington recounts that the two would travel around the country in Ellis’ car (which was equipped to transport his harp) while Pears would frequently read or recite poetry from the passenger seat to keep him entertained. Ellis would also occasionally ask Pears for one of Peter Quint’s ‘morning exercises’ from The Turn of the Screw. This was the ‘ghostly, melismatic cry: ‘Miles’’.
Pears and Ellis toured widely and their repertoire benefitted from Ellis’ ability to read from both harp and piano scores, when the occasion required. Britten also produced eight folk song arrangements for them during this late period. The set includes the Welsh songs Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn and Dafydd y Garreg Wen. The latter is the lay of a dying harpist. Several of these songs were premiered at the 1976 Aldeburgh Festival while others were first performed during a successful concert tour of the USA the following year.
The songs were recorded by Decca but happily a number of Pears and Ellis’ unpublished performances exist as recordings in the Archive collections. They form part of the legacy of a remarkable career and friendship.
All quotations are from A few Recollections of Benjamin Britten, typescript of a talk given by Osian Ellis at Snape Maltings Concert Hall restaurant, 29 June, 1997.