Osian Ellis (1928-2021)

Published on 15 January, 2021

It is with sadness and regret that we wish to record the death of harpist and scholar, Osian Gwynn Ellis at the age of 92. He was a great friend and supporter of the work of the William Mathias Music Centre and the Wales International Harp Festival & he will be sorely missed.

A native of Ffynnongroyw, Flintshire, Osian was brought up in Denbigh, the son of the Rev. T.G. Ellis, a Wesleyan minister, and his first harp teacher was Alwena Roberts (‘Telynores Iâl’). As a child, he sang and performed with his mother and other members of his family, in concerts throughout Wales.

Following a period studying the harp with Gwendolen Mason at the Royal Academy of Music (London), he succeeded his teacher as harp Professor at the institution from 1959 until 1989. Early in his career, he appeared in popular television programmes on BBC Wales, and gave numerous performances of poetry and music with actors such as Dame Peggy Aschcroft, Dame Sybil Thorndyke, Cecil Day-Lewis, Hugh Griffith and Richard Burton.

As the most prominent & outstanding harpist of his time, as harp teacher, composer, arranger, penillion singer and scholar, he contributed widely to the nation’s traditional music as well as to developments in the European classical music of his day. In his numerous recordings with Sain, Philips, Lyrita, Meridian and Decca, he highlighted the varied harp repertoire, including 18th, 19th and 20th century Welsh compositions. He travelled extensively during his career, promoting the harp and the music of Wales on all four continents.

Osian Ellis was Principal Harpist of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1961, and worked with the eminent conductors of the time, such as Pierre Monteux, Pierre Boulez, Colin Davis, Antal Dorati, André Previn and Claudio Abbado. He was a regular soloist with the LSO and, as the founding harpist of the Melos Ensemble, his recording of Ravel’s Introduction et Allegro won the Grand Prix du Disque in Paris in 1962.

From the early ’60s, he worked & collaborated with the renowned English composer, Benjamin Britten, & Osian played in several performances and recordings at the Britten Festival (Aldeburgh). This partnership resulted in the harp gaining its place in several of Britten’s works – including, the War Requiem (1962), Midsummer Night’s Dream, Curlew River (1964), The Prodigal Son (1968) and his most important harp work, Suite for Harp (1969).

From 1973 – 1980, following Benjamin Britten’s illness, Osian Ellis performed many concerts with Peter Pears (tenor), and several new works were written for them. He later performed with his son, the late Tomos Ellis (tenor), giving several performances in Wales and overseas.

Osian Ellis encouraged many contemporary composers from Wales & further afield to write new works for harp – including, William Mathias, Alun Hoddinott, Rhian Samuel, David Wynne, Malcolm Arnold, Robin Holloway, Elizabeth Machonchy, William Alwyn, Carlo Menotti and Jorgen Jersild.

As a scholar, he published several seminal works on the history of the harp in Wales, the Robert ap Huw Manuscript, John Parry (Ruabon) and Cerdd Dant. His volume, The Story of the Harp in Wales, was published by the University of Wales Press (Cardiff) and he contributed to a myriad of television and radio programmes in Wales and London.

He was a member of the executive committee of the Welsh Folk Song Society and Cymdeithas Cerdd Dant Cymru. He received numerous honours from the University of Wales, Bangor University as well as from the nation’s leading musical institutions and a CBE from the Queen. As a harp teacher, he influenced generations of aspiring musicians and harpists, including Elinor Bennett and Sioned Williams.

After celebrating his 90th birthday, he was further inspired to compose two new works: ‘Cylch o Alawon Gwerin Cymru’ (for Bryn Terfel and Hannah Stone) and his work for solo harp, ‘Lachrymae’.

We extend our deepest condolences to his son, Richard Llywarch, daughter-in-law Glynis, and grandchildren David and Katie in their sadness.

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