Osian Ellis was born in Ffynnongroyw, Flintshire in 1928, spending the first 4 years of his life at Llys Myfr on Llinegr Hill. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Gwendolen Mason, whom he later succeeded as Professor of Harp from 1959 to 1989. He joined the London Symphony Orchestra in 1961 and was Principal Harpist. He was a member of the Melos Ensemble and also formed the Osian Ellis Harp Ensemble.
His 1959 recording of Handel's harp concertos (with Thurston Dart) won the Grand Prix du Disque. In 1962, the Melos Ensemble with Osian Ellis released what is considered by musicologist Paul Loeber the finest rendition ever of Ravel's Introduction and Allegro, playing with Richard Adeney (flute), Gervase de Peyer (clarinet), Emanuel Hurwitz and Ivor McMahon (violin), Cecil Aronowitz (viola) and Terence Weil (cello). The record, released on the L'oiseau-Lyre label, OL 50217, also included works by three other French composers — Debussy: Sonata for Flute, Viola & Harp; Albert Roussel: Serenade for Flute, Violin, Viola, Cello and Harp; and Guy Ropartz: Prelude, Marine and Chansons for Flute, Violin, Viola, Cello and Harp. He also took part in the ensemble's recording of Peter Maxwell Davies's cantata Leopardi Fragments.
Influence on other musicians
Concertos have been written specially for him by Alun Hoddinott (for the Cheltenham Festival in 1957), William Mathias (for the Llandaff Festival of 1970), Jorgen Jersild (1972), William Alwyn (1979) and Robin Holloway (1985).
Ellis is particularly known for his musical association with Benjamin Britten, with whom he collaborated extensively. Britten wrote the harp part in several of his major pieces with Ellis in mind, particularly A Midsummer Night's Dream, the War Requiem and the Church Parables. Britten also wrote his Harp Suite (Op. 83) for Ellis (1969). Ellis appears in many first recordings of Britten's pieces, often with Britten himself conducting. In later life Britten withdrew from accompanying his partner the tenor Peter Pears on the piano. Ellis was one of the artists who accompanied Pears, and Britten wrote pieces for Pears and Ellis, including Canticle V: The Death of St Narcissus and A Birthday Hansel.
Compositions and writings
His own compositions have drawn on his Welsh heritage, including settings of Welsh folksongs for tenor and harp and settings of medieval Welsh strict metre poems. Diversions for two harps includes a cerdd dant setting of a Dylan Thomas poem.
His writings include The Story of the Harp in Wales (1991) ISBN 0-7083-1104-0 (a revision of an earlier publication in Welsh), which traces the harp's development and discusses some famous harpists.
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- The Oxford Dictionary of Music (1994)
- Grove Music Online (subscription) (accessed 17 March 2007)