Culture

Tributes to Welsh harp legend Osian Ellis who passed away aged 92

15 Jan 2021 5 minutes Read
Picture by Richard Williams. Osian Ellis.

Tributes have been paid to a globally-renowned Welsh harpist who has died at the age of 92.

Dr Osian Ellis, who started playing again as he approached his 90th birthday, collaborated with leading British composer Benjamin Britten and performed at the world’s finest concert venues.

Dr Ellis, a native of Ffynnongroyw in Flintshire who lived in Pwllheli, leaves his son, Richard and his daughter in law, Glynis; two grandchildren, David and Katie, and his sister, Mrs Elfrys Hughes.

As well as being the Professor of the Harp at the Royal Academy of Music, Dr Ellis was for many years the Principal Harpist with the London Symphony Orchestra. He was held in such high regard by Benjamin Britten that he wrote his Harp Suite specifically for him.

In 2018 he was honoured at the Wales International Harp Festival in Caernarfon when a new work was premiered to celebrate his 90th birthday.

His stellar career also saw him rub shoulders with film stars like the Oscar-winning Anglesey actor, Hugh Griffith, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as well as comedy legend Bob Hope.

Elinor Bennett, the director of the Wales International Harp Festival said Dr Ellis was a huge inspiration to her and fellow musicians around the world.

 

‘Outstanding’ 

She said: “As the most prominent and 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.

“He encouraged many contemporary composers from Wales and farther 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 and he contributed to a myriad of television and radio programmes in Wales and London.

The son of a non-conformist minister, Dr Ellis was born in in Ffynnongroyw in 1928 and as a boy he was obsessed with two things – playing the harp and playing football.

In 2018 he recalled: “I chose the harp because we had one at home. My mother, Jennie, was a good amateur harpist. My father was the Reverend Tomos Griffith Ellis so we moved around quite a lot as a family.

“We did spend some years living in Denbigh and I was the goalkeeper for Denbigh County School. The boys used to say I was better at football than the harp!

“I taught myself to play the harp to some degree and was encouraged by my mother. We played lots of little concerts around Denbigh during the war. I also had a wonderful teacher Alwena Roberts, who taught students right across North Wales.”

However, winning a competition at the 1943 National Eisteddfod at Bangor led to a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music under Gwendolen Mason whom he succeeded as Professor of Harp between 1959 and 1989.

Then in 1960 he met celebrated composer Benjamin Britten with whom he had a long association.

‘Close’ 

He said: “I worked a great deal with Benjamin Britten and we were very close friends. He wrote a great deal of music specifically for me including his wonderful Harp Suite.

“In fact, he wrote the harp part of a number of his works with me in mind and I recorded a lot of his work.

“In 1961 I joined the London Symphony Orchestra as principal harpist and performed regularly at the London Palladium.

“I did two Royal Variety Performances in the pit at the London Palladium involving Bob Hope and many other top stars. I also joined the Wally Stott Orchestra and we played on the original Goon Shows starring Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers and, for a short time, Michael Bentine

“In fact, I’m a bit embarrassed that each year I still get a royalty cheque for around £100 from the BBC from playing on the Goon Show as it’s still repeated on radio so often today which is amazing.

“In 1951 during the Festival of Britain I was working in an orchestra for a season at Stratford-upon-Avon.

“I shared a house with two Welsh actors, Hugh Griffith and a good boy from the valleys, Richard Burton and his first wife Sybil. We even shared Christmas dinner together.

“I remained good friends with Richard Burton and in the early 1960s, as a family, Rene, our two sons, Tomos and Richard and I, visited Richard Burton, who was by then with Elizabeth Taylor, on the set of Where Eagles Dare at Elstree Studios.

“We watched them shoot a scene and then went back to his trailer. Elizabeth Taylor kept feeding Tomos and Richard chocolate which they not surprisingly seemed to enjoy!”

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