Osian Ellis, harpist known for his association with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears – obituary
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After winning a competition at the 1943 National Eisteddfod at Bangor, Ellis was awarded a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. There he studied with Gwendolyn Mason, who during the 1920s had worked with Ravel on his Introduction and Allegro, which features the harp.
Ellis recorded it in 1962 with the Melos Ensemble, of which he was an early member. In 1959 he succeeded Gwendolyn Mason as professor of harp at the Academy, a post he held for 30 years.
In 1948 Ellis was invited by Sir John Barbirolli to join the Hallé Orchestra, but he demurred because his call up for National Service was imminent. Being a conscientious objector, however, he served his conscription as a porter at St Asaph Hospital.
By the time of the Festival of Britain in 1951, Ellis was in the theatre orchestra at Stratford-upon-Avon, sharing a house with two Welsh actors, Hugh Griffith and Richard Burton, and Burton’s first wife, Sybil. “We even shared Christmas dinner together,” Ellis recalled.
The harpist and his young family remained friends with Burton and in the early 1960s visited the actor, who by then was 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,” he recalled. “Elizabeth Taylor kept feeding Tomos and Richard [Ellis’s sons] chocolate, which they not surprisingly seemed to enjoy.”
From Stratford the family moved to London, where Ellis was frequently heard on the radio and seen in the concert hall. He presented television programmes of Welsh music on Sunday afternoons and in 1960 began to appear with the London Symphony Orchestra, later touring Europe with them under Pierre Monteux. The previous year his recording Handel’s harp concertos with Thurston Dart won the Grand Prix du Disque.
There were recitals of poetry and music with Ellis performing with Peggy Ashcroft, Sybil Thorndike, Princess Grace of Monaco, Paul Robeson and his old friend Burton. He also worked with Charlie Chaplin, who was preparing new scores for several of his classic films, played in the theatre orchestra at the London Palladium, and was a member of the Wally Scott Orchestra accompanying The Goon Show with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe.