Though it was often written on commission and gained its composer quite a
number of prizes and awards, David Ellis' music is little-known. The larger
audience (including myself) is largely unaware of his music. The present
release is thus particularly welcome in that it provides a fine survey of
David Ellis' varied output spanning some forty years of composing activity.
The earliest piece is the cycle Dewpoint completed in 1955 to words
by Douglas Rawlinson, a friend of the composer. Originally scored for voice
and clarinet, harp and strings, it also exists in a chamber version for voice,
clarinet and piano recorded here. The overall mood is one of pessimism, maybe
the poet's reactions to the war years. Images of darkness with brief flashes
of light that nevertheless do not dispel the troubled mood of these songs.
Indeed the last song is "an epilogue which promises a dawn without warmth
or hope" (David Ellis). In spite of the prevailing mood of these texts, Ellis'
music is richly varied and at times warmly lyrical. The music actually transcends
the sometimes obscure or enigmatic words of Rawlinson and the result is a
very fine work indeed which I would now like to hear in its original scoring.
Completed ten years later the choral Sequentia in Tempore Natali Sancti
sets texts taken from the Advent Antiphons interspersed with verses from
the well-known carol O My Dear Heart, Young Jesu Sweet. It opens with
a setting of the first stanza of the carol sung by a soprano solo. The music
then soon gains momentum with rich choral textures which starkly contrast
with the comparatively simple refrain (in fact variants of the carol setting).
The piece ends with a fuller setting of great beauty of the carol. This is
one of the finest works in this collection, a minor masterpiece and a real
gem that deserves to be more widely known.
On a smaller scale the delightful Berceuse (1981) for clarinet and
piano is yet another fine work that should be better-known and taken-up by
clarinetists. Ellis chose "to highlight the clarinet's ability to draw long
melodic lines throughout its wide register", and so it does most successfully.
An Image of Truth (1972) is a short piece for soprano, recorder and
piano setting a brief text by William Blake. Later it formed the basis of
"a much larger choral extravaganza with orchestral accompaniment". The late
nineties were obviously very prolific for most pieces in this composer's
portrait were written between 1996 and 1998.
The Divertimento Elegiaco (1996) for Baroque trio (i.e. recorder,
cello and harpsichord) was written "in memoriam Ida Caroll". It is in three
movements: Canticle with tickling ostinato from the harpsichord, pedal
from the cello and song-like tune on the recorder. It is followed by a lively
scherzo (Impromptu) with a march-like central section and the piece
ends with an impressive Chaconne, a serious, deeply moving conclusion
to this unusual, though beautiful piece that ends with peacefully tolling
The Second String Quartet also from 1996 is, to me at least, the other
gem and a major achievement which repays repeated hearings. again three movements
beginning with a Largo ("a solemn procession moving towards a more
serene conclusion") followed by a whimsical scherzo with two trios "which
parody the styles of a march and a waltz". This too ends peacefully. It leads
into the last movement which is a Passacaglia framed by slower introduction
and conclusion. This may be the finest work in this collection. (The recording
is a BBC production superbly played by the Coull Quartet.)
The song cycle Four Songs (of Hope and Desire) for soprano and piano
also dates from 1996. It sets texts by the composer that are "no more than
fragments outlining a fantasy-relationship which may have existed in the
author's imagination. As in all dreams the incidents jump from bizarre to
commonplace without warning or logic". The music is in turn lyrical, at times
slightly ironic, sometimes more dramatic or bitter-sweet. A fine piece on
This compilation also includes two recent pieces dating from 1998 : a short
tribute to Sir John Manduell, A Little Cantata for soprano and recorder
on a text by the composer and the imposing piano sonata Three-Note
Variables. The latter is yet another major achievement. Globally it is
a set of variations on a three-note motif heard at the outset. A weighty
introduction leads into a dreamy, reflective interlude. This is followed
by a massive fugue starting somewhat hesitantly but soon building to a loud
climax. It ends abruptly and leads into a Fantasy-Scherzo which is
exactly that. The last section Procession with Bells progresses towards
an impressive tolling conclusion.
Besides a few shorter pieces the present releases offers a good deal a fine
music and some of the works are really major, substantial pieces of music
deserving to be better-known : the choral Sequentia, the Second String Quartet,
the piano sonata Three-Note Variables and the Divertimento Elegiaco. These
are clearly the work of a distinguished artist whose music exudes a deep
humanity and honesty that repay repeated hearings and that are undoubtedly
the most endearing qualities of David Ellis' music.
John Turner, who was also the leading force behind the present project, is
joined by a number of excellent musicians who perform this music with authority
and conviction and who thus deserve our wholehearted gratitude. I urge you
to get this CD if you were not among the subscribers. Those interested might
still get in touch with John Turner.
Scores and selected audio cassettes are also available at the British Music
Information Centre, 10 Stratford Place, London, W1N 9AE
Web site: http://www.cogito.demon.co.uk/davidellis/biog.htm