One had confidently anticipated (‘The sex is better than ever!’ he burbled in excited undertone when I last met him a few years ago at a York University concert) that Wilfrid Mellers would make his centenary. His death this May at only 94 doesn’t sadden, however, so much as joyfully recall the wacky life force that invigorated and enhanced writing on music in this country (so often lacklustre) for some six decades.
Since his death I’ve reread his half of the co-authored Man and his Music (1962 — even back then Wilfrid would surely wish to instate Woman into this title!). It covers the Classical style, Romantics early middle and late, and the 20th century up to his favourites: Tippett and Britten. Rereading has renewed my admiration for the scope, the warmth, the understanding, the communicative zest, enriched with deep feeling, leavened by wit and occasional impertinence, of what still remains the best introduction to Western music: it should be on every music-lover’s shelf (and every music students’, too, in these days when you can’t rely on their having heard the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, the principal Mozart or Wagner operas, or who came first out of Schumann and Schubert).
Though sometimes prejudiced and partial (for instance, the hopeful hyping of Berlioz, the woeful down-doing of Wagner), it is more remarkable for its balance, judiciousness, advocacy. Never one to let the facts get in the way of opinion, he yet eschews ideology or party line. Even while remaining true to his intellectual origins in the high moral seriousness of 1930s Cambridge Eng. Lit. (see, for instance, the withering account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Hollywood’ meretriciousness), he opened out with very un-Leavis-like catholicity to embrace with ardour all sorts and conditions of music, demonstrating the interconnectedness of the most diverse, even contradictory aims, tones, idioms, and their common grounding in — as he often put it — ‘our forked humanity’.