The life and work of a globally-renowned harpist who started playing again as he approached his 90th birthday will be celebrated at an international festival.
The fourth Wales International Harp Festival in Caernarfon will be honouring the legendary Dr Osian Ellis CBE who collaborated with leading British composer Benjamin Britten and played on the madcap radio comedy series, The Goon Show.
Sixty years on Dr Elllis, a native of Ffynnongroyw in Flintshire who now lives in Pwllheli, still receives an annual royalty cheque of £100 for his appearances with comedy pioneers Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe.
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 and he was held in such high regard by Benjamin Britten that he wrote his Harp Suite specifically for him.
His stellar career saw him play in the world’s finest concert venues and 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.
According to festival director Elinor Bennett, herself an acclaimed harpist and teacher, Dr Ellis was a still a huge inspiration to her and fellow musicians around the world.
More than 100 harpists from countries as far afield as Japan, America, Russia and Thailand will be coming to the festival at Galeri in Caernarfon from Easter Sunday, on April 1, to Saturday, April 7.
The opening concert will see the premiere of a new poem, OSIAN, by the accomplished poet Mererid Hopwood. It is the inspiration for an imaginative new work for soprano, tenor, harp quartet, percussion and strings by the young Welsh composer and harpist Mared Emlyn who is collaborating with singer and harpist Gwenan Gibbard to present music in praise of Dr Ellis.
He was grateful but “terrified” that he was being honoured for doing something he loves.
He revealed: “It’s growing as an event and that’s down to people like Elinor Bennett. It’s amazing how harp playing has blossomed in recent years. I’m proud Elinor was a student of mine.
“She has worked so hard stimulating young talented musicians and that is so important. It’s not just keeping music alive but breathing new life into music. To see harpists coming to North Wales from all over the world to celebrate the harp is wonderful.
“I’m playing the harp again after a 15-year break while I cared for my late wife Rene. I play the organ in the chapel at Pwllheli where I have lived for a number of years now.
“I’m enjoying writing music again and of course playing. I didn’t think I’d be able to play again but I surprised myself how easily I got back into playing.”
“When you play a great deal your fingers naturally harden but when they are soft and if you haven’t played for a number of years it can be quite tough.”
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.
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.
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!”
Elinor Bennett described Dr Ellis as an iconic figure whose contribution had been immense.
She said: “I am delighted we are celebrating the 90th birthday of my mentor Osian Ellis and enjoy celebrating his work and music-making during his long career.
“I know the standard of competition in the five categories this year will be exceptionally high and that in itself will be a tribute to Osian, a remarkable man with a remarkable talent.”
The festival will conclude on Friday, April 20, with the sell-out concert starring Sir Bryn Terfel which had to be rearranged because the superstar bass baritone is recovering from vocal distress.
It was originally due to take place on February 8, the date of Dr Ellis’s 90th birthday.
On the night Sir Bryn will be joined by his partner, the former royal harpist Hannah Stone, when they will be performing a new work by Dr Ellis, a Cycle of Welsh Folk Songs.
The concert will also feature four young emerging Welsh artists, harpist Glain Dafydd, trumpet player Gwyn Owen, soprano Gwen Elin and tenor Huw Ynyr Evans.