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Music history has furnished us with many examples of composers who either through enthusiasm or necessity have pursued other career paths that preceded or ran concurrently with musical activities. Borodin was a professional chemist, Rimsky-Korsakov was an officer in the Imperial Russian Navy, Miaskovsky a military engineer. In our own country Wilfred Josephs was a dentist before taking up composition full time, whereas Denis ApIvor was a consultant anaesthetist who found the time to write over a hundred works. To this illustrious group we can now add the name of John Ellis, who retired in 2002 after a professional life as a consultant paediatrician. In addition to his medical work, Ellis found time to play organ and piano, eventually obtaining the ARCO under the tutelage of William Morgan of Bolton Parish Church. Much of Ellis’ music is for the church: anthems, cantatas and especially organ music. Despite coming late to composition there is not a hint of the novice; these 2 volumes from Divine Art attest to the composer’s skill and subtle originality. Although broadly tonal the music shows considerable variety harmonically, ranging from the modally expressive to the quartal piquancy of Hindemith. Modulations happen by sleight of hand; the pivot chords provoke marvel, whilst melodies are plastic, limpid and show the influence of plainsong.

Works in variation form dominate the first disc which is a welcome reissue of a Dunelm recording made by Jim Pattison in 2000. When Ellis is not making modally inflected melodies of his own he is borrowing them from plainsong and hymnody in order to create sets of variations, hymn preludes and meditations. In doing so he is of course carrying on a tradition that goes back before the time of Bach. That such melodies can constantly be renewed in this way is a testament to a timeless beauty that can capture the imagination of each new generation of composers. Take Ellis’ Variations on Veni Creator Spiritus, an absolute gem of a work that he wrote in 1999. The peerless melody inspires an array of delightful textures and ingenious working out, culminating in a maestoso closing chorale. In a sense this work encapsulates what I love about Ellis’ music: its fluidity, its ease of skill, its quiet surprises, its occasional grandiose outbursts. Another piece that shows many of these qualities is the short 3 movement Suite in A from 1998. Here the composer’s harmonic ingenuity is to the fore and it is most enjoyable to hear allusions to the harmonic worlds of Vaughan Williams (parallel triads), Cesar Franck (chromatic inflections) and Billy Mayerl (added note chords in the finale) yet within the context of a relatively ‘light’ piece.

Of the more dramatic pieces on volume 1, the Allegro and Passacaglia stands out for its bold thematic material and its imposing structure. Here the allusions might be to Marcel Dupré and although the music sounds fine on the restored Glyn and Parker organ of 1730 (renovated by Sixsmith and Sons, 1996) at St. Anne’s Church, Manchester, it would be interesting to hear Allegro and Passacaglia on a Cavaillé-Coll or the William Hill organ (renovated by J.W. Walker and Sons, and more recently Geoffrey Coffin) at York Minster, an organ whose gothic splendour thrilled me in the awesome 4 CD set of Francis Jackson’s music on Priory. However the St. Anne’s organ is a lovely and powerful instrument; the latter quality can be heard to good effect in the Finale-Fantasia on Orientis Partibus. Hymn tunes play an important part as starting points for pieces in John Ellis’ organ oeuvre; no doubt such works are for use during contemplative moments of church services. In one case however dark thoughts enter in; the Coventry Carol Meditation is sombre and disturbing with the well known tune planted in a bed of slowly revolving dissonance; a moving response to the words of the carol – ‘Herod the King, in his raging, Charged he hath this day; His men of might, in his own sight, All children young, to slay. Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee, And ever mourn and say; For Thy parting, nor say nor sing, By, by, lully, lullay.’ Ellis has made a small masterpiece with this meditation.

John Ellis has found two marvellous champions of his music in Ronald Frost and Robin Walker. Their playing is first rate and they both bring out many colours and contrasts in their use of different registrations. Most importantly they clearly believe in the music and give it their all. The recordings are excellent and the notes include extensive biographical details and complete specifications of the organs. I like the way the stops of the Bolton Parish Church organ have been assigned dates so that the reader can chart the growth of the instrument through the ages. The discs are both very reasonably priced and lovers of organ music should not hesitate to purchase them, they will not be disappointed. I look forward to hearing more of John Ellis’ music in the future.

—David Hackbridge Johnson