Osian Ellis is a former principal harpist for the London Symphony Orchestra, and he is probably happy about that. The Welshman once described his own personal outlook as "philosophical" and indicated that a symphony harpist had to be that way, since a good deal of his or her time is spent sitting in the wings. When a solo feature is actually offered, it is most often in one of the same half-dozen repertoire pieces, such as the Mephisto Waltz No. 1 by Franz Liszt, which comes complete with a demonic rave-up of a harp cadenza at the finale. Yes, this piece is a specialty of Ellis', but this performer's varied interests and deep respect for his instrument's legacy have led to a career that has consisted of much more than just waiting for a chance to play. He was associated closely with Benjamin Britten, but has established a repertoire that stretches back to medieval British and Spanish music as well as the traditional harp music of Wales.
His stay with the London Symphony began in 1961, shortly after he first began his involvement with Britten. He was a creative player during his LSO days, and was even known to toss in his own solos while performing with the orchestra. Britten's Suite for Harp was composed in 1969 after Ellis asked the composer for a solo piece, and was premiered during that year's Aldeburgh Festival. Ellis toured extensively in America and Europe with tenor Sir Peter Pears from 1973 to 1980, prompting eager composers to submit songs to the duo. That included Britten, who came up with Canticle V and The Birthday Hansel during this period, the latter piece a special request from the queen. After this Ellis began to be referred to as "the queen's harpist." Ellis and Britten also collaborated closely on the 1976 Eight Folk Song Arrangements, with Ellis creating virtuoso harp accompaniment as well as English lyrics for Welsh text.
Ellis has been a constant champion of his instrument, conducting multi-harp workshops and leading the Osian Ellis Harp Ensemble. In 1999 he conducted a 12-harp ensemble at a special concert for the Florida International Festival, where he was photographed practicing harp on the beach. He has also had compositions written for him by Menotti, William Schuman, William Mathias, and Alun Hoddinott. He frequently performs excerpts from the harp compositions by Danish composer Jorgan Jersild, many of which are dedicated to Ellis.
When the Melos Ensemble was formed in London in the late 1960s, Ellis was a natural choice to become harpist. The ensemble consisted of about a dozen musicians and was dedicated to performing the often neglected repertoire for extended chamber ensemble, in the case of the harp leading to the impressionist masterpieces of Ravel and Debussy.
Ellis has also had a superb academic career. He is a former professor of harp at the Royal Academy of Music and in 2000 was made an Honorary Fellow by the University of Wales. His short book The History of the Harp in Wales was published by the University of Wales Press. He has been the subject of several full length documentaries produced by British and Welsh television, the latter filmed when he was just beginning his career.