This pioneering chamber music group was formed as a permanent organization to supply various groupings for chamber music. It is not to be confused with the Melos Art Ensemble, a more recently-formed Italian group. They are also not associated with the Melos Quartet, a Stuttgart-based standard string quartet.
London's Melos Ensemble was founded in 1950 by violist Cecil Aronowitz, clarinetist Gervase de Peyer, flutist Richard Adeney, and cellist Terence Weil. It was meant to be a variable ensemble of about twelve players, comprising a string quintet, a wind quintet, a harpist, and a piano.
The inspiration for the founding was a wish to rehearse and perform larger works of chamber music, such as the Schubert and Mendelssohn octets and the Ravel and Beethoven septets. Previously, such works had almost always been played by totally ad hoc groups who had not had the opportunity to work together as a chamber ensemble. The Melos Ensemble was meant to provide a permanence that would allow such compositions to be played by musicians who had gained rapport with each other that is the norm in formally established trios or string quartets.
They quickly set new standards in their chosen repertory. The ensemble proved remarkably stable, with the first changes in membership not occurring until the death of second violinist Ivor McMahon in 1972 and the departure soon afterward of three other players. This resulted in the disbanding of the ensemble in 1973. However, it was reformed in 1974 with eight of the original players with a view to giving a 25th Anniversary performance and then resuming its concert life.
Composers also found it congenial to create new chamber compositions for unusual groupings with the Melos specifically in mind, secure in the knowledge that they would obtain sympathetic and polished performances. In addition, the Melos's experience has led to the formation of similar chamber groupings, making such works a more practical option for composers than they had been. In such a way, the Melos ensemble has directly and indirectly contributed to the use of new combinations of chamber musicians in contemporary music.
The ensemble has made dozens of recordings, winning several international awards. They participated in the premiere of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, as Britten had written the chamber music that accompanies the English-language parts of that score expressly for them.