Mervyn Roberts 1906-1990

Regarded by Eiluned Davies as one of ‘Y Pump Cymreig’ (The Welsh Five) – alongside his contemporaries, the composers David Wynne, Grace Williams, Daniel Jones and Denis Ap lvor – Mervyn Roberts was an important figure in the development of Welsh music in the 20th century. Born in 1906 in Abergele, Roberts’s aptitude for the piano was developed by his first piano teacher, Elsie Owen, whose teaching he regarded as a ‘potent factor’ in his development. Roberts went on to study at Gresham’s School, Holt and Trinity College, Cambridge. Although he read English and History for his degree, Roberts gained several diplomas from the Royal College of Music where he studied theory, composition and orchestration with R.O. Morris and Gordon Jacob, and piano with Arthur Alexander.

After completing his studies, Roberts lived mostly in Wales, working for the Civil Service during the Second World War, and composing. Assisted by musical friends, Roberts formed a music group at Abergele, where he met his future wife, Eileen, who was an accomplished pianist herself. Roberts wrote many two-piano works which the couple performed together. As well as composing, Roberts taught at Clarendon School (1953-1956) and taught the piano at home and for Christ’s Hospital (1963-1967). He served as a National Eisteddfod adjudicator and as a member of the Welsh Advisory Council of the BBC.

Roberts’s works for the keyboard were particularly significant, described by the composer E.T. Davies as “truly pianistic in style and idiom and beautiful in effect”. Influences of French and Russian composers (in particular, Ravel and Rachmaninov) are evident in his music, but – as the pianist and composer Eiluned Davies, who broadcast several of his works in performance, observed – his musical style is rooted within British soil. Roberts identified the English composers Delius, Ireland, Bax, and Bridge as those to whom he most often turned for ‘solace and refreshment’, and he was strongly attached to the artistic heritage of his native Wales.  

Roberts was described by his wife and daughter as quiet, gentle, and modest. According to Eiluned Davies, Roberts was “a composer with a conscience, an idealist, a perfectionist in all he undertook” which led him to revise many of his works, sometimes decades after the original pieces were written. Regarding his own approach to composition, Roberts stated César Franck’s adage as one which he attempted to adhere to closely throughout his career: “Do not write much, but what you do write, let it be very good”.

Roberts died in 1990, leaving behind a rich body of music including solo songs, part-songs, chamber music and, most notably, a remarkable collection of piano pieces.

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