His was the job, as chorus master, of convincing a sometimes moodily reluctant Sadler's Wells chorus that Grimes was not only singable, but an important new departure in English opera. That he made no little impact can be measured by the fact that Britten insisted that Melville fulfil a similar role for the recording of excerpts made for EMI in 1948, even though the BBC Theatre Chorus had been employed for the job. This in turn opened the way for Melville's career at the BBC, which lasted from 1950 until his retirement in 1971, during which time his middle initial was required to distinguish him from the writer Alan Melville.
Born at Leatherhead in Surrey in 1911, Melville was found to possess perfect pitch while still in short trousers, and duly became a chorister at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he remained to finish schooling after his voice broke. A lifelong passion for opera was born when, barely in his teens, he attended London performances of Rutland Boughton's legendary music drama The Immortal Hour. In 1925, drugged like so many by the work's heady charms, he sang as a chorus member at Boughton's Glastonbury Festival.
In the late 1920s, he went up to the Royal College of Music to study conducting and piano. Here he came into contact with the precocious young Britten, and also met his future first wife, the pianist Madeline Moody. To beat off the competition for her hand in marriage, he risked the uncertainties of war by returning in 1939 from a teaching post at Geelong Grammar School in Australia. Classed as physically unfit for military action, he still faced acute danger on a nightly basis during the Second World War as a member of the fire service in London. In later years, he was renowned for an encyclopaedic knowledge of London streets, gained while en route to blaze after blaze.
At the end of the war, Melville took up the post of chorus master at Sadler's Wells Opera, in time to throw himself into the Peter Grimes premiere in June 1945. With orchestral rehearsals at a premium, Melville played the entire opera through on the piano to reassure the conductor, Reginald Goodall. Later that year, Melville joined the company on its two-month tour of occupied Germany. The trust shown by the ever- fastidious Britten then brought him invitations to train the chorus for Glyndebourne productions of Albert Herring and The Rape of Lucretia by Britten's English Opera Group.
In 1950, Melville joined the BBC as one of three assistant opera chorus masters under Leslie Woodgate, although "opera" was dropped from the job description in 1952 when the BBC closed its specialist opera unit. The 1950s none the less brought many opportunities to prepare the professional BBC Chorus (forerunner of today's BBC Singers) for opera broadcasts, as well as oratorio. The undoubted highlight was the work for a Royal Festival Hall performance of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex under the composer's direction in 1959, Jean Cocteau appearing as narrator. Other BBC work embraced all manner of repertoire destined, for example, for the Proms and Friday Night is Music Night, in which Melville often conducted items on air, as he did for the Daily Service.
BBC protocol of the day demanded that Woodgate was always accredited as chorus master whoever had done the donkey-work. If this was - and it was - a bone of contention, recognition came for Melville in the shape of invitations from the conductors Antal Dorati and Sir John Barbirolli to produce a number of their commercial recordings in the 1950s - both having been impressed by his BBC work.
Melville remained an unsung hero, although in the 1960s there were more opportunities to conduct works in concert for the BBC - for example, the first broadcast of William Walton's Missa Brevis, the premiere of Humphrey Searle's Song of the Sun at the Cheltenham Festival, and a programme of Tippett choral music for the composer's 60th birthday in 1965. Away from the BBC Melville conducted amateur choruses (among them the Board of Trade Choir), occasionally in collaboration with the Rosebery Orchestra, which was founded by his daughter, Clarissa.
In retirement he set up the Rosebery Opera Workshop to give assistance to young singers, although the highlight of his later years brought him full circle to the work that first fired his imagination. In 1983 he conducted the first complete recording of The Immortal Hour, following it 10 years later with Boughton's choral drama Bethlehem. Peter Grimes remained an emotional touchstone - only recently he sat enthralled by a live radio relay of a production at the Met in New York.
Alan George Melville, chorus master and conductor: born Leatherhead, Surrey 29 June 1911; music teacher, Geelong Grammar School, Melbourne 1935-38; chorus master, Sadler's Wells Opera Company 1945-48; assistant chorus master, BBC Chorus 1950-71; married 1939 Madeline Moody (died 1982; one son, one daughter), 1984 Mollie Brazil; died Bath 1 March 1998.Reuse content