3.2 The Golden Age of the Choirs

The reformed eisteddfod, the flourishing of (Nonconformist) chapel society and the growth of the Temperance movement (see below) played an important part in the aston­ishing musical renaissance that spread across Wales between 1840 and 1914.[1]

At the end of the 18th century the “gwyneddigion[2] society organized annual Eistedd­fods [3](with given themes) in various towns in North Wales. In 1798, 20 bards, 18 vocal performers and 12 harpists took part in Caerwys. Since 186o the typical Celtic festivals have taken place again regularly.

Alcohol was a great problem in society of that age. In Blackwood (Monmouthshire) there was one alehouse for every 5 inhabitants in 1842. The temperance society was ea­ger for moral reasons especially "to take the eisteddfod out of the public house" [4] and therefore they organized temperance singing festivals and marches. Of course they over­looked the fact that the public house was also the focus of social life and entertainment for industrial workers.[5]

Between 1800 and 1850 the number of nonconformist chapels rose from 1,300 to 3,800.[6] They were a further promoter of choral singing, though this was often kept within narrow and prudish limits.

The gymanfa ganu[7], festivals of community hymn singing – according to G. Williams "Wales' most distinctive contribution to the world of music" [8] - became especially popu­lar. Originally these festivals were held to improve the standard of congregational singing. Singing practice of this kind became as commonplace as the prayer meeting in the chapels.[9]

Welsh hymns,[10] both because of their spiritual words and their music, best express the Welsh “hwyl“ (which means an expression of deeply emotional Welsh fervour). Four-part singing soon became common in the church services.

Most Welsh chapels possessed a choir that regularly performed oratorios. Many chapels had their own small orchestras. Many of these would compete at eisteddfods and this competitive spirit encouraged the promotion of higher musical standards and, of course, friendly rivalry.

Eliza Roberts introduced the tonic solfa sight-singing in Wales in 1860 [11] which made the performance of complicated pieces easier and led away from such methods as learning to sing tunes by repetition of the music heard and learning by heart. On the other hand the creativity and the power of improvisation in the people who were formerly dependent on their sense of hearing were lost to some extent. In addition their ignorance of staff notation remained, which prevented the performance of more modern and difficult works.[12]

Soon there were numerous choirs, glee clubs (organised for the singing of music), brass and string bands and also talented conductors and composers.

A particularly good example of this is the iron town Dowlais in the Merthyr Valley which produced between 1880-1900 alone the Dowlais Glee Party, the Dowlais Harmonic Society, the Dowlais Choral Society, the Dowlais Philharmonic, the Dowlais Choral Un­ion, Dowlais and Merthyr United, the Dowlais Temperance Union, Dowlais Male Voice Choir, Dowlais Dramatic and Orchestral Society, the Dowlais Operatic Society and Dowlais Music Lovers and numerous bands.[13]

Enormous crowds of 20,000 and more gathered to listen to choral competitions, usually with absolute attention and considerable musical knowledge, sometimes with the passion of modern rugby fans – and often even more numerous than the latter (in 1891: 20,000 in the Swansea pavilion [14]). Enthusiastic crowds greeted triumphant choirs on their return home. It was common to place bets on the success of their favourite.

There was rivalry among the various groups sometimes going as far as violent contro­versy as to the judging of competitions. Musical Time wrote in 1897: "Next after a foot­ball match Welshmen enjoy a choral fight." [15]

But also in the hard times their common love of singing united them as a community, as in July 1905, when 119 miners lost their lives at the National No. 2 coal mine at Watts­town: "The chorus 'Surely He hath borne our Griefs' was always sung with intensity of con­viction in the coalfield; at Christmas 1905 it acquired a particular poignancy at that year's Noddfa Messiah." [16]

Revd John Roberts ('Ieuan Gwyllt') was in turn teacher, editor, minister, journalist, lecturer, poet, composer and conductor. He travelled all over South Wales. In 1859 he set up a choral union in Aberdare, the centre of the South Wales coalfield. He was an imagi­native teacher and created methods of improving Welsh choral singing. He was also – like many others – a fervent Nonconformist for whom singing was an expression of a pure and godly way of life.[17]

Griffith Rhys Jones (known as "Caradog")[18] began working as a blacksmith and became a publican and director of breweries. He was an accomplished violinist and was nicknamed the "Welsh Paganini". But it is for his skill as a choral conductor that he will be best remembered. At 18 he was already conducting a choir from his home village at an eisteddfod at Aberavon.

His greatest triumph came in London in 1872 when the company running the Crystal Palace decided to hold a major choral competition. A Welsh choir of 450 voices was formed under Caradog: the South Wales Choral Union. A train with 18 carriages was needed to transport the choir members to London. They won first prize and were given a tremendous welcome when they returned home to Wales. They repeated the triumph at the Crystal Palace the following year. Now everybody was sure: Welsh choral singing is the best in Europe!

In 1877 Tom Stephens became conductor of the Rhondda Glee Society, an all-male group. It's popularity played a large part in the increasing importance of Welsh male voice singing as a whole. When he took the Gleemen to an eisteddfod at the World Fair in Chicago in 1893 they won first prize against hard competition from four American choirs and one from North Wales.[19]

The Treorchy Male Choir performed at Windsor Castle in 1895 and went on after­wards - as "Royal Welsh Choir" -  to conquer the world (50,000 miles in 1908-9).[20]

But the most famous and probably the best musician in 19th century Wales was Dr Joseph Parry. He left Merthyr Tydfil as a boy to emigrate to America, but had to return home to Wales for his musical career to flourish. He is the composer of the moving love song "Myfanwy", as well as of countless operas, oratorios, hymns and songs.

He was self-satisfied and arrogant, entirely lacking in self-criticism, naïve and child­like. His music frequently lacks emotional depth, but he was a genius loved and endlessly imitated by fellow countrymen.

In his enormous appetite for work, his musicality, the ease with which he produced memorable melodies, his sometimes shallow and sentimental emotionalism, Parry seems to have summed up the best and the worst of the musical revival that swept through Wales in the 19th century.[21]

In 1911 the Musical Herald declared, "Wales has become one of the great choral na­tions of the earth!" [22]

In Wales scores of oratorios, operas and symphonies were being performed. At first the soloists and instrumentalists were strangers (mostly English), but later more and more Welsh performers took their place.

Favourite composers  were: Handel (above all the "Messiah"), Mendelssohn (Elijah...), Haydn (The Creation...), and then came Verdi, Donizetti, Mozart...
At the same time brass and silver bands were formed.

Round about the turn of the century there was a turning away  from a too emotional or enthusiastic style of singing to a more cultivated and differentiating one. The repertoire was widened and more worldly music was sung. The singers were more independent of learning by ear. More were able to read music.[23]

The choir movement had a very democratic basis. One's profession was of no impor­tance. In the choir one was respected, because one could sing. Here women at last had the same status as men! Thus Rachel Thomas in the film Valley of Song (1953) says,

 "None of you could ever know what it means to me to sing the part. All the year it's cooking and washing and mending I am. But when 'Messiah' came around I stopped being Mrs Lloyd undertaker. I was Mair Lloyd – contralto." [24]


[1] cf. Williams, G., Valleys of Song, Music and Society in Wales 1840-1914, Cardiff 1998 (photo of book cover in file of documents)
[2]
means ‚North Wales men’
[3]
cf. file of documents: "Proclaiming the National Eisteddfod of 1887"
[4]
Williams, G., p. 20
[5]
cf. Williams, G., p. 21
[6]
cf. Williams, G., p. 21
[7]
"gathering for song" ("cymanfa" = assembly, "canu" = song)
[8]
cf. Williams, G., p. 24
[9]
cf. Williams, G., p. 26/27
[10]
listen to the hymn "Myrddin" on the CD (sung by the Potarddulais male choir)
[11]
cf. Williams, G., p. 22 and 26; Solfa is a simplified method of writing down notes and rhythm and still very popular in Wales (cf. example in file of documents)
[12]
cf. Williams, G., p. 32/33
[13]
cf. Williams, G., p. 90
[14]
cf. Williams, G., p. 2
[15]
Musical Time, Sept. 1897, p. 607, as cited in Williams, G., p. 2)
[16]
cf. Williams, G., p. 140
[17]
all information about Revd. John Roberts: Williams, G., p. 26-31
[18]
all information about Caradog: Williams, G., p. 40-53
[19]
all information about the Rhondda Gleemen: Williams, G., p. 123-125
[20]
cf. Williams, G., p. 127-130
[21]
all information about Dr Joseph Parry: Williams, G., p. 70-90
[22] Musical Herald, September 1911, p. 264 as cited in Williams, G., p. 3
[23]
cf. Williams, G., p.153-156
[24]
as cited in Williams, G., p. 224 (footnote 17)

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