The Golden Age of the Choirs
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
the end of the 18th century the “gwyneddigion“
society organized annual Eisteddfods
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.
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" 
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.
1800 and 1850 the number of nonconformist chapels
rose from 1,300 to 3,800.
They were a further promoter of choral singing, though this was often kept
within narrow and prudish limits.
gymanfa ganu, festivals of community hymn singing – according to
G. Williams "Wales' most distinctive contribution to the world of music" 
- 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
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.
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.
Roberts introduced the tonic solfa sight-singing in Wales in 1860 
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.
there were numerous choirs, glee clubs (organised for the singing of music),
brass and string bands and also talented conductors and composers.
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
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 ).
Enthusiastic crowds greeted triumphant choirs on their return home. It was
common to place bets on the success of their favourite.
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." 
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." 
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.
Rhys Jones (known as
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
1911 the Musical Herald declared, "Wales
has become one of the great choral nations of the earth!" 
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.
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.
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.
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." 
cf. Williams, G., Valleys of Song, Music and Society in Wales 1840-1914,
Cardiff 1998 (photo of book cover in
file of documents)
 means ‚North Wales men’
 cf. file of documents: "Proclaiming the National Eisteddfod of 1887"
 Williams, G., p. 20
 cf. Williams, G., p. 21
 cf. Williams, G., p. 21
 "gathering for song" ("cymanfa" = assembly, "canu" = song)
 cf. Williams, G., p. 24
 cf. Williams, G., p. 26/27
 listen to the hymn "Myrddin" on the CD (sung by the Potarddulais male choir)
 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)
 cf. Williams, G., p. 32/33
 cf. Williams, G., p. 90
 cf. Williams, G., p. 2
 Musical Time, Sept. 1897, p. 607, as cited in Williams, G., p. 2)
 cf. Williams, G., p. 140
 all information about Revd. John Roberts: Williams, G., p. 26-31
 all information about Caradog: Williams, G., p. 40-53
 all information about the Rhondda Gleemen: Williams, G., p. 123-125
 cf. Williams, G., p. 127-130
 all information about Dr Joseph Parry: Williams, G., p. 70-90
 Musical Herald, September 1911, p. 264 as cited in Williams, G., p. 3
 cf. Williams, G., p.153-156
 as cited in Williams, G., p. 224 (footnote 17)