For good or bad – whichever way you are inclined to view it - if one man more than any other can be said to have helped Wales gain the sobriquet "Land of Song" it has to be the conductor Caradog.
Caradog - real name Griffith Rhys Jones - was born on 21 December 1834 in the Rose and Crown Inn at Trecynon, Aberdare. He was the son of John and Margaret Jones and was raised in an educated and highly musical family.
His elder brother John was an accomplished violinist (as well as a wonderful mathematician who later went on to work for the Admiralty) and it was he who taught the young Griff, as the family knew him, to play the instrument. Apparently the young lad was so short that, in the early days at least, the violin had to rest on the floor for him to play it.
Unfortunately, John Jones died when the future choir leader was still young and there was no alternative – Griffith Rhys Jones would have to go out to work rather than, as he would have liked, pursue a musical education.
He trained as a blacksmith, working in and around the Cynon Valley in works like the Gadlys, but his heart and his soul lay in music.
Aberdare Philharmonic Society
Caradog became first violinist with the Aberdare Philharmonic Society and then the leader of the town's very popular and notable choir. Under his leadership they competed successfully at many eisteddfodiau – hence the bardic name Caradog.
In 1870 Caradog left the town and the Aberdare Choir to live and work in the Rhondda. His leaving was bitterly regretted by everyone in Aberdare but it did not stop them celebrating – and contributing – when in 1872 Caradog was asked to take on the leadership of the South Wales Choral Union, a combined choir of over 400 voices.
Crystal Palace Challenge Cup
The choir was made up from many other choirs across the industrialised valleys of south Wales and they were put together to compete for the Crystal Palace Challenge Cup, one of the most prestigious musical events of the time. As well as the trophy there was a prize of £100 on offer, a more than considerable sum in those days.
To the surprise of everyone – but not Caradog – the Welsh Choir swept the board, not once but twice, winning again in 1873. Quite apart from the kudos of the two victories, by their incredible achievement, competing against choirs from all over Britain, Caradog and his choir changed the image of Wales and the Welsh people.
Previously, the Welsh had been thought of as an unruly and classless nation with little culture or appreciation of fine things.
Now, suddenly, the choir showed the passion and the pride of the Welsh people, through the quality of their art and through their appreciation of fine music. The term "Land of Song", which has arguably haunted Welshmen ever since, was immediately bestowed, and listening to Caradog's choir it was easy to see why.
Back in Wales the victories also earned the choir the title "Y Cor Mawr – the Great Choir" and turned the leader into something of a national celebrity. He continued to conduct but also found time to turn himself into a successful businessman, making money from a number of breweries.
Caradog died on 4 December 1897 and was buried in Aberdare Town Cemetery. A few years later a statue commemorating the man was commissioned from Goscombe John and erected in Victoria Square in the town. On the day of the unveiling the crowd was so great that it stopped all the traffic in the town.
Caradog's statue remains there to this day, a fitting tribute to the man who really did make Wales the "Land of Song".