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James James, composer of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 10:33 UK time, Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Every year thousands of Welsh sports fans stand with tears in their eyes as the band plays and the national team prepares to take on the might of England, Ireland, the All Blacks or whoever.

Welsh Anthem songsheet

Welsh Anthem songsheet

They will bawl out the words - most of them only half remembered - and happily sing or hum to the tune of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau. And they will never give a thought to the man who composed the music for what is, possibly, the most atmospheric and memorable of all national anthems.

James James was born in 1833 and died on 11 January 1902. These days he remains something of a forgotten man but this was the musician who composed our national anthem. And as if that wasn't enough it was his father, Evan James, who wrote the words.

James James was a musician of note. He competed in many eisteddfodau around the Pontypridd area and held the bardic name Iago ap Ieuan.

He lived in Pontypridd at the bottom of the Rhondda Valley and was heavily influenced by his surroundings. In fact, to begin with, his magical piece of music was actually known as Glan Rhondda. Under that title it was performed many times, in chapels or at eisteddfodau.

Only when the tune and its lyrics were included in a collection of manuscript music, Gems Of Welsh Melody, was the title changed to the one we know today.

James James was a harpist who was well known in the Pontypridd area. He ran a pub in the town and was a regular performer at other taverns where his music was always in demand for dancing. Indeed, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau was originally intended to be played at a much faster pace - to allow for dancing - but had to be slowed down when it was sung or performed by choirs.

Legend declares that James composed the piece in his head as he was walking alongside the river in his native town in late 1855 or early 1856. He then supposedly went home and hummed the tune to his father - a noted bardic poet - and asked him to put some lyrics to the tune. It took, so the story goes, just one night and by the following day all three verses and chorus were written.

The second and third verses of the anthem are rarely used these days. But they are clearly an attempt to invoke the patriotic spirit in all Welshmen:

"If the enemy violated my country underfoot
The old language of the Welsh is alive as ever,
The spirit isn't hindered by the awful, treacherous deed
Nor the sweet harp of my country."

The words are undoubtedly more powerful in Welsh rather than the English translation but they certainly make their point - in either language.

Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau was first performed (as Glan Rhondda) at Tabor Chapel in Maesteg in January 1856, the soloist being Elizabeth John of Pontypridd. It went on to be sung at many subsequent eisteddfodau and in March 1899 was one of the first Welsh language songs to be recorded on vinyl when a singer by the name of Madge Breese included it in a collection of songs she was recording.

In the years following its composition the song had become increasingly used at patriotic gatherings and gradually found itself metamorphosing into a national anthem.

In 1905, as a repost to the New Zealand All Blacks and their traditional pre-match haka, it was decided to encourage the crowd to sing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau before the kick off. Up to that moment that moment there had been no history of singing national anthems before a game but there was such an impressive response (and, of course, Wales won) that it soon became traditional for all international sides to stand and sing their anthem before kick off.

James James died on 11 January 1902 in his 69th year. He was buried in the churchyard at Aberdare along with his wife Cecilia and daughter Louise.

There is a memorial to James - and to his father Evan - in Ynysangharad Park in their native Pontypridd. It takes the form of two figures, one representing music, the other poetry, and is a fitting tribute to the two men who gave Wales her National Anthem.

Find out more about Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau on the BBC Wales Music website.


  • Comment number 1.

    Tremendous anthem. Raises expectations, though, which was fine with the Welsh Rugby teams of the seventies, but not the recent soccer teams. Can't understand why English ministers, like John Redwood, can't learn it. If you're musical it can be learnt in an hour or so, and remembered forever. Perhaps it's because the English don't have an anthem of their own. 'God save the Queen' is the UK anthem, after all, and even the US share the tune. Ian Paisley sang it best, though! 'Jerusalem', Blake's poem, is about the British Israelite tradition, very much Arthurian, west of England's 'green & pleasant land'. No place for 'satanic mills' there, and some questionable associations with the idea of 'the chosen people'. No, I'd have to back Holst or Elgar, with 'Land of Hope & Glory' being more mobile & memorable than 'I vow to thee my country', which would have to be sung in full to get its full meaning. Mind you, the imperialistic overtones of the former would need to be meant & taken more metaphorically in the twenty-first century, to emphasise moral values and associate might with right.

    By the way, when I lived in Hungary, my attention was drawn to a poem by a leading national poet, entitled 'Welsh Bards'. It tells the story of the martyrdom of the five hundred bards after the conquest of Wales by Edward I. It reminded me very much of James' words:

    'Five hundred went singing to die,
    Five hundred in the blaze,
    But none would sing to cheer the King,
    The loyal toast to raise.-

    'But over drums and piercing fifes,
    Beyound the sodiers' hails,
    They swell the song, five hundred strong,
    Those martyred bards of Wales.'

    Janos Arany, 1857; transl. from the Magyar by Peter Zollman. (no Welsh translation - yet!)

    It was, of course, far more powerful in Hungarian, written as a parable for the down-trodden Hungarians who, similar to the Welsh, kept their unique language, despite being surrounded by Germans and Slavs.

  • Comment number 2.

    Thank you so much for this! I've never heard, before, of the 500 Bards. More for me to research, now.

    I'm American, of Welsh descent both sides, spoke Cwmraeg as a child, now gone due to disuse. Love hearing of Welsh history, Mr. Carradice, and you make it all sound as though it is happening right now. Diolch yn fawr.

  • Comment number 3.

    Not only was the anthem slowed down for crowd singing, but apparently the tune was originally written in 6/8 time - which would sound very different from what we are used to.


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