The choral tradition of Wales - part one

A choir singing in a cathedral

...the introduction of tonic-solfa...meant that congregations could participate in part-singing at the cymanfa ganu or singing festival.

"When they make music together, they sing their songs not in unison, as is done elsewhere, but in parts....so that in a crowd of singers....you would hear as many songs and different intervals as you could see heads; yet they all accord..."

This reference by Giraldus Cambrensis in 1198 seems to point to an early Welsh tradition of part-singing, in addition to the singing of 'professional' minstrels. Until the reformation, song schools in the Roman church tradition seem to have flourished, but from Tudor times onwards - particularly with the exodus of musicians from Wales to the English court - church music had a very lean time of it.

The rise of non-conformity in the 18th century introduced the hymns of writers such as William Williams (Pantycelyn), set at first to popular English tunes, and then adapted to melodies derived in large part from Welsh folk tunes. Earlier tunes were sung in usison, but by the mid-19th century the introduction of tonic-solfa (particularly through the chapel Sunday schools) meant that congregations could participate in part-singing at the cymanfa ganu or singing festival. Oratorio choruses were added to hymns, and often even the sermon became a musical hwyl.

In truth, this flourishing of choral singing was not unique to Wales. Arguably, it had developed earlier in the industrial areas of England, so that when Mendelssohn's Elijah was commissioned and performed in Birmingham in 1846, the choral tradition was already well established.

Caradog epitomised many Welsh choral conductors of the time - working-class, self-trained, and charismatic

What differentiated this tradition in Wales was its basis in the chapel and the Eisteddfod (where choral singing was introduced in 1825). It is perhaps unfair to accuse Welsh musicians of being inspired by competition rather than music, but the rivalry between choirs and chapels was lively, to say the least!

The greatest competition triumph (and possibly the origin of the 'Land of Song' epithet) was not in Wales, however, but at the Crystal Palace in London. Griffith Rhys Jones (Caradog), a colliery blacksmith, led his Aberdare based South Wales Choral Union (Côr Mawr) of some 450 singers to victory in the National Music Union Brass and Choral Event of 1872.

This triumph was in no way diminished by the fact the Côr Mawr's was the only entry, and the choir returned the following year to beat the London Tonic Sol Fa Association. (The splendid trophy - it cost 1,000 guineas - was kept in London for many years after the competition was abandoned in 1873, but has now been returned to Wales and can be seen at the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans.) Caradog epitomised many Welsh choral conductors of the time - working-class, self-trained, and charismatic.

Importantly for Welsh composition, the thirst for 'new' choral music gave the impetus for a prolific outpouring of choral works from such as Joseph Parry, David Evans and David Jenkins. Non-competitive festivals were held at Harlech (1867-1934), Cardiff (1892-1910), Montgomery (from 1920), and the Three Valleys in south Wales (1930-39).

Words: Keith Griffin


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