Aberfan: Sir Karl Jenkins' choral memorial to disaster

A chain of rescue workers at the site of the disaster on 21 October 1966 Image copyright PA
Image caption A chain of rescue workers at the site of the disaster on 21 October 1966

A new choral work by composer Sir Karl Jenkins to mark the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster will be premiered at a memorial concert in Cardiff.

On 21 October 1966, the village was devastated when a colliery waste tip collapsed, with slurry engulfing Pantglas Junior School on the last day before half term.

A total of 144 people died, 116 of them children.

Cantata Memoria will be performed on Saturday at Wales Millennium Centre.

Welsh language TV channel S4C commissioned the work, which will be performed by Sinfonia Cymru and sung by a mixed choir of over 150 people along with a children's choir of 116.

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Media captionSir Karl describes what he he hopes the piece would achieve

Cantata Memoria's libretto was written by poet Mererid Hopwood with words in Welsh, Latin and English.

ProfHopwood and Sir Karl went to Aberfan to meet local people to shape the work.

Sir Karl said he was thrilled to accept, "exhilarated, humbled but also apprehensive having to write a piece that honoured the memory of this tragedy, and music that appealed to people but that also had integrity."

He said one element was honouring Aberfan, the other was celebrating childhood.

Image caption Mererid Hopwood said it was important to get the approval of the people of Aberfan

Prof Hopwood added: "At first I was very nervous, and there was an overwhelming sense of responsibility.

"As a Welsh woman, having been brought up in the wake on the tragedy one is very aware of the sensitivity surrounding this, and just hoping that whatever we came up with will meet with the approval of the people of Aberfan.

"The words try to express, what is after all, a very complex range of emotions from grief to fear, worry, respect, love and we have this wonderful word in Welsh 'cydymdeimlad' which is, if you like, empathy, sympathy, compassion rolled into one.

"We're very aware that this isn't a documentary, it's not a factual piece of history. It's a poem and music coming together, we hope, to convey what's in two hearts reaching out to all the hearts."

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Media captionAn extract of the new work, featuring Bryn Terfel, recorded at the Abbey Road studios in London

Harpist Catrin Finch, brass specialist David Childs, soprano Elin Manahan Thomas and world-renowned bass-baritone Bryn Terfel are among some of Wales' leading musical figures taking part.

The Aberfan concert will also feature new written work along with special performances from the community by the Ynysowen Male Choir and school choirs from Ynysowen Community Primary School and Ysgol Rhyd y Grug.

The performance will be shown on S4C on Sunday 9 October at 19:30 BST.

Image caption Rev Milton Jenkins said the concert was an opportunity to remember

Rev Milton Jenkins was in Aberfan to witness the aftermath of the disaster.

His cousin and her husband, local minister Rev Kenneth Hayes, had two children aged eight and nine at Pantglas Junior School.

The youngest had stayed home, having been ill the night before, but the other child, Dyfrig, was missing, and Mr Jenkins helped in the search effort.

"I came straight away here to meet the family," said Mr Jenkins.

"Approaching the village like this, one could see people struggling.

"There were hundreds of people trying to do their best digging into the coal tip to see if they could find the bodies.

"Occasionally there would be a shout for people to be quiet, and if there was a hint of a body somewhere, people were really encouraged to carry on and to try and draw that child out of the tip."

Dyfrig's body was found about 48 hours later.

"It took about two days before the body was found because we used to go in the evening, we used to go to the mortuary. The mortuary was the vestry of a local chapel, and Kenneth Hayes, he was allowed in, I wasn't allowed in.

"But he went from body to body and then they found him on the second day, and at least he had been found, but believe me we felt terrible at that time."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Rescue workers at the scene of the Aberfan disaster the following day

Mr Jenkins conducted Dyfrig's funeral.

"That was a very difficult, very difficult moment and it was the wish of the family to bury him back in Pontyberem where my cousin had been brought up.

"As you can imagine with funerals in rural areas like that, people had come from everywhere and it was indeed terribly sad, terribly sad."

However, despite their loss, both ministers did their best to support others in the community who had lost family members.

'Terrible tragedy'

"I was glad to accompany Kenneth Hayes, when he went from house to house. Even though he had lost a little one he still went to try and help other people who were in need.

"When I look back, I'm glad that I had some part in all of this, that I went with him. We felt we had contributed in some way by being with them, and standing next to them in their hour of trouble."

Speaking about the concert, Mr Jenkins said "I think it's very important that we remember, that we come together, and the community comes together to remember.

"We must not forget these children. We mustn't forget the members of staff and other families who lost their lives in that terrible tragedy."

  • Highlights of the concert will be shown on BBC2 Wales on Saturday 22 October at 21:00

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