Wales – Land of Song

The feast of Saint David, patron saint of Wales, falls on March 1st, the date of his death in 589 AD. Saint David’s Day has been regularly celebrated since his canonisation in the 12th century. To celebrate, we are exploring the music of Wales.

Wales holds a special place in our hearts here at the Music Workshop Company; firstly because it’s the home nation of founder and Artistic Director, Maria, and secondly because of its apt and joyful reputation as “Land of Song”.

“Door of Abbey of Ystrad Fflur. have crumbled and disappeared. The solemn procession and song of tonsured priests, themimicry of the heavenly choir by urchins of the hills hastily draped in white, and the fervidchant of the Cistercian fraternity, blending with the deep and thrilling tones of the organand sweetest voices of chilldren,— Ave, Regina coelorum !Ave, Domina angelorum ! have long ago passed away. Generations many, of the gentlest and best, the bravest andstrongest of the Ceredigion households, he in dust around,—princes, princesses, lords ofmanors and castles, warriors once terrible in battle, and the poorest of the poor, without dis-tinction or memorial, as equal as grains of sand, as unknown as if they had never been. Howimpressively quiet is their rest amid the mountain solitudes! ANTIQUITIES : LLANDDEWI-BREFI. 165 All that remains of the abbey is this solitary arch of Norman design. The land onwhich the abbey stood, and much of the country around, belongs to the estate”

This is partly a modern stereotype, based on the popularity and worldwide reputation of Welsh male voice choirs, a history of Nonconformist choral music and the Eisteddfods. But even as early as 1187, medieval chronicler Geraldus Cambrensis recorded that the Welsh sang in as many parts as there were people, and even that quite small children could harmonise. Music in Wales was a primary form of communication.

Welsh traditional songs, like those of other cultures, were based on seasonal customs such as the welcoming of spring and New Year. However, this music was suppressed for generations as a result of the Act of Union in 1535 and 1542, in which the legal system of England was extended to Wales. The intention behind the act was to create a single state and legal jurisdiction – fundamentally, Henry VIII was making the point that Wales was part of his England, and its separate language should not disabuse anyone of this fact. Section 20 of the 1535 Act made English the only language of the law courts and said that those who used Welsh would not be appointed to, or paid for, any public office in Wales:

from henceforth no Person or Persons that use the Welch Speech or Language, shall have or enjoy any manner Office or Fees within this Realm of England, Wales, or other the King’s Dominion, upon Pain of forfeiting the same Offices or Fees, unless he or they use and exercise the English Speech or Language.

The effect of this clause was to lay the foundation for an Anglicised ruling class of landed gentry in Wales. This would have many consequences, not least for Welsh music. The language became the preserve of the workers, creating class divide within Wales and cultural ignorance outside.

Welsh traditional music declined further in the 18th and 19th centuries with the rise of Nonconformist religion, which emphasised singing over instrumental music. Any English subject belonging to a non-Anglican church or a non-Christian religion was called a Nonconformist. More broadly, this covered any person who advocated religious liberty. Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Calvinists Methodists, Unitarians and Quakers all fell under this definition. Due to the puritanical nature of many of these religions, traditional music became associated with drunkenness and immorality. However, many hymns that developed from the Welsh Methodist revival of the late 18th century were set to popular secular tunes or adopted Welsh ballad melodies.

The Male Voice Choir

The tradition of Welsh male voice choirs grew up out of mining, industrial and religious heritage, and in the competitive choral singing of the eisteddfod. It was not uncommon for a group of miners working together to form a choir to enter a competition or eisteddfod and disband shortly after.

Other choirs thrived and survived, such as the Treorchy and Morriston Orpheus choirs, both now famous throughout the world.

The men were tough workers and had hard lives, but produced some of the most soulful, powerful, sensitive music. Land of My Fathers is the National Anthem of Wales. Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau in Welsh, the words were written by Evan James and the tune composed by his son, James James, both residents of Pontypridd, Glamorgan, in January 1856.

Despite the decline of the mining industries, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s comment, “We are a musical nation,” is as relevant as ever. Male voice choirs remain a feature of life in Wales. More recently, too, there has been resurgence for Welsh male choral singing. In 2000, Tim Rhys-Evans, former musical director at Welsh National Youth Opera and a classically trained singer, formed the award winning Only Men Aloud! And Only Boys Aloud! Only Kids Aloud! followed, ensuring that choirs have a future among the younger generation.

Members of the Royal Welsh Ladies Choir – 1908

Female and mixed choirs, though historically not as well represented, are now equally popular, and choral singing is increasingly recognised for its health and wellbeing benefits.

Eisteddfod and Competitive Singing

​Competitive singing is very popular in Wales. The National Eisteddfod of Wales is the largest festival of competitive music and poetry in Europe. Running over eight days each summer, it features competitions and performances entirely in the Welsh language, with all official announcements also in Welsh. It attracts over 6,000 competitors and audiences of over 150,000.

Another example of competitive singing can be seen in the Mari Lwyd (the Grey Mare) – a type of pre-Christian house-visiting wassail said to bring good luck.

The Mari Lwyd (a hobby horse made from a horse’s skull mounted on a pole and carried by an individual hidden under a sackcloth) and its companions would go door-to-door, singing, and challenging the families inside to a battle of rhyming insults in Welsh. At the end of this battle, the group would be invited into the house for refreshments.

A Gymanfa Ganu is a Welsh festival of sacred hymns, sung with four part harmony by a congregation, usually under the direction of a choral director. More than a thousand Gymanfa Ganu are held in Wales each year, taking place in almost every village and town. Other larger versions take place at festivals such as the National Eisteddfod of Wales and the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod. Gymanfa Ganus are held across the world wherever people of Welsh heritage live, significantly in Patagonia, Argentina.

Maria Thomas attended her first Gymanfa at the National Eisteddfod of Wales, when she competed in the instrumental competition as a teenager.
I attended with friends and family, and even though I don’t speak Welsh and therefore didn’t understand the announcements or the hymn words, the sense of community was fabulous. Singing is a great activity, and when hundreds of people come together to sing, it is a very special atmosphere.

To listen to some examples of traditional Welsh song and choral singing, check out our Spotify playlist:

 

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