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Sleeve Notes from the early recordings

Content of "Sleeve Notes from the early recordings"



Just as red sandstone conjures up a mental picture of South Devon so the words ‘male voice choir’ make me think of Wales. Red sandstone is not peculiar to Devon, neither does my country hold the exclusive right allowing men to sing together; but the Land of my Fathers is, by acknowledged tradition, the land of song.

In Wales singing is almost as important as rugby football and when the two elements are combined the result is likely to be awe-inspiring. No one who has attended a rugger International at Twickenham, Cardiff Arms Park, Murrayfield, or any other ground where the red jerseys turn out to do battle will forget the simple but passionate intensity with which the Welsh crowd delivers Hen wlad fy Nhadau. If the band out in the centre of the field plays the accompaniment at too fast a tempo the crowd will slow the pace with dignified firmness.

The first contact which most Welshmen make with choral work is usually at school; the St. David’s Day concerts call for such renderings as such favourites as God Bless the Prince of Wales, Dafydd y garreg wen, etc. From such early beginnings those with the better voices frequently embark on a series of regular evening choir practices at the local chapel. A Welshman who has achieved this much will retain his knowledge in later years; ask him to sing with a crowd or with an impromptu gathering of friends and you will find that he drops naturally into harmony part rather than sing the melody in unison with the rest. One example of this will suffice; my father has told me of the post -1914-18 war days in Turkey where he was serving with the Army of Occupation. The troops overseas were getting restive because the battalions nearer home were being demobilised first and so, to keep up morale, the War Office set up an education scheme operated by the YMCA Artistes, whose job it was to minimise any feelings of disillusionment, who were sent out from Britain. The Musical Organiser of the YMCA’s Middle East sector was Gustav Holst who, in later years, was moved to arrange twelve Welsh Folk Songs for unaccompanied voices. 

In March, 1919, Holst, then engaged in setting Walt Whitman’s poetry to music in Ode to death, went to Constantinople, where he visited my father’s unit and set about trying to whip up enthusiasm over the formation of a choir. The troops gathered in the canteen, Holst seated at the battered piano. After the first tentative attempts at concerted singing Holst picked out my father and one or two others. “You men have sung in a choir before, haven’t you?” he asked. Almost without thinking they had adjusted themselves to the surroundings and attempted to improvise harmonies.

Male Voice Competitions at Eisteddfodau were once the chief showcases for choral singing in Wales, but unfortunately those days are now past; the advent of more popular, ready made forms of entertainment have helped in the decline. At one time every small town had its own choir, sometimes more than one. Treorchy, Rhymney, Tredegar, Dowlais, Pontypridd, these are some of the towns in which the choral tradition has been strongest. From 1930 onwards there was an important annual gathering at the Pavilion, Mountain Ash, where the Three Valleys Festival attracted the talents of the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the old National Orchestra of Wales and, of course, the cream of the choirs. The Messiah and Elijah were two of the regular oratorios performed there each year before critically appreciated audiences, audiences composed largely of experienced choristers. When the hwyl seized the gallery and the assembly burst into spontaneous song anxious eyes would be cast upwards with the entirely practical purpose of making sure the roof had not been lifted with the power of the music. Now, alas, the Mountain Ash Pavilion has been turned into a factory and the Three Valleys Festival is no more; there is no other local hall large enough to contain the event.

Hearteningly Morriston has managed to keep alive its singing tradition. By general consent the Orpheus Choir has always been one of the best in Wales with a history which goes back well before the First World War. Morriston itself lies about three miles north of Swansea, an industrial town once famous for its tinplate, copper and steel works, a town with a bustling sort of energetic population, a typically Welsh town in may respects. The enclosed record was made at Soar Chapel in Morriston with the choir singing unaccompanied on five of the tracks. The programme is made up of songs and hymns in Welsh and English all of which are popular with choirs in South Wales. We’ll keep a welcome is the song written by Mai Jones, one-time Variety Producer at the Cardiff studios of the BBC. Mai originally wrote the song to close the popular Welsh Rarebit radio programme, the words being spoken by the deep and unmistakable voice of Tom Jones. Tom is dead now and my memories of him include his pre-war appearances on the Cardiff Region’s ‘Children’s Hour’ (as the mysterious ‘Olyon’ in a serial play that would be classified nowadays as ‘science fiction’) and, later, working in the food office in the war years.

Fittingly the record opens and closes with Hen wlad fy Nhadau
sung first in English (Land of my Fathers) and then in Welsh. Every Welshman knows that his is the best National Anthem in the world and I am especially proud that it was composed in my home town of Pontypridd. There, in the beautiful Ynysangharad Park with the Welch Regiment’s monument towering above it on the Common, is a memorial erected to Evan James and James James, father and son ’who’, as the tablet proclaims, ’ inspired by a deep and tender love of their native land, united poetry to song and gave to Wales her National Anthem, Hen wlad fy Nhadau.’ The Morriston Orpheus choir sings the anthem in a manner likely to touch the hearts of all Welshmen, particularly those exiled from the Principality.

Alun Morgan

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