I’m ashamed to say that it took this round-up of the year’s musical “firsts” by Fiona Maddocks to alert me to the existence of this new disc – the label’s first – from Tŷ Cerdd. Any new recording of the music of the remarkable Welsh symphonist Daniel Jones (1912-1993) is good news, as is anything from Llŷr Williams, with whom I’ve twice been privileged to share a concert platform in Wrexham.
Welsh music is unquestionably neglected in the rest of the UK (there are some horribly condescending remarks about it in John Drummond’s otherwise terrific memoir Tainted by Experience) but you’d think that Daniel Jones’s influence on post-war literature, quite apart from his powerful, poetic and fiercely intelligent music, would be enough to make him a figure of UK-wide interest. Apparently not. Let’s hope this leads to a higher profile – wonderful, and fitting too, to see Jones paired with Bartok here.
But anyway, here’s the moment I first discovered and fell in love with Jones’s music: the programme note I wrote for an all-Welsh programme by the Wrexham Symphony Orchestra in 2004 – a sort of general introduction to the Welsh orchestral tradition (and my first programme note to be published bilingually, in English and Welsh). It was a glorious evening of music. Alun Hoddinott, William Mathias, Grace Williams, Daniel Jones…ten years on I’m still exploring the riches we uncovered that night.
Praise the Lord! We are a musical nation. Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood
In a land with a thousand-year musical heritage, Welsh orchestral music is still a relatively new flower. The oldest piece in this concert is just 64 years old; and two of the five composers on the programme are still very much alive and writing. And yet this short period – barely more than a generation – has seen the birth of an entire national repertoire, and, what’s more, the creation of a new and unmistakably Welsh musical language. Not one of these pieces sounds like it could have been written in any other country. How can a piece of music “sound Welsh?”
An obvious way would be for it to use folksongs – obvious, but not the answer. The Shropshire-born composer Edward German used Welsh folksongs in his Welsh Rhapsody of 1904 – and the result sounds like pure Elgar. While Elgar, of course, sounded utterly “English” without using a single folksong in his life! Although Welsh composers have drawn inspiration from Welsh literature, and traditional techniques like penillion singing, folksongs are noticeable by their absence from most (but not all) of tonight’s programme. Likewise – there’s that most Welsh of instruments, the harp. All these composers use the harp brilliantly but sparingly – that’s not the key to musical Welshness either. In any case, for all its bardic associations, the harp came to Wales only in the 17th century – from Italy. When Felix Mendelssohn encountered Welsh harpists in a Llangollen inn in the 1820s, they were playing hits from recent Italian operas! He preferred the lead-miners’ dances he heard at Loggerheads.
Please, no national music! Here I am in Wales…and a harper sits in the vestibule of every inn and never stops playing so called folk-melodies, that is, infamous, common faked stuff. Felix Mendelssohn: Letter to Carl Zelter, 1829
But Welsh music has always been receptive to outside influences, and its history before the 20th century is far richer than just a folk tradition. Wales’s folk-dances were cast aside during the religious revivals of the late 18th and 19th centuries, but folk-songs survived, filtered through chapel hymns, choral singing, the cult of the harp and the brass-band tradition of the new industrial regions. All of this can be heard in the music performed tonight – the rich, dark harmonies of chapel choirs and the craggy brilliance of brass bands run like mineral seams through the music of Mathias, Hoddinott, Williams and Jones.
Celtic consciousness is both rhetorical and lyrical; on the one hand darkly introspective and, on the other, highly jewelled, dance-like and rhythmic. William Mathias
So too do the influences of Sibelius, Bartók, Vaughan Williams and Shostakovich – hardly icons of Welsh culture! But the Welshness of tonight’s composers is more than the sum of all these parts. Above all, Welsh orchestral music is a music of landscape. Sometimes it’s explicit – Grace Williams dedicated her Sea Sketches “To my parents who had the good sense to set up home on the coast of Glamorgan”, and Mathias headed his Harp Concerto with lines from R.S. Thomas’ poem Welsh Landscape.
More often, though, it’s simply implicit in the colours, the shapes and the powerful sense of atmosphere in all this music. You’ll hear dark, overcast passages suddenly illuminated by shafts of musical light, mountainous masses of sound offset by soaring blue-sky melodies, the chime of bells, as well as a boisterous, rough-cut exuberance as these composers re-invent Wales’ lost dance heritage. It’s outdoor music – and its freshness, rawness, grandeur and lyricism place it in a very particular outdoors.
If Beethoven had been born in the vale of Merthyr in 1770, he would have written no symphonies. John Edwards
One more thing. Wales had, and still has, a “grass-roots” musical culture that is the envy of English musicians. The great flowering of Welsh orchestral music since the Second World War is largely due to amateur musicians and music-lovers – in fact, along with the BBC Welsh Orchestra, Welsh National Opera, and the Universities, it was the youth orchestras and amateur musical societies that made it possible for a composer to have a career in Wales at all. And each of the composers in this concert was deeply involved in the cultural life of the nation. Daniel Jones edited the poetry of Dylan Thomas; Grace Williams made groundbreaking radio programmes; Mathias and Hoddinott both ran University departments and founded major music festivals. (Thanks to Mathias’ North Wales International Music Festival at St Asaph, he was a well-known figure to many members of this orchestra).
But above all, they wrote music to be played and enjoyed by the people amongst whom they lived. There’s no “squeaky gate” music here – none of the fads and mannerisms that make contemporary classical music a fringe interest in the rest of the UK. Many members of the Wrexham Symphony Orchestra (and not only Welsh members) grew up with this music in their youth orchestras; and many present tonight will have met Alun Hoddinott, Gareth Wood or William Mathias. Tonight’s concert is a celebration of a proud, and living, tradition.