The Great Composers of Wales

by The Editor

An English music-lover goes in search of Cambria’s symphonies and quartets.

By Stuart Millson

Wales is a land of misty hills and deep-green valleys, where a strong choral tradition still thrives. However, our image of the country as the land of song – a true image – has obscured another important native achievement: the creation by a group of 20th century composers of a Welsh national school of music. I use the term “group” and “school”, but the musicians in question did not make any formal bond to establish a national style or movement. Just like the English musical renascence of the late-19th and early-20th centuries there seemed to be music in the air, and a fine yield of composers arose from those fertile times.

The inspiration for Wales’s 20th century composers came from many different sources. For Alun Hoddinott (1929-2008), there was the lyricism of Welsh folk-music – idioms and archetypes incorporated into his sets of Welsh Dances (similar in spirit to Sir Malcolm Arnold’s English and Cornish Dances of the 1960s). He also set out to commemorate specific events in Welsh life, such as the Investiture of HRH The Prince of Wales in 1969. Three Investiture Dances were the result – a suite most definitely in the native style, but with a surprisingly dark-in-tone, slow central movement – an impression of lonely landscapes, and circling red kites or buzzards, perhaps?

Hoddinott also wrote a fanfare for the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla, now the Duchess of Cornwall, and so can almost be regarded as a Welsh composer-laureate. Yet his work is not simply contained within the boundaries of a country: it has a universal, even cosmic feeling – especially his mighty orchestral canvas, The Sun, The Great Luminary of the Universe. And I can remember at the Proms in 1989, the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra (now the BBC National Orchestra of Wales) performing the mystical modern score, Star Children – one of the master’s later works.

Another composer from west of the Severn to be featured at a Royal Albert Hall prom, this time in 1982, was Daniel Jones (1912-93), a remarkable man – friend of Dylan Thomas, wartime cryptographer, and the composer of 13 symphonies and eight String Quartets. Jones did not self-consciously promote “Welshness” in his music, but rather produced his work as an artist who just happened to be born in Wales. The orchestral item given in 1982 was his Dance Fantasy, and I was privileged to be able to obtain the composer’s autograph on the concert programme – Jones standing by the artists’ entrance, quite informally, at the end of the evening, genial, friendly and quite “everyday” in his manner!

Jones’s String Quartets are “absolute music”, and they tend to belong to the same world of sound as, for instance, the chamber music of Britten or Tippett. They are brilliantly well-crafted, and yet seem to evoke mind’s-eye images of sea or landscapes in Pembrokeshire and West Wales. But for Welsh music with a definite programme, we need look no further than the figure of Arwel Hughes (1909-99). This composer, the father of the orchestral conductor Owain Arwel Hughes CBE, worked for many years for the BBC, and is famous for two highly-tuneful and stirring works: the oratorio, St. David (Dewi Sant, of course!) and the choral-orchestral God Bless the Prince of Wales – a Cambrian Jerusalem, which is sung with great passion at the Last Night of the Welsh Proms in Cardiff, a concert series founded by the composer’s son.

The oratorio, St David, was written as a contribution to the Festival of Britain, and contains passages of great, joyful hope in the future, as well as sections of pastoral beauty – certainly music to play on a summer’s day in Wales, as swallows and house martins fly above farms and cornfields. An excellent CD of the oratorio is available on the record label, Chandos. A pastoral feeling is also very much in evidence in the Fantasia in A Minor for string orchestra, Arwel Hughes’s contribution to a genre which has produced such British masterpieces as Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, and the timeless Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams. (Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, by the way, has a connection with the Cardiganshire sea-village of Llangranog – Elgar having visited the coast in the early 1900s, hearing, as if carried on the wind from a distant hill, the singing of an old country song.)

The Arwel Hughes Fantasia has a slight sense of a folk or local idiom in its faster-moving sections, but there is a seriousness throughout – even a melancholia – which brings the work very close to the emotions generated in the Elegy for strings, by English composer, Herbert Howells. Again, the listener can make up his or her own mind about where its inspiration arises by enjoying a superb performance on the Scandinavian BIS label, with the Camerata Wales, under the baton of Owain Arwel Hughes.

William Mathias (1934-92) wrote in an altogether less tonal style, but one which still captures attention. One of his most impressive works is the Second Symphony, subtitled Summer Music. The three movements are headed with evocative quotations from Welsh literature– “My original country is the region of the summer stars” (translated from ancient Welsh, by Robert Graves) and Dylan Thomas’s lines: “My ark sings in the sun, at God-speeded summer’s end.” An atmosphere like no other pervades this symphony: we are truly in a region of almost supernatural light and feeling – a modern score, yet with an ancient underpinning of ideas, which is very difficult to describe. Again, the listener must explore for himself – and a recording by Nimbus (the composer conducting his own work) enables you to do this.

Finally, no survey of Cambrian music would be complete without remembering the delicate music of Grace Williams (1906-77). Born near Cardiff, she studied under Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music and, like Arwel Hughes, worked for the BBC. A lyricism and complexity may be found in her well-known Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes – a work from 1940 - and in the eerie, Britten-like Willow Song from her suite, The Dancers. The great British conductor, Vernon Handley, championed Grace Williams’s work, and recorded her fascinating Sea Sketches with the BBC’s Welsh orchestra.

Wales has produced a great symphonic and choral tradition. It deserves to be better known, not just in the country of its birth, but throughout the United Kingdom, and the world. It is music of great depth and nobility, and embodies the beauty, sometimes strange beauty, of its ancient hills, myths, language and landscapes.

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