STUART MILLSON celebrates Celtic composers
We tend to think of British music, and the landscape of the British repertoire, as belonging to English composers such as Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten. But it is not just bucolic, visionary southern English landscapes that have inspired great music.
The Welsh landscape is just as much a place of legend, poetry and long thoughts, and here another school of British music may be found and appreciated, of 20th-century romantics and romantic-modernists – Alun Hoddinott, William Mathias, Daniel Jones, Grace Williams, and Arwel Hughes. For Hoddinott, the Welsh landscape and Welsh lore provided huge sources of inspiration, although his work also included pieces that stood alone from ‘Welshness’ and demonstrated a pure, contemporary appeal, such as The Sun, the Great Luminary of the Universe. Mathias and Jones are known for their symphonies (Jones also achieving note as a prolific writer of string quartets), and Grace Williams for her Sea Sketches and Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Rhymes, but Arwel Hughes might be less familiar to music-lovers, certainly to an English audience. The time has now come to rediscover British music, to understand it through its Welsh, Scottish and Irish voices, beginning with the magnificent, and largely unknown, music of Arwel Hughes.
Hughes was born in 1909, in the mining village of Rhosllannerchrugog, near Wrexham. Hughes’s background was shaped by family, by the kindness of a very musical elder brother, and by local nonconformist (Baptist) traditions. Yet self-containment need not be inward-looking, and it was clear that the young Arwel’s talents would propel him toward an academic musical career of the highest quality. His son, the conductor Owain Arwel Hughes, wrote of those early years:
My father was a highly-gifted keyboard player from a very young age, quite astonishing when one thinks of his upbringing as the tenth and youngest child of a mining family with no musical heritage whatsoever. He went to the Royal College of Music to study composition and organ, a courageous decision, not to say a huge financial burden considering his background
And what a step it proved to be for the young Welshman alone in London, as Owain Arwel explained:
My father studied composition under that musical giant Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose influence was profound not only as an inspiring teacher but also as a gentle, caring father figure…
Vaughan Williams was not the only luminary to influence Hughes; other tutors included Gordon Jacob (who arranged Vaughan Williams’s English Folk-Song Suite), and Gustav Holst. It was not long before the student from North Wales was absorbed into the English High Church musical tradition, as an organist and choirmaster at the Church of SS. Philip and James, Oxford. In 1935, the chance came to return to Wales in a role for the BBC, that of Studio Assistant at the Corporation’s offices in Cardiff – the prelude to a successful career that was to last until 1971, when Hughes retired from the post of Head of Music.
During that long span, Hughes devoted much time to championing his fellow Welsh composers, and this generosity of spirit may have interrupted his own progress as a writer of symphonic works. However, time was found in the evening to compose, and there is no doubting the natural inspiration and gift for momentum, mood and melody at the heart of Hughes’s wide output. It is also worth noting that this quiet and unassuming administrator (alongside his Welsh BBC colleague, the conductor, Mansel Thomas) gave us one of the country’s much-loved television institutions. Dechrau Canu, Dechrau Canmol was a Welsh programme devoted to community hymn-singing, and it was always Hughes’s desire to see music – religious, or otherwise – actively touch the hearts and daily lives of ordinary people. The formula was taken up by the English BBC and entitled Songs of Praise; it was fitting that the show should have been presented by that great Welshman, Sir Harry Secombe.
Possibly Hughes’s best-known piece is the highly-accessible oratorio, Dewi Sant (Saint David), commissioned as a Welsh contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain. For soprano, tenor, baritone, chorus and large orchestra, the work begins with a flourish – “Praise the Lord for all of His saints/Praise the Lord for David our Patron…” Straightforward and a showpiece for a Welsh choir, the opening section then gives way to a meditative pastoralism, every bit as touching as the English masses and impressionism of Vaughan Williams or Howells:
Who’ll bring his sickle to the yellowing wheat and his scythe to the meadow at morn? Who’ll come to burn the tares that choketh the rip’ning corn?
But there are also some blood-stirring lines for chapel-going Welsh patriots:
In Cymru’s vineyard the tree was planted; Fed were its roots with the blood of the martyrs, / Beneath its bloody branch is shelter, Find refuge and rest in the arms of the Saviour, For on this precious tree doth grow The leaves to heal the nation’s woe
The words for Dewi Sant were written by Hughes’s fellow countryman, the poet Aneurin Talfan Davies, and the work was first performed at that great shrine to Celtic Christendom, St. David’s Cathedral, Pembroke, in the July of that momentous Festival of Britain year.
Another well worked-out piece – finely-structured, again accessible yet with a deep saying – is the comparatively early Fantasia in A minor, for strings (1936). It is a piece of “absolute music” – music for music’s sake, although the Welshness is one of impressionism and shadow. The composition is immediately appealing: a quiet, slow introduction, and the gradual gathering of energy, to achieve the soaring, intense statement on strings to be found in Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, in parts of Herbert Howell’s Elegy for Viola and Strings – or in the introspection of Britten’s Lachrymae for viola and strings.
More obviously Welsh themes appear in Hughes’s Owain Glyndwr (1979), Anatiomaros (“Great Soul”) (1943), his Prelude “To the Youth of Wales” from 1945, and an opera, inspired by folk legends, entitled Menna – a spirit in operatic writing, reminiscent of the English composer Rutland Boughton’s ancient Arthurian and mystical dramas, or of Delius’s Irmelin. Apart from the whole of Menna (which has received at least one studio performance by the BBC Concert Orchestra), all of the Hughes works mentioned in this article have been recorded under the baton of the composer’s son, conducting Camerata Wales and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, thanks to the innovative Swedish record label, BIS.
There is one stirring piece that has not, as yet, been recorded for posterity. Written especially for the Welsh Proms at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff (a concert series founded in 1986 by Owain Arwel Hughes), it is that national favourite – God Bless the Prince of Wales. A magnificent arrangement of a traditional hymn of praise to Wales and its Prince, Hughes conceived the work as a Welsh version of Jerusalem – something noble and heroic for a Celtic audience to sing at the end of their promenade concerts. With its evocations of “ancient mountains and lovely dales”, and the spirit of the people who dwell there, a nostalgia – or sense of hiraeth – fills the concert-hall. It is difficult to understand why the works of this pupil of Vaughan Williams and master in his own right should be so unfamiliar.
The inspiration for Wales’s other 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 – which seems to take us into a strange, craggy region of mountains, Neolithic stones, and skies ruled by birds of prey.
Another composer from west of the Severn is 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. An orchestral item of his was performed at the 1982 Proms, his Dance Fantasy, and I was 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 belong to the same sound-world as 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.
One piece of music that is self-consciously Cambrian is Welsh Rhapsody by Sir Edward German, a composer born in England – but with Welsh blood in his veins – and originally known as Edward German Jones. He is, perhaps, best known for his lyrical light opera, Merrie England, but also gained considerable acclaim in his lifetime with music for many other plays; for coronation music for George V, and symphonies (one subtitled, The Norwich).
Now to the wild domains of Scotland, and Victorian and Edwardian high-romanticism. It fell to a Scottish composer, Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916), to create a musical world of drama and legend – MacCunn being, perhaps, the Sir Walter Scott of orchestral works and opera. MacCunn was one of the first students at the new Royal College of Music, which was founded by the future Edward VII, and opened in 1882, and his best-known work is The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, a piece of great melody, atmosphere and power. Just like Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave, MacCunn’s scene-painting has an immediate fresh-air, open-air quality; with the drama and overwhelming presence of majestic natural forces flowing through his rich score. Scottish moorland, mountains, rivers, and shifting weather conditions are all felt in the overture, with a sense of Scottish clans, border raids, blood feuds and ancient folklore never far away.
Then there was Cecil Coles, who entered the Royal College of Music in 1907. Coles was influenced by Highland themes and landscape, and a number of years ago at the Proms, the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland performed his bright, energetic The Comedy of Errors. Coles served in the Great War, and actually became bandmaster of his regiment, but, like his English contemporaries George Butterworth and Ernest Farrar, he was killed, in his case whilst helping retrieve injured comrades by dragging them back to the British lines. Who knows where British music might have gone, and what works might have been created, had not the war cut down such talents?
Similar inspirations – landscape, longing, memory, history – but this time in the landscape of the island of Ireland, can be enjoyed in the Irish Symphony and tone-poems, With the Wild Geese and The Children of Lir by Sir Hamilton Harty, a charismatic conductor and composer, born in County Down in 1879. Again, the name – Hamilton Harty – is unfamiliar to modern concert audiences, although recordings by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, and the Ulster Orchestra, have at least maintained his presence on CD. The muscular, immediately impressive styles of Berlioz or Tchaikovsky come to mind in the Irish composer’s assertive, call-to-arms, yet occasionally dreamy music. With the Wild Geese is especially intriguing, Harty’s wild spirits being the Irish soldiers who fought with the French at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745, but whose spirits returned to the skies and lands of Ireland in the form of a flock of birds.
The great wealth of music and musical inspiration from across the British Isles is to be treasured and cherished, and yet it seems that apart from a few specialist music festivals, BBC Radio 3 and the occasional outing for one or two of the works mentioned, our composers and their works are largely unknown. Modern society’s obsessions with dissolving the past, living only for the moment, and our general, gradual journey into a malaise of self-doubt are all taking us away from the bedrock of our culture. Now, more than ever, we need to find again our national voices in art and music – to re-anchor and rediscover the music of the isles.
STUART MILLSON is a member of the Chartered Institute of Journalists. After more than two decades living in a Kent village, he crossed the River Severn and the Black Mountains, and now writes from West Wales.