Cymdeithas Hanes Resolfen History Society

A web log for the Resolven History Society which publishes articles and stories related to Resolven and the immediate surroundings.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Next month's meeting

March Meeting :


Meeting begins at 7:00pm in the Church hall on MondAY 11th  MARCH.
Membership: £8 ( including refreshments)
Visitors: £3.
Croeso cynnes i Bawb

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

February Meeting

Martyrs of the Arena: Music, Sport and Society in Wales 1870-1914

This month’s meeting featured the Annual Noel Thomas Memorial Lecture and it would certainly have been one that Noel would himself have enjoyed immensely. The speaker was Professor Gareth Williams of the University of Glamorgan, one of our foremost social historians on nineteenth century Wales. The large audience were given a real treat.
Professor Williams began his lecture by stating that he had never stopped at Resolfen before but he was aware of some of the great rugby players and musicians which emanated from the village, including David Evans and Tom Hopkin Evans. He then passed a hand-out to everyone in the audience and alluded to the headlines of the 1880s which included Afghanistan, Tory dissension and problems in Europe which sounded very familiar to a modern audience. He then turned to headlines which were more biblical and comedic e.g. Last Judgement in Treherbert, Crucifixion in Machen which were reports on great choral works that had been performed locally. This was a society of teeming masses, industry and a new culture which was being forged in its furnace.

He then turned to the Cardiff International Competition in 1903 for Male Voice Choirs. The adjudicator that day was none other than Laurent de Rillé composer of the familiar anthem “Martyrs of the Arena”, which featured an item for all the finalists. Despite the fact that 15 Welsh choirs had taken part the first prize was taken by Manchester Choral Society. Mme de Rillé apparently was so overcome by the combined singing of Joseph Parry’s hymn tune “Aberystwyth” that she readily joined in even though she did not know the Welsh words. The fact that the English choir had won was significant since they came from middle class musical backgrounds whereas the Welsh choirs were working class and self-taught.

The number of choirs was representative of a very competitive society in all aspects of life. The Population of Wales had doubled twice since 1850 and 1:3 of the men were coal miners some 250,000 all told. The population of Rhondda alone had rocketed from a few dozen to nearly 200,000 in less than fifty years. The society was dominated by young men, and rugby teams or choirs served as a release valve from the drudgery of their working lives. Professor Williams also stated that the coal owners were quite happy with this situation since it took the men away from grievances and joining trades unions or political agitation. Rugby teams were usually based in pubs and drew the ire of the chapel deacons.

Juxtaposed with this social mix was the rise of nonconformity and Temperance. Some 5,000 chapels were built during this period and music played a part alongside the musical literacy of the tonic sol-fa. Congregations were immense, for instance Bethania, Dowlais had 730 regularly attending Sunday school (adults and children). The chapels viewed sport with suspicion, and it was condemned from “Y Sêt Fawr” with utterances such as “Kick! men were not made to kick!!!”The rugby games were both fierce and violent. Quite often games were accompanied by crowd trouble, which included women  who made up a third of the crowd, and sides were sometimes suspended for weeks to cool down. A comment made by a more sober member of south Walian society stated that “scores were to be sung from”.

Yet, the image of Wales as a land of song was largely an invention of this period. Rugby was an import as was the music of Handel and the first Cymanfa Ganu only came in 1859. The Welsh however were good at it and the chapels offered halls big enough to hold choirs of immense size and in subsequence a substantial quasi-religious repertoire developed. Professor Williams vividly exemplified the popularity of music by showing that more people attended the choral competition at the National Eisteddfod in 1893, some 20,000, than had attended the Wales international against England. The numbers of soloists in eisteddfodau also showed a huge gain during the second half of the nineteenth century. However, the rivalry between choirs was often intense enough to end in fights and adjudicators were often intimidated by charismatic conductors such as Dan Davies of Dowlais.

Professor Williams, who is himself a member of the Pendyrus Male Voice Choir interspersed his lecture with passages from well-known musical works of the period. He paid special attention to “Teyrnasoedd y Ddaear”, by J Ambrose Lloyd which was in the style of the great masters.

Mr Phylip Jones thanked Professor Williams for a very memorable lecture. He also added to the professor's surprise that Noel Thomas himself was a nephew of David Evans and that Resolfen possessed three doctors of music as against two. Some of the immediate family were also in the audience.