Male Voice Choirs
IT COULD be a rousing rendition of Cwm Rhondda (Bread of Heaven), the dramatic crescendos of Calon Lân (A Pure Heart), or a medley of Tom Jones’s hits. Wales has long been known as the Land of Song and its male voice choirs are an iconic part of the tradition.
This is a nation recognised for its choral traditions which are rooted in the culture dating back to the 18th Century. The occurrences of hymn singing and performances of religious compositions, brought together a rise in choral singing.
The hymn-singing festival, also known as the Cymanfa Ganu, thrived as people sang together in harmony from various hymn books, and Wales soon witnessed a surge in congregational singing including through the formation of the Eisteddfod festival, an annual gathering of performers in different cities around the nation.
Some prominent male voice choirs in Wales today include Morriston Orpheus, Pendyrus and Treorchy male voice choirs, who all enjoy a world-wide reputation, among many others in the south Wales valleys, a region regarded as the hub of choral singing.
All-male choirs emerged out of the singing in Nonconformist chapels and the groups that, because of the Industrial Revolution, came together to work in the country’s mines, shipyards, factories and docks.
This tradition of choral singing has been expressed through sporting events, especially in the country’s national sport of rugby, which in 1905 saw the first singing of a national anthem, Wales’s Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, at the start of an international sporting encounter.
Singing was one of the crucial methods the Welsh used to establish their rugged individualism, especially in the wake of a fading language, political struggles and cultural constraints from the English.
Some traditional songs include classic hymns like Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer (sung most often in worship settings), Myfanwy (a tragic love song), Llef (a prayerful song for the dead) and Calon Lân (a patriotic song and anthem of Welsh rugby matches).
The world-renowned Treorchy Male Choir was formed in 1883 and was soon winning eisteddfods. It performed at Windsor for Queen Victoria in 1895, but disbanded in 1943 while Wales was suffering from the effects of the Great Depression and two world wars.
Reformed in 1946 and after numerous competition wins, the Treorchy Male Choir landed a record deal with EMI in the 1960s and was invited to perform all over the world.
Morriston Orpheus Choir, formed in 1935, also enjoys an international reputation as a leading exponent of male choral singing and is in constant demand, performing around 25 engagements annually.
Often referred to as the ‘Ambassadors of Song’, the Morriston Orpheus are probably the most travelled of the Welsh male voice choirs with more than 30 overseas concert tours undertaken since the mid-1960s.
Pendyrus became one of the greatest ambassadors of not only Rhondda, but also Wales, greatly admired by the thousands of people who have thronged to hundreds of concerts since their inauguration in the pit village of Tylorstown in 1924.
The name Pendyrus can be found on two streets in the locality, one in Cardiff and even a street in Delta, Pennsylvania, USA (renamed in honour of the choir’s American tour of 1989).
Along with a sense of unity and togetherness, choral singing brings a joy of nationalism and patriotism to those when singing in a choir, being a unique part of Wales’s strong musical culture.
The annual National Eisteddfod, includes dozens of choral competitions, ranging from youth to ladies to male voice choirs. In more recent years, there has been an increase in other choral competitions, such as Côr Cymru (the choir of Wales), involving several choral categories, from mixed choirs to children’s choirs. Celebrated internationally also, is Llangollen International Eisteddfod which displays choral singing at its best with choirs all around the globe competing for the renowned title of ‘Choir of the World’ in the small town in north Wales.
There are around 100 male choirs across Wales today, and many welcome visitors free of charge to their weekly or even twice-weekly practices. It’s certainly an interesting way to pass an evening, to soak up some culture and meet a few locals.
As early as the 12th Century, the wandering clergyman Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) noted the Welsh love of music and gift for singing in harmony, “melding in the soft sweetness of B-flat.”
Some 80 per cent of people in Wales were chapel-goers in the latter 19th Century.
Add the boom in coal mining, iron and slate, and the seething concentrations of populations that grew around pit and quarry, the perils men faced and the comradeship that saw them through — it is easy to understand how choirs, demanding committed shoulder-to-shoulder teamwork as well as providing emotional release, became so firmly planted in industrial areas. What else can explain how macho, work-hardened men could get together, stand in public and bare their souls so movingly in song?
Choirs sprang up like wildfire, some of them 150 voices strong. And with them came the opportunity to travel and tour, and the tribal desire to compete — a spirit still to be witnessed today at the National Eisteddfod and smaller eisteddfodau. Though times do change… prizes no longer include a pair of boots and a pair of trousers, as they did for winning conductors in a competition held in Tonypandy in 1899. Nor are there competition categories for choirs of the unemployed, as at the 1938 Cardiff National (there were five entries).
Choirs had boomed not only when industry did, but when mass unemployment and hardship hit in the 1920s and 1930s; choirs occupied men’s unoccupied time, gave a lifeline through some sense of purpose and pride, and they could help to raise much-needed money through performances.
The Pendyrus Male Voice Choir in the Rhondda Valley was formed in 1924 when out-of-work miners from the south Wales coalfield decided to take advantage of their enforced leisure time.
Choir member and social historian Gareth Williams notes in his book Do You Hear the People Sing? some of the claims made for different sounds associated with different areas of Wales: That coal produced the ringing top tenors of south Wales; slate the thunderous basses of the north; the poured molten metal of tin and copper works around Swansea contributed to the mellow tones of choirs like the Morriston, while iron-making townships such as Tredegar “found powerful comfort in the comradeship of song.”
Accents are clearly audible in the rolled Rs and lilting cadences of the music. It’s a sound that is synonymous with Welsh culture and life – heard everywhere from the area’s chapels to its rugby fields.
Every choir may have its own sound, but there is also merit in talking of a national characteristic. It’s said the Welsh way of talking and singing produces purer vowels. There’s a lilting musicality inherent in Welsh conversation. And then there’s the famous hwyl and hiraeth (any English translation falls short of the depth of fervent humour, energy and longing contained in those words).
Nowadays, with mining vanished and chapel-going a minority interest, and with so many more distractions to fill spare time, recruitment of younger men can be a challenge.
With choir rehearsals twice a week, friendship and commitment become the glue, and, of course, there’s the afterglow that so many choirs speak of — the more informal, spontaneous singing in pubs or bars following concerts.
Indeed, one relatively ‘youthful’ choir, Monmouth, glories in the motto: “The pursuit of excellence through diligence, practice, good humor and the occasional pint.”
Welsh male voice choirs have become something of a spectacle to the outside world: Only Boys Aloud, a choir made up of 130-plus boys aged 14-19 from the financially depressed and socially troubled south Wales valleys, was featured on Britain’s Got Talent in 2012, placing third overall.
The Dunvant Male Choir (DMC) is said to be Wales’s longest-running male singing group, and it has kept going despite the Covid-19 pandemic, which scuppered their 125th anniversary plans. Concerts were planned to recognise their endurance and survival, including a gala event featuring Sir Bryn Terfel, the world-renowned bass-baritone who began his career with the choir as a student (he loved them so much they sang at his wedding).
When the pandemic came along, so did silence. The choir needed to keep going. Dunvant has overcome industrial tragedies; the decline of steel, copper and coal; a decrease in the chapel communities that fed its culture of singing hymns; the younger generations’ preference for less communal, at-home entertainment. An ageing population is a challenge to all-male choirs, and one Dunvant had started to tackle before a disease came along that was a particular threat to older men. But if it could survive two world wars, it could take on a pandemic.
The DMC is special to Terfel because the choir sought him out as a 20-year-old singer who had done well at eisteddfods. He was a soloist with them in concerts where he first performed big operatic arias live in front of an audience.
Terfel did his first international tours thanks to Dunvant, travelling with them to the US and Canada between 1985 and 1987; he saw the Met in New York for the first time and sang to his first sold-out crowds. He has since sung with professional choirs all over the world, but says there is something about Welsh amateur choirs that gets to him like nothing else.
It’s partly about church and chapel, he says, and people coming together every Sunday to sing loudly, after a week working in industry or agriculture. It also comes from the singing of the Welsh language: “Welsh has seven vowels, so it’s good for it.”
It’s also about “that feeling of being a team, where everyone knows they can achieve more together, and that it’s something that has to be worked at. It’s about nurturing this feeling that’s sprung from the ground, and keeping it growing.”
Dunvant is a sprawling, hilly village four miles west of Swansea. The chapel was built in 1890, only five years before the choir that formed there.
It was a textbook Welsh village at the turn of the 20th Century, dominated by industry and chapel, its two collieries employing 770 men. It was a tough life.
The village lost miners in underground floods in 1914 and 1924 and another to an accident on a railway line. But there was a warmth to that world, too. One member described it as: “a companionship, without wanting to be sentimental”.
He also explained how this would translate into music on the journeys back and forth to the coalface at either end of the week. “You’d jump in a drum on the spake [the train that took the men down], and every Monday morning sing The Lord’s My Shepherd together, or There’s A Gold Mine In The Sky. That would be you all re-invigorated, ready for the off. And the same on a Friday afternoon, when you’re coming out, ready for the weekend. That was lovely, when you heard that.”
Many of these men were single, and keen for entertainment; the choir gave them an expressive outlet, a social life and, crucially, other cultural opportunities. Eisteddfods encouraged the learning of new repertoire.
In 1962, a group of 26 choirs formed an association to collectively address the needs of male choirs. The Welsh Association of Male Voice Choirs is responsible for organising the Festival of Massed Male Voice Choirs, held at the Albert Hall, London, biannually, to engage and celebrate the art of male voice choral singing in Wales.
Nowadays, the Welsh Association of Male Choirs has over 100 members, not only from Wales, but elsewhere in the United Kingdom and even overseas.
The choir of the world-famous London Welsh Rugby Club has established itself as one of the premier male-voice performers in the UK. Highlights include a tour with the 2005 British and Irish Lions rugby team in New Zealand, further high-profile tours to Scandanavia, Asia and across Europe, several appearances on national radio and television; as well as its defining moment – performing at the 2012 London Olympics in front of a worldwide audience of more than one billion.
With strong ties to both their Welsh roots and the exile community centred around London Welsh’s famous Old Deer Park, the choir continues to spread its love of music to old and young alike.
Oxford Welsh Male Voice Choir was formed in 1928 by Welshmen who had travelled to Oxford looking for work at William Morris’s car factory. Today the choir is more mixed, but sings in the traditional four-part male voice style (first and second tenor, baritone and bass) and a good proportion of the repertoire is in the Welsh language.
The Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir, founded in 1978, had its roots in an impromptu singing of Welsh songs around a piano at the St David’s Society annual ball in 1977. The singing was not altogether well received and so a plan was hatched to do better at the next ball, the following year. While the second appearance was not exactly of the highest quality either, it was spirited and harmonious enough; and so, bolstered by the support of the St David’s Society, the Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir was officially founded.
In 1982, Sir Harry Secombe attended the Hong Kong ball. He heard the Choir sing and agreed to become its first patron. Sir Harry invited the Choir to perform with him at a concert to be held in Sydney Opera House, but this proposal was rejected by the Australian performers’ union, Equity. The Choir had to wait 25 years to make it onto that particular stage; in 2007, they performed there in a festival of Welsh male choirs.
And so the singing continued – supporting Max Boyce on stage and at the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens, on cruise ships such as the QE2, with visiting Welsh choirs, and in annual theatrical shows. In 1997, just before Hong Kong was handed back to China, the Choir sang for the last Governor, Chris Patten, at Government House.
Quite a number of the Choir’s current members can claim Welsh roots, or have Welsh connections, and they have many Welsh language songs in their repertoire, ensuring that the Choir is truly Welsh in character.
Established in 1984, the National Youth Choir of Wales has supported the long-standing choral traditions of Wales ever since, with many alumni still singing or conducting choirs throughout Wales and further afield.
Other alumni can be heard performing professionally in concert halls and opera houses throughout the world, including Sir Bryn Terfel, Katherine Jenkins and conductor Tim Rhys-Evans.
Offering hope of extending Wales’s proud choral tradition well into the future, the Choir’s members, largely aged between 16 and 22 years, are drawn from all parts of Wales and auditioned annually.
(sources include Visit Wales, Welsh National Opera, British Heritage, Welsh Association of Male Choirs, Wikipedia, The Guardian, Eisteddfod Wales)
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