Essay: There Was So Much Singing Then

“There Was So Much Singing Then”: Choral Singing & National Identity in 19th-century Wales

This is an overhaul of a paper I wrote for my BA in history, about 13 (!) years ago. As a sort of personal writing exercise, I have attempted to recast it for a general audience, aiming for a more informal/less academic tone. In addition to stylistic changes, this involved a lot of paring down and the removal of all footnotes, but I want to be clear that the following is my interpretation of work done by many great scholars of Welsh history and culture; they are listed in a bibliography posted below the main text, and I would be happy to be more specific about the exact provenance of any particular bit of information, should anyone be interested. Any errors or inaccuracies are my own, of course.

I’m fascinated by the formation of national identity in general, and the role that cultural expression (especially music, and theatre) plays in that process. I’m also a choir nerd of long standing, so I kind of love the idea of a national culture in which choral singing is valued so highly. Wales is famous in particular for its male voice choirs, but singing in general has been a major focus of Welsh culture for at least the past two centuries.  The ability to sing well, with heart and passion, is something that’s widely considered to be a typical Welsh characteristic and a source of national pride – or at least, it was in the late 1990s when I first researched this. I’d be interested to know if that’s still true now (2013).

DISCLAIMER: I am not Welsh. I’m third-generation Canadian, of mainly Scottish ancestry. I’ve never been to Wales, either.  (Yet. It’s close to the top of the list, though, of Places To Go As Time and Finances Permit.)  The only part of the following that I have direct personal experience with is the choral singing; I’ve done a lot of that in my life thus far, and I love it. 

So the story goes, the beginnings of the tradition can be traced to 19th-century Welsh miners who would sing hymns together as they walked home from their shifts. It’s said that they also sometimes sang as they worked deep underground, or as they took the long, dark elevator ride down the shaft, or back up at the end of a shift.   I’m of two minds about this origin story. On one hand, it just seems a bit unlikely that anyone would feel like singing while doing work that was both utterly exhausting and highly dangerous, in the dehumanizing conditions of your average 19th-century mine. On the other hand…yes, it was a brutally hard life, and maybe that’s exactly why they had to do something to keep from breaking down and giving up.  Singing was comfort, solidarity, hope, a way to communicate, a reminder of community. I can certainly relate to that.

In any case, apocryphal or not, these stories do highlight two things that were fundamental to the development of the choral tradition in Wales: (1) mining, which is to say the Industrial Revolution, and (2) hymns, which is to say Nonconformist chapel culture.

Let’s talk about the Industrial Revolution
This was a time of massive political, social, economic and technological upheaval. In Wales, it was all about heavy industry, especially the mining of metals and coal.  As the iron furnaces were opened,  coal pits were sunk, new roads, bridges, canals and railway tracks laid down, the people came pouring in to feed the ferocious demand of the ironworks and collieries for labour. By 1840, Dowlais ironworks alone had 7,000 employees; by 1861 the coalfields of Glamorgan employed 38,000 men, a total that would rise to 117,000 in 1891 and 220,000 in 1913. Dai Smith writes: “A small population of about half a million in 1800, over 80% of whom lived on the land, had become, by 1914, a people over five times that number, 80% of whom lived in towns and cities.” As an example, in 1801 Cardiff, Swansea and Newport had a total population of 18,000 between them; in 1921 the total was 530,000.

In other words, industrialization brought the Welsh into contact with more other Welsh (and non-Welsh) people than ever before, and most of them were living in the new villages and towns that sprang up around the slate quarries, tinplate works, ironworks and coal mines.  Historians Gwyn Williams and E.T. Davies (among others) have characterized these industrial towns as frontier societies, with no established structures of communal organization or authority. Like North American gold rush towns, or the pioneer settlements of the Wild West…in the valleys of South Wales. The Anglican Church, which might have been expected to step into the power vacuum, was slow to adapt its old system of parishes to the massive shifts in population, so that for the first half of the 19th century, the churches were not where the people were. This is where the Nonconformists come in.

Um, what’s a Nonconformist?
In the context of 19th-century Britain, the Nonconformists were those who refused to accept the Church of England as the highest religious authority in the land. It’s an umbrella term that includes pretty much all the varieties of Protestantism that existed at the time: Presbyterians, Methodists, Unitarians, Quakers, Congregationists, Baptists and probably others that I can’t remember at the moment. The important things to note are (a) that there were a LOT of Nonconformists in Wales at this time;  and (b) they had a strong tradition of lay involvement and individual responsibility, in fine Protestant “we don’t need an Established Church – or the Pope, or the parish priest – to act as intermediary to God; we’ll do it ourselves, thank you very much” tradition.

This DIY attitude appears to have made the Nonconformists better-suited to the rapid pace of change than the Anglican Church, as the industrial revolution overtook Wales. The case of Zoar Church, founded in 1794 in Merthyr Tydfil in the Long Room of the Crown Inn, by several families who had emigrated from the same rural village, was far from unusual. A mere four years after a pit was sunk at Ferndale (Blaenllechau), the Baptists had built a chapel with a seating capacity of 600. The Independents followed suit a year later, the Calvinistic Methodists three years later; by the time the Wesleyans built theirs in 1871 the township – itself barely half-built – could boast of having funded, erected and filled four large chapels in less than ten years.

Religion – primarily in Nonconformist guise – pervaded Welsh culture and society of this period to an extent that it is probably hard/impossible for us (living as we do in a highly secularized world) to comprehend.  The chapels were heavily involved in most aspects of community and intellectual life. They were major providers of opportunities that most Welsh people did not have in their jobs or any other aspect of their lives: opportunities for education, self-improvement, psychological release and escape from the drudgery of work in the mines or on the land.

Welsh Nonconformists placed great value on literacy, the skills of rhetoric and the ability to make an effective public presentation (anyone can be a preacher, baby!). The chapels worked hard to educate their congregations, particularly through  Sunday schools, which were attended by adults as well as children, and through reading rooms and literary societies like the one founded by Dr. Thomas Price at Aberdare. Its curriculum included biblical and theological studies, English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew grammar, composition and philosophy.  This was pretty typical; organizations like this proliferated throughout Wales in the 18th and 19th centuries, providing access to and training in literature, poetry and especially music.

So what about the choral tradition?
Singing together was something Welsh Nonconformists had been doing in chapel since about the 1750s (before that, it was considered unseemly for the congregation to join in with the choir). As Nonconformity pervaded Wales, the importance of hymn singing in Welsh culture grew…particularly as the emergence of a Welsh-language publishing industry made it possible to print and distribute collections of hymn tunes and choral arrangements. The most important of these was Llyfr Tonau Cynulleidfaol, published in 1859 by the Reverend John Roberts , whose Welsh name was Ieuan Gwyllt. Containing 459 hymn-tunes, chants and anthems, Llyfr Tonau sold 25,000 copies almost overnight, and went through several subsequent editions.

Ieuan Gwyllt, in an attempt to raise the standard of performance and musicality in Welsh congregational singing, took it upon himself to conduct hymn-singing festivals called cymanfa ganu throughout Wales, at which he gathered together congregations from various local chapels and spent a day teaching them the words and parts of new hymns from his book. These cymanfa ganu (subsequently held by each chapel on a yearly basis), along with weekly choir rehearsals for the congregation, singing lessons (ysol gân) and performances, were crucial in standardizing Welsh hymn-singing and establishing a communal repertoire .

Thanks to all of the above, choral singing was becoming a pivotal aspect of community life. This trend was given a big boost by the Temperance movement, which started gaining ground in Wales from the mid-19th century onward, and which did a lot to bring the practice of choral singing out of chapel and into other aspects of Welsh daily life.

The Temperance Movement
According to the leaders and adherents of this movement, alcohol was Bad News, full stop. It was a drain on the finances of working class families who could barely afford the cost of living in the first place; it fuelled domestic abuse and other kinds of violence; it could be blamed for a whole host of other activities not considered respectable or moral at the time. The solution? Exorcise the demon drink!

Easier said than done. Temperance leaders, trying to entice people away from the rich popular culture of the pubs, found it necessary to provide some alternative form of entertainment and social interaction. Singing – something most people already did in chapel – was a logical option. Hence, the establishment of Temperance singing classes and Temperance choirs (membership limited, of course, to those who had “taken the pledge”). One of the more famous of these was the Zoar Independent Temperance Choir of Merthyr Tydfil, conducted by a Dowlais collier named Rosser Beynon. It was Beynon’s teacher, John Thomas (Ieuan Ddu), who is said to have introduced Handel’s Messiah to Wales. Apparently, the score was so expensive that he only bought one copy, and painstakingly transcribed all the choruses for his choir of forty, who were the first to perform it at his Baptist chapel in Merthyr. It was also in Merthyr, rapidly developing a reputation for excellence in choral singing, that a series of Temperance eisteddfodau were held between 1848 and 1879, and it was at the 1849 Temperance eisteddfod that choral singing was first introduced as a competitive category.

What’s an Eisteddfod?
(Before you ask, I’m told it’s pronounced something like “ay-STETH-fod”…)  Back in the Middle Ages, the eisteddfod  was a sort of annual general meeting of the bardic order, at which Welsh bards participated in literary and musical competitions. After more or less dying out for a few hundred years, the eisteddfod was revived in the 18th century as a festival of literature, music and performance. Throughout the 19th century, regional and municipal eisteddfoddau were held throughout Wales, and a National Eisteddfod was also established, which continues to be held annually to this day (Wikipedia tells me it is the largest festival of competitive music and poetry in Europe, attracting an average of 6,000 competitors and 150,000 visitors every year).  Eisteddfoddau, like  cymanfa  ganu, provided opportunities for otherwise isolated communities to have contact with one another, as did non-competitive choral festivals like the Harlech Festival, first held in 1867 (and thereafter annually until 1934), which attracted up to 20 choirs at a time to learn and perform works from the standard repertoire.

The possibility of performing at eisteddfoddau encouraged the foundation of more choirs, outside the chapel as well as inside it. Collieries and quarries founded male voice choirs of their own. The Penrhyn Male Voice Choir, for example, was formed in the 1890s following an eisteddfod held at Bethesda, in which choirs from various parts of the Penrhyn Slate Quarry competed. The quality was so high that the adjudicator suggested they combine into one choir, which still performs today (here they are on YouTube). Some public houses followed suit: the Cardiff Male Voice Choir, also still in existence today, is said to have been founded in 1898 by a group of friends in a local pub, the Barley Mow. Legend says that the police had to be called in occasionally to control the crowds that gathered outside when the choir rehearsed.

What, really?  The police? At a choir rehearsal?
It does seem pretty unlikely when you think of how terribly staid and buttoned-down most classical concert choirs and their audiences are today, and how far removed classical choral music appears to be from anything that might remotely be described as popular culture. However, in Wales in, say, the 1880s and 1890s, things were different. To the extent that it was possible for “everyone” in Wales to do one thing, choral singing was probably it.  In 1895 an estimated 280 cymanfa ganu were held throughout Wales, in which approximately 134, 550 people took part. In Swansea alone, 67 out of 114 chapels had choirs; some had two or more. In the iron town of Dowlais, at least eleven choral societies were formed between 1880 and 1990 alone.   Sixty-nine choirs competed at the Carmarthen National Eisteddfod in 1911, up from seven in 1867.

During this period it was not uncommon for crowds of 10,000 or more to gather at choral competitions – which were much more participatory for the listeners than a 21st-century reader might assume. A journalist at the Newport National Eisteddfod of 1897 observed that “next after a football match Welshmen enjoy a choral fight”! Indeed, it was normal for audiences to cheer uninhibitedly, to shout or hiss when mistakes were made, to heckle adjudicators and performers and occasionally even to threaten them with physical injury. At the Llanelli National Eisteddfod in 1903, the crowd of 20,000 even joined the eight competing choirs in their performances of choruses from Mendelssohn’s oratorio St. Paul.  If you’re looking for a 21st-century equivalent, it wouldn’t be a classical choir concert. A closer approximation might be the crowd belting out “Don’t Stop Believin'” right along with the touring cast of Glee or American Idol.

Choral Singing and Welsh National Identity
It’s not hard to see why people started talking about choral singing as being a form of national self expression. It was something that so many Welsh people had in common, and it seemed to draw together all the major strands of Welsh society and culture at the time: the Nonconformist chapels, the mines and quarries and factories, the hunger for education and self-betterment, the revival of the eisteddfod, Welsh language activism…And, possibly most importantly, the choral music tradition (as it was now starting to be called) looked like proof positive of something that was  increasingly important to the nation’s sense of itself: the perception that Welsh culture was essentially popular and working-class, in that the scholars, writers, poets and musicians who produced it were not members of an upper-class, highly educated élite; instead, they were ordinary people who had ordinary day jobs as miners, quarrymen, farm labourers and housewives.

One man who seemed to embody this was the famous conductor Griffith Rhys Jones, known as Caradog. Born in Trecynon in 1834, an accomplished violinist before he made his name as a choral conductor, Caradog was also a blacksmith, a publican and finally a director of breweries. His massive  450-voice mixed choir, the South Wales Choral Union (known affectionately as Côr Caradog), was composed almost entirely of colliers and their families.

In 1872, Côr Caradog took first place at an international choral competition held at the Crystal Palace in London. When Caradog and the choir returned home in a specially chartered eighteen-carriage train, they were given a tumultuous reception: cannon were fired, flags hung, and thousands of people filled the streets of Aberdare to welcome the conquering heroes home.  Super Bowl parade, anyone? The choir’s victory was invested with a larger, specifically national significance: it was seen as proof that Wales was not so uncivilized or uncultured as the British government had claimed in the controversial Blue Books. When the Rhondda Glee Society (formed in 1877) took first place against four American choirs and one from North Wales at the Chicago World’s Fair Eisteddfod in 1893, they too were received back home like superstars.

Choral singing also became a vehicle for the expression of nationalist feeling on the rugby field as that sport grew in popularity around the turn of the century, becoming itself  a focus for Welsh pride.  It became traditional for Welsh fans to sing hymns in the stands, belting out such favourites as “Guide Me Oh Thou Great Jehovah” (also known as “Bread of Heaven” or by its Welsh title, Cwm Rhondda) – in multi-part harmony, of course, with a fervour calculated to put the fear of God into the opposing team.

[Want to hear it? Here’s a traditional male voice choir’s interpretation, set to some lovely images of Wales]

In 1905, when Wales played the famous New Zealand “All Blacks” for the first time at Cardiff Arms Park, the Welsh Regiment’s Second Battalion Band struck up Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers) – the first time this air (composed in 1856 by two weavers of Pontypridd) had been accorded such “national anthem” status. An estimated 47,000 Welsh fans lifted up their voices in song, and Dave Gallaher, the New Zealand captain, said later that he had never been so impressed in his life as by that immense wall of sound. A New Zealand paper reported that “…long after the incidents of play have grown dim and blurred in one’s memory, the impression that will linger still vividly will be that vast chorus sounding forth the death-knell…of the All-blacks.” (And yes, the Welsh team did win in the end!)

Welsh rugby fans apparently still sing like anything when their national anthem is played. Here’s an example from a game at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium in, I think, 2008 or thereabouts…and yes, that is indeed a male voice choir on the field helping them out. And the Welsh Rugby Union has officially appropriated Bread of Heaven/Cwm Rhondda as its theme song, with an updated pop-rock arrangement and new patriotic words to the old tune. “Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven, Feed us till we want no more…” becomes “Wales forever, Wales forever, hear us now and evermore” (in Welsh and English)… but there’s still a male voice choir lustily singing back-up.

And in conclusion…
There’s nothing inherently Welsh about choral singing. People do it all over the world, and have been doing it for centuries, not least because, as a form of self-expression (communal or individual), it’s one of the most accessible out there: almost everyone possesses the basic instrument, and it takes little to no formal instruction or technique to be able to enjoy singing in a group situation. You don’t even have to know how to read. People can sing together even if they don’t speak the same language; even if they have next to nothing else in common. Doing so creates a powerful sense of community, of  being on the same wavelength as fellow participants. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the most common, everyday expressions of membership in any national community is the singing of the national anthem…or that in emerging nationalist movements, choral societies and festivals are very often important foci of nationalist activity. Wales was the case study I picked, but I could have written a similar paper about any number of other places or political/social movements (not all of them nationalist ones). There may be a PhD or a book in it someday… or maybe I’ll just join another choir instead. 😉 In the meantime, though, I’m going to leave the last word to a Suffolk horseman named Fred Mitchell, who was 85 in 1961 when Ronald Blythe recorded him talking about his youth. He would have been in his teens and 20s during the last part of the period I’ve been talking about throughout.  I think a lot of Welsh people of similar age would find his memories familiar:

The singing. There was so much singing then and this was my pleasure too. We all sang: the boys in the fields, the chapels were full of singing, always singing. Here I lie. I have had pleasure enough. I have had singing.

[Appropriately enough, this quote has been set to music – there are beautiful choral arrangements out there by Ron Jeffers, Steven Sametz and probably others.]


Welsh History, Society and Culture – 19th/20th century:

Davies, E.T. Religion in the Industrial Revolution in South Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1965 (Pantyfedwen Lectures 1962).

Francis, Hywel and David Smith. The Fed: A History of the South Wales Miners in the Twentieth Century. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1980.

Jenkins, Philip. A History of Modern Wales 1536-1990. New York and London: Longman, 1992.

Jones, Gareth Elwyn. Modern Wales: A Concise History c. 1485-1979. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Jones, leuan Gwynedd. Communities: Essays in the Social History of Victorian Wales. Llandysul, Dyfed: Gomer Press, 1987.

Jones, R. Merfyn. The North Wales Quarrymen 1874-1922. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991.

Lambert, D. R. Drink and Sobriety in Victorian Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1983.

Morgan, Kenneth O. Rebirth of a Nation: Wales 1880-1980. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Owen, Trefor M. The Customs and Traditions of Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991.

Smith, David (ed.). A People and a Proletariat: Essays in the History of Wales 1780-1980. London: Pluto Press, 1980.

Smith, David and Gareth Williams. Fields of Praise: The Official History of the Welsh Rugby Union 1881-1981. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1980.

Williams, Gareth. Valleys of Song: Music and Society in Wales 1840-1914. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998.

Williams, Glanmor. Religion, Language and Nationality in Wales: Historical Essays. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1979.

Williams, Gwyn A. When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. London: Black Raven Press, 1985.


Welsh Nationalism, Identity & Culture:

Curtis, Tony (ed.). Wales: the Imagined Nation. Studies in Cultural and National Identity. Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press, 1986.

Griffith, Wyn. The Welsh. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1950.

Humphreys, Emyr. The Taliesin Tradition: A Quest for the Welsh Identity. London: Black Raven Press, 1983.

Jenkins, R.T. “The Development of Nationalism in Wales” in Sociological Review, xxvii (1935), pp. 163-182.

Jones, Glyn. The Dragon Has Two Tongues: Essays on Anglo-Welsh Writers and Writing. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1968.

Jones, R. Merfyn. “Beyond Identity? The Reconstruction of the Welsh” in Journal of British Studies, October 1992, vol. 3(4), pp. 330-357.

Khleif, Bud. “Ethnic Awakening in the First World: the Case of Wales” in Social and Cultural Change in Contemporary Wales, ed. Glyn Williams. London: Routledge &KeganPaul, 1978.

Morgan, Kenneth O. “Welsh Nationalism: the Historical Background” in Journal of Contemporary History, 1971: 6(1), pp. 153-172.

Morgan, Prys. “From a Death to a View: The Hunt for the Welsh Past in the Romantic Period” in The Invention of Tradition, eds. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Canto Edition, 1992.

Smith, Dai. Wales! Wales? London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984.

Trosser, Carol. Welshness Performed: Welsh Concepts of Person and Society. Tuscon and London: University of Arizona Press, 1993.


Popular History:

Crossley-Holland, Peter (ed.). Music in Wales. London: Hinrichsen Edition Ltd., 1948.

Griffith, Wyn. The Welsh. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1950.

Hughes, Glyn Tegai. Williams Pantecelyn. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1983.

Wright, Kenneth A. Gentle Are Its Songs. Birmingham: Sir Gerald Nabarro Publishers Ltd., 1973.

Young, Percy M. The Choral Tradition (revised ed.). New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1981.

______ . Transactions of the Honourable Society ofCymmrodorion. Papers from sessions 1896-1921 on Welsh Music
Other sources:

Interview with Iwan Edwards (Welsh-born choral conductor, Montreal)

E-mail correspondance with:
Douglas Baxter, Barry Male Voice Choir
Syd Gronow, Cardiff Male Voice Choir
Roger Davies, Cantorion Y Rhyd (Cefneithin, South-west Wales)
Dafydd Evans, Cor Meibion Y Penrhyn Male Voice Choir
Chris Davies and Martin Hodson, Risca Male Voice Choir

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