EXCELSIOR - THE VOICE OF THE TREORCHY MALE CHOIR

“We have selected the title Excelsior for our journal, because we feel the essence of an ideal is something which is almost impossible to attain”
W.J. ‘Donna’ Griffiths, 1948

Prime Ministers and presidents, archbishops and historians, authors and international singers, Oscar-winning film stars and royalty - this is the calibre of people who have contributed articles to Excelsior - the annual journal which has recorded the success story of the Treorchy Male Choir for over sixty years. Since 1948 it has stood as a testimony to the Choir's increasing fame by carefully recording each and every event in its history from the very many glittering highs to the fortunately few tragic lows. Excelsior is a declaration of the Choir's achievements, highlighting concert engagements, overseas tours, eisteddfod wins, newspaper reviews, commercial recordings and is a reminder of the many distinguished individuals met through their music making.

 
However, Excelsior is much more than that. For friends and admirers around the world it has become essential reading material to keep them up to date with the Choir's activities. For every chorister it is regarded as a personal record of magical memories associated with this great Welsh institution. Uppermost it is a publication which records how Treorchy continues to remain at the forefront of the Welsh choral tradition through the continued dedication and commitment of every one involved. Excelsior made its first appearance in April 1948, after a request was made to the management committee by chorister William Wilshire to publish a monthly journal. The suggestion was adopted and Keri Evans, R. Williams, W.J. 'Donna' Griffiths and Ernest Lewis joined him in forming a sub-committee. Over sixty years later and Excelsior has certainly come a very long way.

During that time ten choristers have been honoured in becoming its editor, assisted by many sub-editors, which usually includes the Choir secretary at the time. Copies are printed at the start of each year at Caxton Press, a publishing firm based in the heart of Treorchy itself. Life may have changed dramatically in the past six decades, but the original format of Excelsior has altered very little. Naturally, additional ideas have been developed and printing styles have obviously changed particularly with the dawning of new digital technology, but the Conductor's Notes, Chairman's Address, Editorial, list of choristers, engagements, obituaries and press reports, still remain essential ingredients.

For the first two years Excelsior appeared as a quarterly magazine before developing into an annual publication. Copies, which now number more than 25,000, have been distributed to practically every country on the globe. In latter years members of the Treorchy Male Choir Appreciation Society have also been added to the list of recipients. Undoubtedly Excelsior is now one of the longest-running publications by any amateur organisation in the world.

Originally published by Pentre Printing in Llewellyn Street, Pentre before coming to Caxton, the first ten pamphlets were sold for three pence - later six pence - each. They included crosswords, a musical quiz and even columns of local information regarding sport, marriages, illnesses and other snippets of topical news. Founder conductor John Haydn Davies made his views on the new journal known from the very start, "Let fame be its spur and let it scorn delights and live laborious days in its muse-inspired mission to convince others of Treorchy's goodwill, and the surety of its aspirations."

A full editorial team was set up with publicity officer Donna Griffiths at the helm, who later went on to serialise the history of the original Treorky Male Choir. It was a labour of love for Donna as his wife was the granddaughter of the original conductor, William Thomas. The deputy press officer of the National Coal Board, Fred Pullin, contributed a number of articles in the early days following the choir's performance at the NCB Boxing Finals in Wembley before HRH The Duke of Edinburgh.

As each edition unfolded John Haydn's intense devotion to the Choir became all the more apparent. With each eisteddfod he addressed the choristers like a general preparing for battle, but even in defeat he would set a tone of dignity by congratulating a rival choir on their success. In one of the last quarterly editions in 1950, concern was shown over the depletion of male choirs and the conductor was sure that radio sets were the cause - although he had little to worry about as the greater majority of choristers in Treorchy's ranks were below thirty years of age.

 

In 1953 Excelsior became an annual record under the editorship of Dewi Hopkins, who became publicity officer once Donna was appointed the new Choir secretary. Coronation Year saw the choir make a visit to Glasgow and subsequently the magazine included an elegant article penned by Farquhar MacDonald, conductor of the city's police choir. During the following year the Choir was officially renamed Treorchy Male Choir and T.J. Dilwyn Jones took over the reins of editorship after Dewi Hopkins moved to Cardiganshire. The magazine was then printed by Caxton Press and featured its first Foreword, by Councillor J.,G. Elias, the first Mayor of the newly formed Rhondda Borough Council. Funnily enough the very last Mayor of the Rhondda prior to local government reorganisation in 1996 also wrote a Foreword for Excelsior.

With each new year came greater success for the choir and naturally the size of the magazine gradually increased alongside this fame. Eight National Eisteddfod wins, five Miners' Eisteddfod first prizes and even more semi-national eisteddfod victories made it fascinating reading as scores and adjudicators reports were included. The demand for more editions was greater than ever and the list of individuals who contributed to it read more like a Who's Who catalogue. This trend started with the likes of Hugh Gaitskell, Lord Ogmore, Mansel Thomas, Lord Robens, Arwel Hughes and Sir Ben Bowen.


 
In 1960 Mal Morris was elected editor, a post he retained for ten years - and what a decade it was: the first stereo recording, the first overseas tour, the resignation of John Haydn Davies and the appointment of John Cynan Jones, a new president was elected and the Choir made its last appearance in the competitive arena. Norman Martin made his first major contribution to the magazine in 1963, on becoming the Choir's new registrar in the previous year - and continued for the next forty years in this role.

Composer William Mathias opened the 1965 edition and praise was showered on the success of the magazine. Treasurer Gwynne Williams called it, "Our literal yoke and proves a winner every year," while committee member John Phelps said, "It is without doubt our finest ambassador - being read at one time or another all over the world. From a very small number of copies printed for the first issue, the demand has become so great that the 500 we now print is hardly sufficient to meet everyone's needs." The Western Mail echoed the same thoughts, "This famous magazine is the shop window of a great choir."

Following the recording of Pride of Wales for the Gramaphone Co. Ltd (HMV) senior record producer Brian Culverhouse was the first to congratulate the choir on its successful album. Cliff Taylor wrote the first of many articles as the new president and Lieutenant Gareth Jones of the Royal Army Education Corps said Excelsior was "a record unsurpassed in the annals of any choral organisation."

It seems ironic that R.J. Shepard, the Inspector of Schools, should write the Foreword for the 1969 edition because coincidentally he was the father-in-law of the Choir's future conductor, John Jenkins. With the news of a forthcoming performance on the Tom Jones Christmas Show, great excitement was reflected in a variety of articles featured in the magazine. Actress Rachel Roberts and producer Ronnie Cass paid tribute to the Choir's involvement in the TV special, while most of the 1969 edition was devoted to the retirement of John Haydn after twenty three years as conductor and his honorary appointment as conductor emeritus.

A new editor came to the helm in 1970 with the appointment of John Mallin as publicity officer and like his predecessor, he remained in place for ten years. Choir supporter Sir Cennydd Traherne, the Lord Lieutenant of Glamorgan was one of the many eminent individuals who wrote the Foreword during this time - along with Wynford Vaughan Thomas, Alderman Glyn James, Cliff Morgan, Rt Hon George Thomas, Gwyn Thomas and Lord Parry, the chairman of the Wales Tourist Board. It was a new golden era for the Choir. Competition entries may have been a thing of the past, but the Choir made up for it in so many other ways - particularly with a string of annual commercial recordings for EMI and appearances on TV shows with Ella Fitzgerald, Julie Andrews and Burt Bacharach - every publicity officer's dream!

Moreover Excelsior was becoming known as the home of the stars with Tom Jones, Sir Harry Secombe and later Max Boyce writing lengthy articles on the happy times they spent in the company of the choristers. The Rhondda Leader regarded it as "an eloquent publication about a choir which does so much to enhance the name of Rhondda throughout the world." Accompanist Jennifer Jones featured regularly over the years, as did record producer Bob Barratt, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC (founder of the Cheshire Homes) and Chairman Reg Coates, following the choir's appearances at the Great House.

John Davies held sway again for ten years as editor and like Donna, had a deep interest in the pre-war years of the Choir, particularly the latter part of the 19th century. The 1980s was a time of some marvellous overseas tours and it was Norman Martin's extensive history of each trip to Strasbourg, Australia and on both occasions to Canada, which helped to give readers a true taste of each special moment. The commemorative issue of the 1986 James Hardie Tour to Australia featured company chairman John Reid, plus organisers James Kelso and Linde Macpherson, and a complete history.

During the same year John also produced a fine fortieth anniversary brochure highlighting the landmarks of the Choir’s successful history and including comments from the likes of Sir Anthony Hopkins. As for Excelsior, the remainder of the decade continued to be a success with Professor Glyn Davies, Dr R. Brinley Jones, Professor Gareth Alban Davies and Sir Alastair Burnett all producing articles during those memorable years.

 

With the appointment of Robert Turner as editor in 1991 more changes were taking place in the Choir. It marked the sad passing of the great John Haydn, the resignation of John Cynan, the appointment of John Jenkins and a tour of the Mid Western States of America just a few months later. Each event was given due prominence in Excelsior.

In 1993 Dean Powell was elected as the Choir's youngest publicity officer at the age of just twenty one. With the exception of a year in which the role of publicity officer was undertaken by Geoffrey Howard who also did an admirable job of producing a first-class edition, Dean remains the longest running publicity officer and editor of the Excelsior. His interest in the origins of male choral singing in Rhondda were quick to come to the surface with a number of articles appearing on the pre-war Choir, especially the male choir which existed in Treorchy between the two world wars. A further two American tours to the states of Georgia, California and Colorado in the 1990s, proved fascinating reads, while the rest of the magazines were filled with an impressive list of contributors.


 
Oscar winning actress Joan Fontaine wrote the Foreword for the 1994 edition, sharing memories of her evening with the Choir in Carmel, California. Prime Minister John Major also wrote the Foreword for the Choir's golden anniversary edition in 1996 and Bryan May was quick to support the choir's ambitious project to record the music of rock band Queen. As with John Davies time as publicity officer, Dean also produced a special brochure for the fiftieth anniversary, with its contents featuring articles by Tom Jones, Pavarotti, Sir John Gielgud, Bob Hope, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Norman Wisdom and Sacha Distel.

This line of celebrities continued of course in Excelsior over the coming years, Politicians Allan Rogers, John Redwood, Lord James Callaghan, Rt. Honourable Lord Mayor of London and Rhondda mayors David Morgan, David Rees and Kate Rees all contributed. Professor Dai Smith and Professor Peter Hennessy were followed with entertainers Brian Blessed, Glyn Houston, Jeff Hooper, Noel Edmonds, Richard Todd, Su Pollard, Roy Noble and Petula Clark. It was also an era when conductors of other choirs, such as Noel Davies, Glynne Jones, Alwyn Humphreys and Dr Terry James were all quick to put pen to paper for the benefit of Excelsior. Of course, this era heralded a new Choir president as Brian Bates gratefully accepted the role following the passing of Cliff Taylor. Like his predecessor he continues to contribute annually to the magazine.

As the dawning of the new Millennium approached the Choir undertook their second tour of Australia and again this impressive month-long visit was given due prominence, along with a typical selection of funny quotations and moments in the history of the trip. This facet of Choir life began some years before when choristers gathered snippets of hilarious information about each other, such as silly mistakes, only to embarrass them when such pieces were read aloud on the touring bus the following morning.

Carlisle-based Harry Errington’s reviews of each concert at Treorchy proved interesting reading in the 1999 edition along with items from the Secretary of State for Wales and Baroness Gale of Blaenrhondda. Over the next few years the impressive Forewords were written by the likes of opera giant Stuart Burrows, Michael Aspel, Rhodri Morgan and veteran actress Sylvia Syms. Excelsior also boasted the contents of the subsequent tours of Scotland, Canada and America and the third tour of Australia, while continuing to feature some particularly poignant obituary notices on the one hand and heart-warming, even funny poems and songs by choristers on the other.

The popular chapters of Down Memory Lane – where Excelsior delves back between ten years and a century to record what the choir was doing all those years ago remained a firm favourite. Another appearance on This is Your Life in 2003 saw a host of celebrities appear between its pages. Similarly some stunning photographs of choristers with Andrea Bocelli, Cliff Richard, Katherine Jenkins, Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, Bryn Terfel and Will Young in the Royal Variety Performance before Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, appeared in the 2005 Excelsior.

Kate Thomas, the Lord Lieutenant of Glamorgan, opened the next edition which celebrated the Diamond Anniversary of the reformed Treorchy Male Choir. The many highpoints of the year were remembered, particularly the Max Live With Treorchy concert at the Wales Millennium Centre. It also featured articles by author Catrin Collier and songwriter Tony Hatch and remembered the Royal Concert at the Savoy Hotel and the appointment of a new Conductor in Meuryn Hughes.

Iris Williams OBE opened the 2007 edition of Excelsior, which also included articles by Captain Sir Norman Lloyd Edwards, Lord Lieutenant of South Glamorgan, songwriter Jeff Chegwin, arrangers Bryan Davies and Alan Simmons and conductors Dr Robert Childs, Dr Alwyn Humphreys and Dr Haydn James. It was also the first time for the Conductor’s Notes to be written by a female conductor as Janice Ball had been appointed during the year and was the first person to receive Honorary Lady Membership.

 

The 2008 edition featured a Foreword by Dame Vera Lynn and also included articles by Stuart Burrows, Angela Rippon and Roy Noble. As the year in which many Honorary Lady Members were inaugurated, each of the recipients also wrote articles expressing their delight at the presentation. The following year's edition for 2009 was dominated by the history of the Choir's fourth tour of Australia and first visit to New Zealand. With a Foreword by actress Ruth Madoc, it also contained articles on the Choir's charity single for Help for Heroes and the opening of the new Cardiff City Stadium. Bryn Terfel MBE submitted an article as the Patron of the Junior Musician of the Year Competition and other highlights included the unveiling of a Blue Plaque and articles by the new Honorary Lady and Honorary Members.

The dawning of a new decade saw Excelsior grow still further to an average 80 pages per year. Forewords were written by the likes of Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales and BBC newsreader Nicholas Owen. A letter from HRH Princess Anne The Princess Royal was featured along with articles from Wyn Calvin, Janice Gregory AM and John Inverdale. Lengthy historical essays on the Rhondda Glee Society, Morriston Orpheus Choir and the Royal Welsh Choir were featured along with tenor Wynne Evans and the Archbishop of Wales. A tour of Berlin and the release of several new CDs all added to the fascinating Treorchy tales to be told.

Thousands of copies, hundreds of contributors and countless hours of enjoyment for every reader, Excelsior has most certainly been a triumph and played an invaluable role in the history of the Treorchy Male Choir. May Excelsior continue for many years as the voice of this famous male voice choir.

"Long may these men sing Excelsior!"




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