Eisteddfod Glory

Bid For Glory 1940s

“Our object is not to gain a prize or defeat a rival, but to pace one another on the road to excellence.”
Sir Walford Davies

Choral competitions became a regular feature of the National Eisteddfod of Wales as far back as the mid 1860s although there were no Rhondda entrants simply because the valley had not developed a choral tradition. It was following the rapid industrialisation of the Rhondda that choirs emerged from the coal-mining communities and gradually gained a reputation as admiral opponents in the competitive arena.

Eisteddfod ProgrammeEisteddfod ProgrammeThe original Treorky Male Choir, which was established in a local eisteddfod at the local Red Cow Hotel in 1883, certainly played a major role in securing the Rhondda’s position as a choral force to be reckoned with at local, Semi-National and National Eisteddfod level. By the summer of 1889 the Conductor William Thomas entered his choir into the "National". The Royal National Eisteddfod of that year was held in Brecon where the test pieces were “The Young Musician” (Kucken) and “Y Seren Hwyrol” (Price). The Chief Adjudicator was Professor I. Atkins, a contemporary of the composer Edward Elgar. Following an outstanding performance he announced, “This was the best performance I have ever heard by a male voice choir”, and awarded them the first prize of £25.

It was the first time for the Blue Riband to come to Treorchy and Thomas, along with his faithful choristers, received a hero’s welcome in the streets of the town. Following many years of dedicated training, they had become national winners on their first attempt. It was the accumulation of their efforts that resulted in this outstanding result for which they all felt justifiably proud.

Further success followed and for the next six years the Choir and their rivals, the Rhondda Glee Society, fought for each glorious competition prize. The zenith of this “cythraul y canu” was reached at the famous National Eisteddfod in Pontypridd in 1893 when Treorky lost to Tom Stephen’s Rhondda Glee by a fraction of a mark, allowing "the enemy" to enjoy a much-celebrated visit to the Chicago World Fair.

In November 1895, Treorky reached national and even international acclaim with their Royal Command Performance at Windsor. However, this was not the only highlight of their 12th year in existence, for in August the Choir competed again at the National Eisteddfod. Llanelli was a memorable eisteddfod for one major reason – the chief male choral competition. Treorky “showed such a unity of discipline, vocal riches and inspiration”, that three of the four judges, Sir Joseph Barnby, Dr Joseph Parry, David Jenkins and R.C. Jenkins independently had each written the word “Wonderful”, after Treorky’s performance.

When this was revealed there was joy and amazement amongst the adjudicators for it confirmed the decision was unanimous that of the four competing choirs, Treorky deserved the first prize of £60. One news report read, “It seems a very large number of people from the valleys were forced by their feelings to attend the eisteddfod because the superb choir from Treorky was going to contend. Treorky won with honours, and the shout which greeted the victory was such as only Rhonddaites can raise. Mabon seemed to lead the shouts of buddugoliaeth, and Pennyrch Mountain must have echoed back the hymn of joy.”

Dr Joseph Barnby, who succeeded Charles Gounod as Conductor of the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society, declared this “the finest specimen of singing I have ever heard and it had not been the privilege of any being on the face of the globe to listen to better.”

This was the pinnacle of the young choir’s competition success. Sadly it was such an astounding level of success that would lead to the end of the Treorky Male Choir in its 80-voice form. With the creation of the Royal Welsh Male Choir from its core members, William Thomas formed a non-competitive organisation that would further its fame with international concert tours. The same level of success certainly did not befall the remaining Treorky Choir members, whose organisation disbanded just over a year later. When the Choir existed in its second form from 1917 to 1943 they once again achieved some notable wins at local and semi-national eisteddfodau and earned themselves a reputation once again as a worthy opponent. However, the title of the Champion Choir of Wales at the National Eisteddfod continually eluded them.

Both of the original Treorchy choirs had made their mark on the history of choral singing in Wales, but this limited success was nothing compared to the incredible achievements of John Haydn Davies’ post-war Choir.

John Haydn DaviesJohn Haydn DaviesThe present day Treorchy Male Choir, resurrected in 1946, was a very different choir from its predecessors. The youthful membership, the high standard of musical training, discipline and technique taught at the hand of a truly inspirational musical director, would lead them on the paths of glory that would surpass any other male voice choir in the Rhondda, in Wales and for that matter, the world.

John Haydn Davies was as magnanimous in victory as he was generous in defeat. In his opinion competition was not for winning just to gain a prize in the shape of a financial sum or trophy. In his introduction to the first edition of the Choir journal, "Excelsior" in 1948 he certainly made his edict known, “Competition, rightly used, shall stimulate us on the road to technical and artistic excellence.”

He led his band of men to their first competition entry on May 18th, 1948. The South Wales Chair Eisteddfod in Treorchy was the last competition John Haydn Davies entered when he was the deputy conductor of the original Choir. Five years later and he was back on stage with his reformed "Treorchy".

John Haydn Davies

Two days before the competition the Management Committee held a meeting where treasurer D.J. Jenkins proposed, seconded by librarian Cliburn Willis, that “bows were to be worn”, for the event. The competition, against neighbouring Pendyrus Male Choir was an important one for the new Treorchy & District Male Voice Choir of the day. The maestro was determined that his choir would not fall foul to the dreaded “cythraul y canu” between choirs and on the few times Treorchy failed to gain the first prize he was the first on stage to congratulate the conductor of a winning choir.

This first competition at the Park & Dare Hall on Whitsun weekend saw a staggering 157 choristers on stage to perform Daniel Protheroe’s “Nidaros”. Gaining 88 marks for their performance, compared to the 90 marks offered to their rivals, this was the first and only time that the Choir came second to Pendyrus. Later that month John Haydn wrote in Excelsior, “We offer our sincere congratulations to Mr. Arthur Duggan and the Pendyrus Male Voice Choir. The placing of Treorchy second in such a close contest was very gratifying, and the general opinion is that the Party acquitted itself most creditably under its first baptism of fire. We extended to Pendyrus our best wishes when they once again attempt to carry off the “chief male voice” at Bridgend in August.”

It had already been proposed by Eddie Davies and seconded by Haydn Thatcher at a Committee Meeting on March 28th, 1948 that the Choir should enter the eisteddfod organised by the Royal British Legion in Llanharan on June 26th, although it was decided to turn down the opportunity to compete in the Morriston Eisteddfod shortly afterwards. Three male voice choirs entered the Llanharan Eisteddfod – Treorchy, Pontypridd and Tredegar. The test piece once again was Protheroe’s “Nidaros”. The adjudicator was Joseph Lewis, Professor of Composition at the Guildhall School of Music and later of the BBC.

Dolgellau, 1949 Dolgellau, 1949 His adjudication raised the spirits of each and everyone associated with Treorchy that day: “A fine choir. Good balance and blend and splendid unanimity. The singing throughout was most expressive and always the conductor had regard for the atmosphere of the poem rather than for interpolated “special effects”. The dramatic passages were made intense through the excellent contrasts made by the quieter sections and in these, delicate tone gradations were a great feature. A really fine performance.”

Tredegar (84 marks) was placed third, Pontypridd (91 marks) second and the Treorchy and District (96 marks). The first competition win for the reformed Choir was understandably
a milestone of success and it would be repeated three months later when the Choir competed at the Pontllanfraith Eisteddfod on September 11th. Again the test piece was “Nidaros” and once more Treorchy claimed the first with 92 marks, beating Tredegar (90 marks), Ebbw Vale and Cwmbach Choirs. The adjudicator was Douglas Robinson, Chorus Master of the Royal Opera Chorus in Covent Garden. On receiving the Burgess Silver Challenge Cup, John Haydn had once more proudly led his Choir to victory.

At the South Wales Chair Eisteddfod on June 7th 1949, the adjudicators for the Chief Male Choral category were Dr H.W. Sumsion of Gloucester and none other than Arthur Davies FRCO of Swansea, the last conductor of the 1917-1943 Treorchy & District Male Choir. John Haydn had been Davies’s deputy from 1938 until it disbanded. Now both men were reunited in a very different way.

The test piece was “Cytgan Y Pererinion” by Dr Joseph Parry and Treorchy scored 92 points, beating Kidwelly Male Choir. Treorchy had secured the services of baritone soloist Teifion Williams of Cardiff to perform the solo section of the piece. On winning the first prize, the adjudicators stated: “A very large choir. Sensitive opening – the singing is always expressive. Phrasing is musical and intelligent – well thought out. Teamwork is first class with every man pulling his weight evenly. Part-singing was accurate inner and lower parts. Balance of choir was very good. Chorus a little too loud against the solo. Intonation and chording – excelling throughout. Tone is very well controlled, musical, expressive and unforced, especially in climaxes. Baritone solo was good but a little free according to the copy. Very brilliant singing."

Within less than two weeks Teifion Williams was again performing the solo item in the same test piece with the Treorchy Choir when they beat Pendyrus at the Semi National Eisteddfod in Llanharan on June 19th. The adjudicators were John E. Morgan, Roger Jones of Nelson and Allan Bush, Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London. His appreciation of the Treorchy & District Male Choir was overwhelming and a mutual admiration between the organisation and composer continued for many years.

Dolgellau, 1949 Dolgellau, 1949 The growing success of the Treorchy Choir convinced their young maestro that the time was appropriate for the choristers to have a taste of the National Eisteddfod. John Haydn certainly prepared his troops for battle when he wrote in the 1949 summer edition of "Excelsior": “There we shall do our best and rejoice if another Choir shows us to do better.” He went on to quote the words of Sir Walford Davies, “Our object is not to gain a prize or defeat a rival, but to pace one another on the road to excellence.” The Treorchy conductor warned members of his Choir that, “competition offers us a stimulus and a standard. Heaven keep us from becoming pot-hunters!”

The first visit to a National Eisteddfod was to Dolgellau on August 6th, 1949, where the test pieces were “Mordaith Cariad”, “Full Fathom Five” and “Tiger Tiger”. In true tradition, all competition items were performed for the general public with a fundraising eisteddfod concert held in Ramah Chapel on July 24th. It was a regular occurrence for the Choir to allow the public an insight into the work they were about to perform before the adjudicators. However, the final rehearsal prior to an eisteddfod was always a closed event and visitors were turned away from the rehearsal room.

A host of logistical problems were faced by the secretary, Stanley Jones, as he prepared for the Dolgellau visit. It had been decided that the total number of choristers and supporters travelling north would not exceed three hundred. A legion of buses were needed and it was necessary for him to make a prior visit to Machynlleth where he organised three hundred lunches in five different cafes.

The National Eisteddfod was held in a field where Owain Glyndwr once pitched his army before battle. It was with an equal sense of nervous tension that the choristers stepped foot on the same ground five hundred years later. They had their hearts filled with passion and endeavour and were eager to win their first national “scalp”.

Despite the obvious sense of appreciation experienced by every chorister as he stepped on to the stage to be faced by almost 10,000 spectators, from the first note on the piano and the first conducting movement, the tension disappeared. The display of spontaneous applause before the end of the last song, “Full Fathom Five”, left choristers feeling that their first performance was a creditable one.

The Choir came second to the experienced Morriston Orpheus under the baton of Ivor Sims. It was the last time they ever lost to Morriston. Five choirs entered the competition with Treorchy gaining 273 points, just seven points behind Morriston. They were followed by Dincrwic, Manselton and Rhymney male choirs. The adjudicators were E.T. Davies, Haydn Morris, Dan Jones, John Clements and W.Matthew Williams.

In the next edition of Excelsior, John Haydn opened with a congratulation to Ivor Sims on the fourth successive win of the Morriston Choir at the National Eisteddfod.

He said, “For the Treorchy Male Choir to give Morriston such a close run is generally acknowledged to be a fine achievement, surpassing many a “first” at the National against poor opposition. The rugged majesty of the sunlit mountains around the eisteddfod field, sea of expectant faces, the high and intense silence following the lifting of the baton, the crash of applause after each test piece, thousands appreciated the serious challenge that the “young choir” was making to the “old masters”. It was a great release when our singing ended, a relief which not even the palpitating excitements of the adjudication could completely disrupt. It was a grand experience.”

The adjudication of each piece read:

“Mordaith Cariad” – An atmosphere of romance and tenderness of love was created here from the first note. There was in their tone some soft smoothness which was wholly appropriate for the rendering of this work. The voices were excellent and were woven, part into part, beautifully. This was a performance to be remembered.


“Full Fathom Five” – There was a teasing mischievousness in this piece from the start. The expectation for the bells was created, and a unique imagination in their treatment was shown. Nasal consonants were used to produce an artistic effect. Everything suggested an artistic vision.

“Tiger Tiger” – Here we had wonder or astonishment. The description of a tiger’s strength and leap and ferocity should allow reserve for the next leap. We cannot well imagine a tired tiger and we felt that the conductor had the matter of this reserve in mind – a very good point. But we believe Blake’s picture is more devilish and fierce than that given us by the choir. The interpretation of this piece was not on such a high level as that of the previous pieces. Still, taking the three performances together, they effect great credit on both conductor and choir.

In the Cymro issue of August, writer Selwyn Jones had definite ideas on who the winners that day should have been: “I am totally at variance with the adjudicators. I am sorry to say, I personally feel that the Treorchy Male Choir were the winners of the chief male voice competition. I do not believe it is good that the Morriston Choir be placed on a pinnacle year after year. The danger, as I see it, is for the choir to become too much of a machine – a splendid machine – but that is not what a choir should continually be.”

In the same paper writer Amanwy said, “Treorchy are a young male choir, and they came an honourable second in the competition. The best musical traditions of the Rhondda are behind it in its competitive ventures. I congratulate this youthful choir for coming second to the Morriston. It is not much more than two years since it was formed it contains excellent young voices – the best voices in the Rhondda – and a young conductor who is rapidly developing into a master of his craft”.

It was only a matter of time before this group of singers from Treorchy would gain national acclaim as a competitive organisation, claiming successive wins unlike any other choir in the history of Welsh music.

(c) Copyright Dean Powell