Eisteddfod Glory

The Triumphs 1950s

“If You Lose Say Little, If You Win Say Less”.
John Haydn Davies

With the dawning of a new decade, Treorchy & District Male Choir were spurred on by their initial success to finally claim the prestigious title of the Champion Choir of Wales at the National Eisteddfod. The successive wins at Treorchy, Llanharan and Pontygwaith, followed by an impressive second prize to Morriston at the Dolgellau National of 1949, gave choristers the confidence to follow their great maestro into the competitive arena time and again until national glory would be theirs.

Eisteddfod RehearsalEisteddfod RehearsalThe first competition of 1950 was anything but a success. In fact the controversial decision of the adjudicator to place Treorchy in fourth place at the Sennybridge Semi National Eisteddfod on May 6th, bordered on ludicrous. Of the five competing choirs, Rhymney came first, rather ironic given how the adjudicator teased the audience with a glowing account of the time he spent as a youth in the village. Ystalyfera were placed second and Beaufort third. There was some comfort for Treorchy however as Manselton Male Choir came last but went on to win the first prize at the National Eisteddfod in Caerphilly three months later, while Treorchy themselves came second. Although John Haydn continually repeated his motto of “If you lose say little, if you win say less”, there was an undeniable truth that this particular competition was anything but fair.

Treorchy was the only Choir to enter the South Wales Chair Eisteddfod in their hometown on May 30th, but adjudicators Ivor Owen of Swansea and Madam Wynne-Jones of Caernarfon felt their performance was fully deserving of the first prize. On June 24th the Choir entered the Semi-National Eisteddfod at Llanharan, again facing no opposing choir, but being awarded the first prize. The adjudicators that day were Professor Joseph Lewis and none other than Alan Bush, Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He was so enamoured with the Choir that he presented John Haydn with the original manuscript of his composition “Owain Glyndwr” which he dedicated to the Treorchy Male Choir.

Once again the members of the Choir led by their ingenious maestro and accompanist had spent many months preparing for the National Eisteddfod of Wales, held in Caerphilly on August 12th. Additional Friday evening rehearsals were held in the Salvation Army Citadel in Pentre and the level of purpose, determination and effort was sustained throughout. As the intensity grew John Haydn reminded his musical troops, “Our turn will come if we keep up this present effort. But a great man said that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.”

Following a mid-day rehearsal in the Glyncoli Road School, ten coaches set out to conquer Caerphilly, and the same mixture of enthusiasm and nervousness rushed through the 153 choristers. They performed “Baich Damascus”, “Deryn y Bwn” and “Cysga Di” for the capacity crowd of almost 10,000 people. The scores were Manselton (277 points), Treorchy (272 points), Rhymney (252 points), Pendyrus (248 points) and Rhos (246 points). Despite all efforts, they once again received second prize, but their work was not in vain. This intense rehearsal and preparation was a formidable method of perfecting the art of choral singing.

For the next two years John Haydn Davies continued to nurture this unique “sound”, of a choir singing as if it were one voice. By 1952 he felt comfortable enough to re-introduce his men to the competitive choral arena and the intensity of the year’s efforts were concentrated on the National Eisteddfod at Aberystwyth on August 9th. Filled with the thirst for victory, six buses of choristers and supporters left Treorchy at 7.30am, reached Lampeter for rehearsals at St David’s College by 10.30am before arriving at the eisteddfod in time for the 3pm competition. Treorchy was the first choir on stage and filled with absolute faith in their maestro, and with adjudicators W.Matthews Williams, Oliver Edwards, Dan Jones, J.Morgan Lloyd and A.C.Tysoe before them, the three test pieces were performed.

It was the chairman of adjudicators, W.Matthews Williams who read the final report.

"Y Llyngess Wen" – "The Silver Fleet" by Charles Clement – A sound and effective opening. A choir with good texture in the tone. Inner parts excellent. A good instrument to play on. Difficulties we successfully treated. Climaxes were gripping and were artistic. The interpretation reflected a deep study of the picture portrayed in the poetry. The second bass were wonderfully effective. The accompaniment to the other voices was delightful. (90 points)

"Sieryd Pres" – "Money Talks" by Ian Parrott - Chording excellent in a difficult place to sing – perhaps a little more sarcasm was needed but singing developed to the final climax. (89 points)

It was at this point that Mr Matthews-Williams paused to reflect on the Choir’s final performance, that of Schubert’s "23rd Psalm", performed in Welsh as "Duw Yw Fy Mugail". Treorchy had taken the risky strategy of interpreting literally the adagio marking on the copy of the piece, so that it took five minutes to perform and overwhelmed adjudicators and audience alike. He said: “It is only once in a century one hears such marvellous singing which was so moving that tears came into my eyes and I was not the only one so affected. If there is singing like this in heaven then I am eager to get there quickly. It was so beautiful that the whole of the panel of adjudicators just put their pencils and notebooks down on the table and listened, not even putting down a note.” (96 points)

Treorchy & District Male Choir, 1952Treorchy & District Male Choir, 1952Treorchy & District Male Choir was awarded the First Prize of £120 and the Welsh Guards Challenge Cup with 275 points in front of Manselton (265 points), Ystradgynlais (259 points) and Penrhyn (248 points). This was the zenith of six years of tireless work. It was more than a victory but the crowning and successful climax to long and arduous preparations. Success paralysed the emotions.

Whilst it was a time for cheers, the mood was one of tears. Despite the exclamation of joy and jubilation, on the whole it was a deep and profound feeling of subdued elation. It was the kind of emotional experience that had a soothing and gratifying effect.

Returning to Treorchy with the Blue Riband for the Chief Choral Competition for the first time in 57 years, the Choir was greeted by hundreds of supporters on Stag Square. This was a victory to be shared by an entire community and one relished by all who had the honour of performing in the ranks of the Choir. It was also rather ironic that on the same day a young Pentre man named John Cynan Jones took the first prize in the Organ Solo. He would most certainly have a profound effect on the future of the Choir in years to come.

It was a further two years before the Choir repeated a triumphant performance at the National Eisteddfod. This time it was at Ystradgynlais on August 7th, 1954. With a rehearsal in the school at 1pm, they arrived at Ystradgynlais at 3.30pm for the Chief Male Voice Choir Competition. They competed once more against Pendyrus (who performed first) and entered the eisteddfod marquee filled with enthusiasm for battle as adjudicators W.Matthews Williams, Dr Haydn Morris an J.M.Nicholas looked on. One of Dr Morris’s own compositions was a test piece in the competition.

"Nidaros" by Daniel Protheroe – Opening fine tone, excellent voices very well balanced. The chording clean. Pleasing opening, but the chromatic notes not really sound. “Yr hen dderbyniwr” powerful and gripping. We felt that they were phrasing carefully and smoothly, nevertheless, they were oversinging on each phrase and the climaxes were not built up with sufficient vigour. A strong feature was the clear articulation. “Allegro conspirito” in happy time. The picture was very vivid and the rendering throughout was alive and colourful. A stirring and colourful climax. (89 points)

"Henffych Gorff Diymwad" by Vadana – Smooth, colourful opening. Phrasing clean and unbroken. The colouring of some phrases exceptionally effective. The second part in better tempo and the rendering throughout was varied and musical. The quieter passages were beautiful. (92 points)

"Salm Bywyd" by Dr Haydn Morris - Masterly opening, fine tone. We felt that the pictured portrayed was colourful and remarkable alive. (85 points)

Royal National Eisteddfod Aberdare, 1956Royal National Eisteddfod Aberdare, 1956Once again they won the first prize of £200, the Welsh Guards Challenge Cup, a baton donated by Arthur Harris J.P. of Sydney, Australia, and a golden medal from the Cleveland Orpheus Male Choir in the USA. They gained 266 points, five ahead of Pendyrus. It was the Choir’s second consecutive win and hundreds of people awaited their return to the Rhondda as the celebrations continued until the early hours.

With a growing demand for public performances and commercial recordings, John Haydn waited two years before leading the choristers through the gruelling task of preparing for another National Eisteddfod. This time it was at Aberdare on August 11th, 1956, and the three competing choirs were regarded as the “giants” of their field in Wales – Treorchy, Morriston Orpheus and Pendyrus.

It was a glorious moment in Treorchy’s history when they once again claimed the First Prize at the National Eisteddfod with 274 points over Morriston’s 268 and Pendyrus’s 258. In fact they beat their opponents with points not only accumulatively but on each individual item. The occasion marked their first victory over Morriston, themselves a renowned and internationally famous choir, but also brought to an end their unbeaten record of consecutive wins.

The adjudicators were E.T.Davies, J.Morgan Nicholas, Redvers Llewellyn, Haydn Morris and Tylorstown-born composer, conductor and Head of Music at BBC Wales, Mansel Thomas. During this competition E.T.Davies’s composition “Y Gwyntoedd” and J. Morgan Nicholas’s own work “Mawr Yw Yr Arglwydd” were two of the three test pieces performed.

The adjudication read:Eisteddfod ProgrammeEisteddfod Programme

"Y Gwyntoedd" by E.T. Davies – Sung in a lively manner, and in one part it had been difficult to over-praise them. (90 points)

"Mawr Yw Yr Arglwydd" by J. Morgan Nicholas – Interpreted very well in a religious spirit which was culturally in keeping with the work. (91 points).

"Dydd Da Fy Mherl" by di Lasso – Highly successful and a most praise worthy performance. (93 points)

On receiving the first prize of £175, the Welsh Guards Challenge Cup and a gold medal donated by Dr Charles Dawe, John Haydn Davies had led the Choir to their third consecutive win which again caused a massive amount of newspaper coverage and resulted in even further calls for regular radio broadcasts.

In the next edition of the Choir magazine Excelsior he said: “We knew that only by singing better than we had ever done could we hope to win. The challenge was met and the Choir responded so well that, when I left the stage, many listeners, mostly strangers, assured me that they had no doubt Treorchy had excelled in the finest choral contest of recent years. As so it proved to be.”

Royal National Eisteddfod, Aberdare, 1956Royal National Eisteddfod, Aberdare, 1956On October 6th, 1956 the Choir gave their debut performance at the Miners' Musical Festival, better known as the Miners' Eisteddfod in Porthcawl Pavilion. The Choir would compete in a total of five Miners' Eisteddfodau over the coming years and gain five first prizes. For their first entry they literally stunned the adjudicator, Dr Haydn Morris, not only by their fine performance, but also by their choice of such an intricate classical piece. John Haydn had decided on the "Dies Irae" from Cherubini's "Requiem in D. Minor" and scored an impressive 95 points compared to the three other choirs who remained faithful to the more traditional choir repertoire of “warhorses”.

In second place was Pendyrus (Salm Bywyd) with 92 points, followed by Beaufort (Iesu o Nazareth) with 90 points and finally Ystradgynlais (Nidaros) with 90 points.

Of “Dies Irae”, Dr Morris said, “A body of magnificent rich voices; the clean attack and release of the phrases was a feature of this rendering. The blend was everything that could be desired. The lights and shades were masterly delivered. Each part and individual singer had mastered their work and it blended into a most sonorous body of tone, always true music in the real sense of the word. Here again a conductor who had vision and his own ideas added to what was written on the score made it sound better. The sustained phrase and well contrasted tone and colour enhanced the musical effect of this convincing performance. Here we had pathos, feeling, abandon, great dramatic moments. A most finished performance.”

Following an absence of seven years Treorchy returned to the Semi National Eisteddfod, held in Cardigan on May 19th 1957, although not a single male choir entered the 1957 National at Llangefni. Three choirs competed at the Semi with Herbert Bardgett, Owen Bryngwyn and Prys Roberts as adjudicators. Of the performance they said:

"Salm Bywyd" by Haydn Morris – Opening good, but not excellent. Bass were legato. Allegro “life is real” – this sprang into life a lively legato. “Not enjoyment” this very fine choir first tenors could give more “muffled drums" and “funeral marches” just the right atmosphere. An exciting crescendo and rhythm in “Act in the living present”. Excellent climaxes. Maestoso - a lovely broad legato. Vigaroso – “let us then be up and doing”, a marvellous ending.” (90 points)

"Dydd Da Fy Mherl" by di Lasso – Well controlled tone, all parts balance, nuances beautifully done. Conductor without baton – excellent. They were listening to each other. A model of the period. (92 points)

The adjudicators awarded Treorchy Male Choir the first prize with 182 points, followed by Beaufort (176 points) and Pendyrus (175 points).

On October 5th 1957 the Choir once again entered the Miners' Eisteddfod in Porthcawl and claimed the first prize with another performance of “Dies Irae” from Cherubini’s Requiem in D Minor. The adjudicator that day was none other than their old colleague Professor Alan Bush and although no other choir competed, he felt Treorchy was fully deserving of the first prize as he awarded them 94 points for the performance.

The Miners' Eisteddfod of 1957 was a memorable occasion for another significant event because a transatlantic radio link was put in place between the Pavilion in Porthcawl and a recording studio in New York, USA. The telephone link was made between the Choir and audience of miners and their families with singer Paul Robeson. It was seen as an important gesture of international solidarity with Robeson, a fierce critic of American capitalism and imperialism. On sharing their greetings through song, Miners' Leader Will Paynter also addressed Robeson, who, on refusing to admit or deny he was a communist, the US State Department denied him a passport. He was determined to continue his connection with Wales, a place he had toured in the 1930s by performing concerts in the South Wales valleys and had caught the sympathy of the miners when he sang in Jack Jones’s 1939 film “Proud Valley”.

Royal National Eisteddfod, Ebbw Vale, 1958Royal National Eisteddfod, Ebbw Vale, 1958Determined not to rest on the laurels of their previous success, the Treorchy Male Choir continued triumphant through the remainder of the 1950s by winning every competition entered. On August 9th 1958 they returned to the National Eisteddfod of Wales in Ebbw Vale and beat Pendyrus (180 points) and Beaufort (176 points).

The adjudicators were Dr Haydn Morris (whose composition was a test piece), Kenneth Thomas and Arwel Hughes, the respected Welsh composer and Head of Music at BBC Wales. The adjudication read:

"Y Rhaeadr" by Dr Haydn Morris – A choir of splendid voices, with a happy blend. We had clean chording and words. The opening is filled with drama and certainty. They had understood the message of the piece. We had really effective balance. The tenor parts were colourful. Rhythm was fluid, a masterly performance. Thrilling throughout. (93 points)

"Angladd y Marchog" by W.Matthews Williams – A strong and certain opening. Each word like crystal and the phrasing whole and clean. From the first phrase we felt variety in each line. Clean chording was a feature of this performance. The final movement drove the message home. A thoughtful and artistic performance throughout. On page 10 there should be no ritard to close. (94 points)

Royal National Eisteddfod, Aberdare, 1956 Royal National Eisteddfod, Aberdare, 1956 On returning to the Miners' Eisteddfod on October 4th 1958 to win their third consecutive first prizes, the Choir sang “Agnus Dei” from "Missa Regina Coeli" by Jacobus Kerle and gained 94 points, ahead of Pendyrus with 90 points for their performance of “Sons of the Desert”.

The adjudicators J. Lyndon Jones and Roderick Jones said, “Magnificent opening. Beautiful balance and blend. The tone, culture and subservient to verbal needs. I felt the allegro was pressed too fast and treatment too non-legato.

"Delightful sustaination and tonal quality permeated the largetto. Spiritual intensity was abundant. Subtle nuances an added joy. Dramatic entry to the allegro reiterated the very sound technique of this fine choir.”

As the decade drew to a close the Choir once more returned to the National Eisteddfod on August 8th, 1959. This time the Choir journeyed to north Wales for the national competition at Caernarvon, leaving Stag Square at 7am and stopping for lunch at Dolgellau before arriving in Bangor by 5pm. The Choir stayed overnight there for a Saturday rehearsal at 2pm in Salem Chapel on Pool Street before venturing to the competition marquee for their performance before 9,000 spectators, with a further 20,000 enjoying the sweltering heat of the “maes”.

Adjudicators J. Morgan Nicholas, Llyfon Hughes-Jones and Idris Griffiths were overwhelmed by Treorchy’s performances of “Matona Fy Anwylyd” by Olrando di Lasso and “Cadlef Y Wereriniaeth”, by fellow adjudicator Dr Haydn Morris.

The keenly contested event saw two choirs from South Wales battle against two choirs from North Wales and the scoring displayed how incredibly close this competition had become.

Treorchy won the £200 first prize and Welsh Guards Challenge Cup with a 178 point lead ahead of Rhos (177 points), Pendyrus (173 points) and Rhos Orpheus (171 points).

It also marked the Treorchy Male Choir’s fifth consecutive win at the National Eisteddfod of Wales – beating the previous record held by the Morriston Orpheus Choir of four consecutive first prizes.

Many years later Glynne Jones, the eminent Conductor of Pendyrus Male Choir, remembered this moment in history with affection. At that time he was the Musical Director of the Silurian Singers in Rhymney and had already been tipped as the “prince in waiting” to take John Haydn’s baton on his retirement and therefore his close association with Treorchy continued for many years.

Royal National Eisteddfod, Caernarvon, 1959Royal National Eisteddfod, Caernarvon, 1959“Both Treorchy and the Silurian Singers were victors in their respective competitions at Caernarvon. The poor Silurians made the long journey south immediately after fish and chips in Bert’s Palace Café on the square, leaving me to find my own way home by car. This journey was postponed until the following day due to my chance meeting with Wally Breeze and the Treorchy boys who invited me back to their palatial retreat just over the Menai Bridge.

“In a late night and early morning ceremony, the Eisteddfod Court was convened with Choir members suitably attired in bardic robes made out of bed clothes. With due decorum, fanfare and processional, I was there and then chaired as an Honorary Member of Treorchy to appropriate hymns and arias. But the best was yet to come, the following morning before leaving, I fortunately opened the car boot to find inside a partly completed headstone borrowed from a nearby monumental mason’s yard which read, “Er Cof am Glyn Jones.” The spelling wrong, the stone was returned to its rightful place and this, much alive as one can be after a night on the tiles, Glynne Jones left the Menai Straits to chuckle and giggle his own way home in the green Ford Prefect to sanity and Dowlais. This incident was certainly prophetic as far as my future with Treorchy was concerned.”

For the fourth consecutive year Treorchy Male Choir claimed the £200 first prize at the Miners' Eisteddfod in Porthcawl, held on September 26th 1959 with 96 points ahead of Pendyrus (with 93) for their performance of “Cadlef y Wereriniaeth” and “Matona Fy Anwylyd”.

Eisteddfod programmeEisteddfod programmeThis time the Choir engaged the audience and adjudicators alike with an unforgettable performance of "The Coronation Scene" from Mussourgsky’s "Boris Godunov", performed in English for the first time in the UK and transcribed into tonic solfa by John Haydn himself.

The adjudicators Gerallt Evans and Walter Glynne were mesmerised by the performance and paid particular attention to the baritone soloist Sam Griffiths. They announced, “A majestic performance in very fine tone. Phrased sensitively, great and glorious intonation and dynamics. Sam was dark and sinister. Impressive. The Choir gave something of a barbaric vitality of Russian rhythms, they gave us abandonment without licence, expression without bad tone although some top tenor notes were suspect. Very exciting and memorable.”

The 1950s had been a decade of immense triumph for the Treorchy Male Choir as they remained victorious in almost every one of their successive eisteddfod entries. They had reached a pinnacle in their “golden era” of competition, with triumph after triumph celebrated the world over. This tradition of wins was far from over, however, as the choristers entered a new decade filled with continued enthusiasm and determination to claim further prizes in the name of Treorchy

(c) Copyright Dean Powell