Eisteddfod Glory

The Victories 1960s

“Treorchy is one of the greatest choirs of its kind in the world”
National Eisteddfod of Wales, 1967

As the winds of social change blew throughout the 1960s, so too changes developed within the world-famous Treorchy Male Choir. Following a decade of exceptional success, this new era would be one of further victory, tainted with a little sadness and following yet another national triumph the end of Treorchy’s life as a competitive choir.

John Haydn Davies and his choir of more than a hundred voices had indeed reached the pinnacle of their musical accomplishment. The record of success was unequalled with five consecutive first prizes at national level and they continued to conquer not only their rivals but new genres of music as they endeavoured to reach the very epitome of musical and technical excellence.

Royal National Eisteddfod, Rhos, 1961Royal National Eisteddfod, Rhos, 1961On August 12th, 1961 they once again journeyed north for the keenly contested National Eisteddffod of Wales being held in Rhosllanerchrugog. The village had produced such fine musicians as composer and conductor Arwel Hughes, who was about to become the Head of Music at the BBC and his brother John, was the organist at Noddfa Chapel, Treorchy.

Departing from Stag Square at 7am with lunch in Smarts Café on Church Street, Oswestry, the Choir held a rehearsal in the Memorial Hall on Smithfield Street before reaching Rhos. Accommodation was booked at either Ruan Grammar or Johnstown Schools and a third coach travelled home.

The competition saw two old foes face one another on the eisteddfod stage, the “new” Treorchy Male Choir was once again up against the “old masters” of Morriston Orpheus. The adjudicators W.Matthews Williams, Meirion Williams and James Williams were staggered by the high standard of musicality as they gave the following observations of the Treorchy men:

Winning CertificateWinning Certificate"Y Refali" (Reveille) by Edward Elgar (performed unaccompanied) - There were very effective touches, and particularly so in the opening section of the piece. Proper attention being given to detailed expressed. Indeed the technique of this choir was of a high order. Now and again we had rather open notes by the first tenors. The interpretation was developed naturally to the climax without extravagances and always according to the canons of art. (90 points)

"Nidaros" by Daniel Protheroe – In depicting the scene in the convent where the abbess is in prayer and pleading with the Virgin Mary. And where from the dark, the voice of St John, the beloved disciple is heard, how music in its nature and expression, and how pleasing the tone in its beauty and fervour. The challenge to the god Thor was most powerful in its nature, but there was a tendency to overstress an occasional chord – in the old style. The conductor is an artist, laying on his choir with skilful hand, drawing from them melodic music, and all sublime in style. The performance throughout was a colourful tapestry, with every small thread in place, the lines of the pictures well drawn and the pattern clear. (93 points)

Treorchy gained a total of 183 points with the Orpheus attaining second place with 169. It was a very worthy winning conductor who stepped on the stage to receive the first prize of £200 and the Welsh Guards Challenge Cup. John Haydn Davies would long remember 1961 not only for the victory – marking the Choir’s incredible six consecutive win at the

National Eisteddfod – but also because it was the year in which he received the recognition he deserved for his immense contribution to Welsh Choral music by being awarded the MBE by Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

The Choir returned to the Semi National Eisteddfod at Cardigan on May 21st, 1962 where they once again performed Matona Fy Annwylyd and Y Refali, beating three of the fellow “musical giants” of Wales at the time. The adjudicators observed:

Royal National Eisteddfod, Rhos, 1961Royal National Eisteddfod, Rhos, 1961"Matona Fy Annwylyd" by Orlando di Lasso – Sheer downright joy, wonderful flow and musical phrasing, echo effect were magical. The choir’s nuances, rise and falls with graduations – very well done. All individual parts clear and well made.

"Y Refali (Reveille)" by Edward Elgar – This piece in performance showed a virtuosity of musicality, but there were some points, such as when the choir sings staccato, tone sometime goes. It was a pity that the audience mistook the end, simply because it is a forceful high note to finish.

Treorchy came first with 184 points, followed by Morriston (176 points), Manselton (171 points) and Rhos Orpheus (170 points).

It was only a matter of time before the Treorchy Male Choir would end their unbroken run of first prizes at the National and so it came in Llanelli on August 11th 1962. The Welsh town, where they had claimed the Blue Riband in the days of the “old Treorky” Choir in 1895, was now the location for a competition featuring a very different Rhondda choir.

The adjudicators were D.T. Davies, W.Matthews Williams and Mansel Thomas and it was with satisfaction that the Treorchy men had given their best performance prevailed, but disappointed that another choir had given a better one. The adjudication for the unaccompanied pieces were:

"Chwyth Chwyth Aeafol Wynt (Blow Blow Thou Winter Wind)" by J. Owen Jones – A good and striking opening, but inclined to overdo the expression marks. Graduation of tone sometimes too sudden, do not make a crescendo into a sfozando. On page nine we had smooth and easy singing. On page 11 the chording was uncertain. The fault here was too gradual gradation of tone. A descriptive performance, and despite the oversinging, there was beauty and gentleness in the expression, the whole being remarkably musical.

Royal National Eisteddfod, Rhos, 1961Royal National Eisteddfod, Rhos, 1961"Prospice" by D. Vaughan Thomas – Another powerful opening and we had dramatic touches. On the sostenuto passage there was a tendency to over colour the expression. On page five the singing was stirring and masterly. The music cross-accents were very effective despite hurrying a little. The closing passage was exceptionally artistic. Here and there were places where we had doubtful notes. The last page was very good indeed. The bass phrase was given notice. A performance of a high standard notwithstanding the few comments we had to make.

The first prize went to Rhosllanerchrugog Male Choir (191 points), with Treorchy claiming the £100 second prize (182 points), followed by the Morriston (173 points) and Manselton (170 points). The first man to rush on stage to congratulate conductor Colin Jones on his winning choir’s performance was of course John Davies of Treorchy.

In the next edition of Excelsior, the Treorchy maestro wrote with obvious determination not to lose again, “It was bound to come. At Llanelli our unbroken run of success in the National Eisteddfod came to an end when we were placed second to the Rhos Male Choir in an excellent competition. We warmly congratulate Colin Jones and his fine choir on their splendid singing, but we promise to do our best the next time to ensure that they get the second prize.”

At the Miners' Eisteddfod on October 5th, 1963 the Choir once again performed the J. Owen Jones national test piece and the adjudicator remarked:

"Blow Blow Thou Winter Wind" – A grand opening, rhythmic pattern established right from the beginning. Every detail in the copy lovely studied and established – meticulous attention to detail. Choir capable of shades of f, ff and fff. Remember quite a feat, artists of a high order.

Royal National Eisteddfod, Rhos, 1961Royal National Eisteddfod, Rhos, 1961Treorchy won their fifth consecutive Miners' Eisteddfod that day against Blaenavon and District and Treharris and District Male Choirs. It would mark the last occasion when the Treorchy choir competed in this eisteddfod, winning a total of five first prizes out of five entries. The adjudicator A.Tusler of Barry later said, “This was the nearest to perfection I have ever heard in this form of choral singing.”

The 1952 National at Aberystwyth was regarded as a pivotal moment in the history of the Choir, but it would be safe to assume that another of their greatest performances – despite adversity – came at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in Swansea on August 8th 1964. That night the pubs in Treorchy delayed
their closing time and celebrating crowds of almost four hundred people milled around Bute and High Street until the early hours, awaiting the triumphant return of their choir.

The Rhondda Leader headline said it all, “Drama in Battle of the Giants: Sick Man Leads Choir To Finest Hour”. This was an eisteddfod to remember as a whole host of Rhondda musicians participated. Rhydwen Williams of Pentre won the crown and the Mid Rhondda Workmen’s Band beat Cory, Tylorstown and the Parc and Dare for the major brass band prize of £500. Also on stage were Porth Choral Society, Wattstown OAP Choir and the Ferndale Imperial Singers.

All eyes that year were firmly turned on the final competition – the chief male voice choir for 80 voices or over and 8,000 people packed the Pavilion, with a further 30,000 strolling the field outside. For the first time in almost twenty years the great male choirs of Wales faced one another in musical warfare. The biggest names were there in Treorchy, Rhos, Morriston, Pendyrus, Manselton and the young Pontarddulais, directed by Noel Davies who had been so carefully assisted in moulding his choir by none other than John Haydn – who would even become one of their Honorary Members.

However, things were far from well in the Treorchy camp. John Haydn had been bedridden with a flu virus and high temperature for over a week. Unable to attend practice, the all-important final rehearsal on the Saturday afternoon had to be cancelled. A sense of doubt and foreboding swept through the Treorchy Male Choir until news reached them that their leader would indeed attend the competition. His wife Olwen later said, “If I had not allowed him to go to Swansea it would have affected him mentally.”

Six coaches of choristers and supporters headed west over the Bwlch towards the seaside town. The Conductor was taken to the eisteddfod from his sick bed in a private car and waved through the main gates of the eisteddfod to the rear of the stage – a privilege even denied the druids themselves.

Eisteddfod CertificateEisteddfod CertificateAt 4.45pm John Haydn mounted the podium and surveyed his choir of 98 men. Months of painstaking rehearsals had come to this and at his signal, three bars of piano accompaniment from his dearest friend Tom Jones, led to the dramatic attack of the male voice singers. Matthias’s lively “Y Pren Ar Y Bryn”, was followed by Victoria’s “Arglwydd Da Nid Wyf Deilwng”. By the third piece, “Paracelsus”, John Haydn was visibly shaking and his conducting had become imprecise. As the loud applause continued with the finale of the piece, he staggered off the stage and was bundled into the car before being whisked to his bed in Treherbert where he awaited the news of the result.

The adjudicators were Meredith Davies, the eminent choral and orchestral conductor, Peter Gellhor, Director of the BBC Chorus and formerly of Glyndebourne and Elfed Morgan, Music Organiser for Carmarthenshire who later said of Treorchy, “Wales has something here to really take pride in.”

"Y Pren Ar y Bryn" by William Matthias – Fine and rich voices. The bass section firm and sure at all times – a fact which prompted the three of us to say that their tone was a splendid foundation to build upon. The choir displayed perfect discipline and flexibility. The piece opened, grew and developed before us in a most skilful manner. We felt the briskness and agility of the piece of music, because every member of the choir had understood and become acquainted with the idiom. An excellent interpretation. (90 points)

"Arglwydd Da Nid Wyf Deilwng" by Tomas Luis De Victoria, arranged by W.S. Gwynne Williams – Another beautiful treatment, consistent with the spirit of the piece of music. The cleanness of the reading of the music, the diction, and phrasing, were exceptionally good. There was something here which went far beyond technique. The pitch was maintained throughout. A very desirable experience. (89 points)

"Paracelsus" by Granville Bantock – We soon had plenty of examples of the talent and ability of the conductor to get the best out of every page of the music. We felt that every sentence was in its place, and that they moved towards some special climax in every section of the work. Indeed here was everything we could wish for and plenty of vocal resources to sustain the piece throughout. A talented and skilful conductor, another excellent performance. (90 points)

Royal National Eisteddfod, Swansea, 1964Royal National Eisteddfod, Swansea, 1964This was indeed a supreme effort on behalf of a conductor and his men. It was with a sense of sheer bewilderment that they announced Treorchy Male Choir as the winner of the National Eisteddfod with 269 points. They were followed by Pontarddulais (266), Pendyrus (265), Morriston (263), Manselton (253) and Rhos (257). John Haydn’s determination to ensure Rhos would come second the next time they met went beyond anything he’d predicted. It would in fact be his last performance in the competitive arena as conductor of the Choir.

His friend Tom Jones stepped on the stage to receive the Welsh Guards Challenge Cup and the Ivor E Sims Memorial Medallion for the Winning Conductor from another old Treorchy friend, Alun Williams of the BBC.
Within a few days the composer William Matthias wrote to the conductor to express his delight at the rendition of his composition, “It thrilled me considerably to hear Y Pren Ar Y Bryn so finely done. It had musicality, excitement and that necessary bit of dramatic point. Above all I admired the flexibility of the Choir which, while taking in the various tempi, nevertheless allows it to sing and react to your beat as though it were one man.”

However, once again the last word on this competition should go to the great maestro himself, “This was a soldiers' victory, made possible by the sound work put in at rehearsal in the preceding months. The discipline and determination shown by each chorister, especially during the last test piece, when my knees were wobbling and my gestures becoming more and more impressive and misleading, were a wonderful and to me unforgettable display of espirit de corps. This was a competition not only with the biggest number of choirs taking part since the last war, but the highest general standard of performance in our experience. I was especially pleased to receive the Ivor Sims medallion as we had been friends for nearly thirty years.”

His period of ill health in 1964 would result in John Davies making the decision to appoint a new member of musical staff. With the support of the Management Committee he turned to a well known local conductor and organist from Pentre by the name of John Cynan Jones. The son of a composer, brother-in-law of the eminent conductor Rhoslyn Davies and son-in-law of a Treorchy Choir bass soloist, John Cynan’s appointment as Associate Conductor welcomed him firmly into the family of which he already had strong connections.

Royal National Eisteddfod, Swansea, 1964Royal National Eisteddfod, Swansea, 1964Three years would pass before the Choir entered a competition again and during this time the founder conductor was questioned in the local press over his achievements as they reached their 21st anniversary. Typically modest he was ready with a response.

"When asked, “Are you the best male choir in Wales?”

I say, “No, but I believe that we are the second best.”

“Who is the best?”

And I reply, “Noel, Colin, Glynne, Eurfryn and the other conductors are all my friends. Why should I make this invidious distinction between them?”

The Cardigan Semi National Eisteddfod on May 19th 1967 was another milestone in the Choir history because for the first time since its post-war reformation it was conducted by someone other than John Davies. Although he had ably assisted with the preparation for the entry itself, it was John Cynan Jones who would lead the Choir to victory, with the faithful Tom Jones at his side. The adjudicators, Warwick Braithwaithe, D.T. Davies and Leon Forrester had the following comments to make:

"Yna Plant Yr Hebreaid" by Palestrina – Transparent, with fine control as of good organ-playing. Supple part-singing , with something of interest all the time. It built up in waves, to a crest, with good stresses on the Hosannas. Satisfying stuff! (91 points)

"Y Pren Ar Y Bryn" by William Mathias – As rich as a fruity Christmas cake with glitter too, for icing on the top. Crisp, fine words. Orchestral effects if and as required – a fine sforzandi. A responsive group in a fine performance, first class! (92 points)

Treorchy gained the first prize with 183 points followed by Pontarddulais (173), Dunvant (169) and Manselton (167).

Just a few months later and the Choir, under the baton of its new leader entered the National Eisteddfod in Bala. John Cynan Jones observed the Choir intently before the first opening bars of the piano part. It was an incredibly difficult 24-bar introduction to the first piece by Bach and at the piano, for the first time, sat someone other than Tom Jones. The post-war accompanist had been too ill to attend and so it was decided to invite the niece of a chorister, the young student Marion Williams who also came from Treorchy, to deputise on his behalf. Her performance, which received the acclaim of the adjudicators, was truly outstanding.

Of the Choir, John Cynan observed the mood of the event when he remembered how the conductors of each choir waited like “matadors” about to enter the bull ring, “except for the blood, heat and sand we could substitute rain, cold and mud – good honest Welsh mud of a variety which comes to exist only on the national field. The effect that a national has on competitors is remarkable. Normally solid people find their legs turn to jelly. Some men revel in the atmosphere, suggesting that perhaps their ancestors were related to the noble Roman gladiators who dabbled in death and glory before “Great Caesar”. Others are obviously nervous that I am sure that they utter not a single note for fear of making a mistake. However the majority seem to look upon competition as a great spur and tremendous challenge.”

The adjudicators Meirion Williams, Kenneth Bowen and Gerallt Evans observed:

"Glory To God" by J.S. Bach, Emphatic opening in steady time. Rhythmically alive, with interesting contrasts in tone. Congratulations to the accompanist. (93 points)

"Yna Plant yr Hebreaid" by Palestrina (unaccompanied) – A beautiful tone and sharply defined vocal lines. As uniform flow with a nice rich tone. (90 points)

"Y Gwyntoedd" by E.T. Davies (unaccompanied) – A very good opening with secure intonation. The interweaving of the voices and the delicate phrasing was especially fine. Full of variety in colour and meaning. (93 points)

Victory was again Treorchy’s as they claimed the first prize of £500, the Welsh Guards Challenge Cup and the Ivor E. Sims Memorial Medal. Their 276 points beat rivals Pontarddulais (274), Dunvant (254) and Rhos Orpheus (253).

The ResultsThe ResultsThe Liverpool Daily Post said of the male voice choir competition, “The Treorchy has been and still is, one of the greatest choirs of its kind in the world. Variety and range of tone sustaining power, the utmost lightness when required and a true legato are only a few of its characteristic qualities. The Winds is a piece containing some extremely difficult enharmonic modulations, the sound of the final chord was as beautiful as anything heard in the whole eisteddfod. It was a fine choice of music and one that contributed greatly to the enjoyment of the audience, at the same time putting the choirs through a searching examination as to their technical and musical abilities.”

The prince in waiting, John Cynan Jones, later told his troops that the success of the day itself was due to the “help and advice of John Davies always a tower of strength on which I was able to lean, a source of advice and consultation, especially in moments of anxiety, his wealth of experience proving once more a vital factor in our success. It was indeed OUR victory, for although I was captain for the day, ours was a real team effort.”

This was the final competition entry by the Treorchy Male Choir. Their outstanding record of achievement spoke for itself and with an incredible eight national wins out of eleven entries, nine first prizes at the semi national out of eleven entries and a full five wins at the Miners' Eisteddfod, the time had come to indeed put down that competitive baton. For what else could be achieved? Treorchy had indeed made its mark on the eisteddfod, but there were other milestones to reach, other glories to claim and a continued effort, instilled in every man with this great musical organisation, to always endeavour to be one of the greatest male voice choirs in the world.

(c) Copyright Dean Powell