Culture

‘Emotions ran wild’: New book charts rivalries at heart of 19th century Welsh choral singing

03 Apr 2021 2 minutes Read
Cover of ‘A Royal Choir for Wales’

Rival Welsh choirs and their fight to gain Queen Victoria’s royal seal approval is revealed in a new history book celebrating the rich culture of a “land of song”.

A Royal Choir For Wales by historian Dean Powell gives a fascinating insight into how nineteenth-century Wales evolved to become a heartland of choral singing against the background of heavy industry and hardship.

Galvanised by a strong musical and religious intensity, the valleys became volatile melting pots of migrant people who collectively united in song and created a growing new working-class culture.

Dean Powell said: “We’d be mistaken for believing that the Welsh choral tradition was simply a peaceful pastime born out of religious revivals which saw choirs performing in harmony with one another.

“There was a strong competitive element due to the growth of the eisteddfod movement. Emotions ran wild and crowds followed their home choirs by mobilising armies of supporters with inflamed passions and an eagerness to win.

“Choral competitions drew crowds of thousands of supporters – far more than international rugby games of the period – and this musical fanaticism caused heated encounters, brawls in the street, gambling behind the scenes and attempts to sabotage performances.”

Rare

The new book explores the role conductor Griffith Rhys Jones, ‘Caradog’, played when his 400-strong South Wales Choral Union triumphed at the Crystal Palace.

The victory inspired the formation of two prominent male voice choirs from the Rhondda Valleys who battled for glory both on and off the competitive stage.

William Thomas and his Royal Welsh Choir and the neighbouring Rhondda Glee Society led by Tom Stephens dominated the eisteddfod arena.

Dean added: “During the final decades of the nineteenth century the conductors became national heroes and arch-rivals.

“They led their singers on worldwide tours the likes of which we’d never seen before, but their greatest desire was to win the approval of the Queen Empress of Great Britain and her Colonies. The question is who would win the crown?”

Filled with rare images and personal memorabilia collected by the descendants of the conductors, this is the first time the majority of them have appeared in print.

Priced £12.99, copies of “A Royal Choir for Wales” are available by contacting dean@llantrisant.net.

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