Myfanwy: Ben Wildsmith recalls a transformative concert by the Pendyrus Male Choir
I’m 44 and stuck up a Powys mountain at the dog end of love. Our four years had been the filmic, irrational symphony for which I’d always believed myself destined. When the tympanies died away, a resigned calm had set in as we readied ourselves for the necessary trauma of severance.
Eve is painting away happily, so I broach the subject.
“The Pendyrus Choir are singing at the chapel in town tonight, fancy it?” She carries on putting the gleam into a pine marten’s pupil.
“That one we heard recently was absolute shit, you said it was as if Vic Reeves had been cloned forty times and locked in Treowen Community Centre with Linda McCartney on piano.”
“No, this is the Pendyrus, from Tylorstown in the Rhondda, where we visited. They are ‘the only musical ensemble in the world to have performed at both the White House and the Kremlin,’ I quote directly and solemnly from Wikipedia.
“’Kay,” she breezes, offering a coffee cup, as fair exchange is no robbery.
Driving down from Tylwch to the chapel is a tense affair. Eve is incongruously glamorous in the passenger seat of my knackered Polo and consciously so. Beautiful people can seem cruel, they have to be, how else would they ever get rid of us?
We park outside the China Street chapel, right where they put the black traffic cones for the funerals of which the town is so enthusiastically fond. The building towers at you from the pavement: fierce columns, solemn ironwork, inscriptions on tablets with fervent dates.
There are around a dozen chapels in and around little Llanidloes and I often wonder about the revivals of the Nineteenth Century. These chapels must have been bear pits of tumult, ranged against the Establishment and each other in competition for the souls of Wales. Their stone, oblong faces are set like resolute jaws, daring passers-by to defy them, dwarfing pubs, and taunting the Church.
Buglers in battle
An old boy in a choir blazer is sat on the wall catching a breather and having a fag.
“I’m looking forward to the concert,” I say, rolling one myself.
“Last time we were here was 1956,” he replies. “I was a kid myself.” The accent feels like a childhood blanket. The melodious precision of Rhondda vowels is unique and as far from the Powys accent as from Liverpool.
I do the mental arithmetic, Grandad left in the Thirties so he wouldn’t have known him. Still…
“My family’s from Tylorstown.” I announce. “My uncle, Trevor Morgan was headmaster of Ferndale Grammar…”
On I go; can’t help myself – like one of those Americans who, on discovering you are British, asks if you have met their niece who is studying at the University of Huddersfield. The old chorister negotiates me kindly.
“You can hear the musicality in his speaking voice, can’t you?” I whisper urgently at Eve as we go through the chapel gate.
“Whatever,” she replies.
This quality of the Rhondda accent was instilled into me as immutable fact and the reason that the Pendyrus and Treorchy choirs were the best in the world; in that order. Whilst it’s true that male voice choral music was not conspicuous in the 1982 zeitgeist for many nine- year olds, I’m sure that it would have been, had they known about it. The first cassette my grandfather gave me was a compilation of choirs from across Wales. Along with ersatz favourites like ‘We’ll Keep A Welcome In The Hillside’, I was introduced to the mighty, minor key hymns ‘Tydi a Roddaist’ and ‘Laudamus’.
Both of these feature dramatic shifts of dynamic whereby the choristers start by menacing in the bass register before building to full throated crescendos in which the tenors cut through clashing pipe organ chords like buglers in battle. It is fierce music that points accusatory fingers at hypocrites, mine owners, landlords, police, Maggie bloody Thatcher and anyone else threatening the culture from which it sprang. It’s physically demanding to sing and emotionally exacting to engage with. It is the Death Metal of its time, and it matters to me.
A suite of Welsh songs
We pick up a programme in the foyer of the chapel and hurry in to find a seat. It’s other-worldy in there. The room has rows of polished oak pews in a main bank facing towards the pulpit with five rows at the side facing inwards opposite each other. No incense, no candlewax. A balcony sweeps out above and the side pews up there await the choir, who will face each other across the room.
The pews are full of everyone I don’t know in town. My familiar faces are gin blossomed, bearded, braided and down the pub; these here are the scrubbed initiates of Deep Llani, or Llanidloes: shop owners whose sisters have keys to the community centre, Rotarians who know where the bodies are buried. A socially skilled hum floats across the sold-out audience and I shoot Eve a sour look.
“Where are we going to sit?”
She is pretending to ignore the snatched glances of respectable men who appreciate the time she took getting dressed. Focussing, she scans the room sharply, like the red kites she paints.
It’s true. There are two seats left on the right-hand side facing in under the balcony. We make our way there in silence and I note that I won’t even see one half of the choir who will be singing from the pews directly above my head. You can have enough of this shit, I can tell you: being late to everything all the time and fending off simpering blokes who would run a mile if they knew what actually being with her took. Fair play though, she’d tell you that herself.
I look at the programme and find that the first half is what I’m here for. A couple of ambitious classical pieces and a spiritual are to be followed by a suite of Welsh songs. Feeling a bit guilty about my frostiness, I nudge Eve and point it out. Her tastes run more to the psychedelic, but she remembers the dramatic heft of this ‘Tydi a Roddaist’ from my YouTube-assisted lessons on Welsh culture – what, you’re perfect are you? – and nods approvingly.
The second half of the programme looked awfully anticlimactic. Here was another example of Wales failing to live up to its doppelganger in my imagination. Despite ongoing efforts to reach them, my Welsh-born contemporaries seem no more enthusiastic about choral concerts than their English counterparts.
The chapel is heady with Estée Lauder Youth Dew and resounds to the chatter of plastic teeth, excited, no doubt, by the promise of an extended medley of ‘Songs from The Shows’ after a nice cup of tea and a macaroon during the interval. I envision them whipped up in Methodist fervour, pouring out into the streets to vent centuries of rage in a reprise of the Chartist riots, but it isn’t going to be that kind of night. Pity.
Drilled to perfection
The choir itself, however, contains a handful of members who are my age and younger. As the audience settles down, I watch the young tenors in their blazers, surrounded by older men. One has long hair tied in a ponytail; he is smiling and joking with the septuagenarian next to him and I feel a pang of something, envy probably.
A senior chorister rises to introduce the choir and describe its history. To the people of Rhondda Fach, he explains, male voice choir singing comes ‘as naturally as tax evasion’. Pausing to allow laughter to scatter nervously around the pews, his eyes narrow, his chest expands and he sweeps an arm around the choir.
“This… is Pendyrus!”
They rise in concert and breathe into their first note. I watch the perfectly synchronised lips of the tenors opposite in the balcony, their eyes fixed on the choirmaster who conducts, cajoles and restrains his charges with the graceful animation of a lion tamer. Directly above me the baritones and basses rumble with melancholic menace and I feel my hamstrings tighten. The first two songs are classical pieces: serious music to demonstrate the choir’s technique.
After a break of decades Pendyrus had recently returned to the competition scene, immediately trouncing all comers at the Semi-National Eisteddfod. In the 1920s choir competitions proliferated and were followed with the same parochial zeal as rugby in the Valleys. Pontypridd was the grudge match and usually settled more decisively long after the judging when the respective choristers would discuss their merits outside the pub.
They are drilled to perfection. The posture, the breath control, the unswerving focus and cohesion of the choir speaks of hard rehearsal time in Rhondda Fach Sports Centre on Mondays and Wednesdays. Presently, a lone microphone on a stand is produced and a white haired, round man steps forward. His fellow tenors pat him on the back as he moves through the ranks. Every inch a self-effacing star, he quietly positions himself about a yard behind the microphone.
The song is a Spiritual, ‘Lily of the Valley’. Welsh choirs have long favoured these for concert performance. When Grandad conducted the choir from the school he taught at in Birmingham on television, television, mind, he chose another African-American song: ‘Steal Away’. The cultural fraternity between the Valleys and Black America is personified by Paul Robeson who stood with the miners during the 1926 strike and later observed, “Wales, you know, is a part of England where I first understood the struggle of white and Negro together. When I went down into the coal mines –into the Rhondda Valley – went down to the mines with these workers, – lived among them – later did a picture, as you know, called ‘Proud Valley’- and I became so close that in Wales today, as I feel here now, they feel me a part of that land.”
Call and response
‘Lily of the Valley’ is a call and response song, similar in structure to work songs in which a solo singer puts out a line and the choir respond to it. The choir strike up with the refrain,
“He’s the lily of the valley, oh my Lord.”
It is sung quietly, eighty men with mighty voices in restraint. The soloist, I notice, sings along as if vibing himself up. He is a conspicuously diffident man, obviously uncomfortable with the spotlight that has been shone upon his talent. His eyes dart around the microphone before his first line. Every written version of the lyric concludes with an exclamation mark, he delivers it perfectly but with aching restraint.
‘King Jesus in his chariot rides.’
Still the choir hold themselves back. The conductor makes frantic, suppressing motions with his hands and threatens them with his eyes. To do this he has to pivot on his platform and exhort tenors one side, basses and baritones the other. It is the look your mother shoots you when you are five and about to tell an approaching aunt that she is fat. They comply.
‘Oh, my Lord…’
The chapel is strung out on tension. It is as if we are being tuned up across a Stradivarius. He leans into his microphone again.
‘…With four white horses side by side.’
This time the conductor just smiles, he has them where he wants them. The choir drops almost to a whisper.
‘Oh, my Lord.’
What I’m up to here is cheap and nasty. At the time it felt like all my constituent parts had been assembled into a performance and made to dance in front of my eyes: a ballet of music, Socialism, and ancestry.com unfolding in front of me. And it was, but who knows what all the pensioners in the audience were thinking: macaroons; Brexit? Maybe some of the choristers were distracted by gas bills or intrusive sexual fantasies. Perhaps the chapel itself was considering sudden collapse in the shock at this recreation of former glories. God knows it was empty the rest of the year. Still, never mind. The pay-off is glorious. All that restraint bursts out of the responding lines with abandon before ratcheting back down into grace.
Soloist – ‘What kind of shoes are those you wear?’
Choir – ‘Oh my Lord’
Soloist – ‘That you can ride up in the air’
Choir – ‘Oh my Lord’
Soloist – ‘These shoes I wear are Gospel shoes’
Choir – ‘OH MY LORD!’
Soloist –‘And You can wear them if you choose.’
Choir– ‘Oh my Lord.’
The soloist retreats back to his place and the microphone is discreetly removed. I issue Paddington Bear’s hardest stare at Eve to alert her that the main event is on. ‘Tydi a Roddaist’ is next in the programme and if she loves me, and she said she does, then this must be important to her. This is not a time to be wondering if colloidal silver is the key to eternal life, or if dinosaurs left us clues to solve climate change. No, this moment now is about me and the elaborately sacred identity I have constructed for myself. You owe me this Eve, and you know it. She smiles weakly.
God is definitely present
I’m in Wales, actual Wales in a chapel and the Pendyrus are about to sing the hymn I’ve nailed myself to since the age of eight. I live in a cottage on a mountain with an artist girlfriend who stops the hearts of bats with her eyes so she can paint them. Her mother bought me a floppy Fedora hat with a feather in it last Christmas. Take it away boys, take it away.
Frank Zappa said that music journalism was people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read. It’s a mug’s game trying to describe music once it really hits you. If your legs are gone you can’t be expected to memorise much of it technically.
The basses above me grind like cogs in an abattoir.
The tenors opposite caw and keen like corpse eating birds over our mountain.
The conductor snarls when he wants something.
It intensifies like mob violence.
God is definitely present, cackling along.
There is an uncomfortable silence when it stops: people cough when they don’t need to. The tenors smirk; they know what they have done. Then one piano chord rings and they pull themselves back out of demonic possession to stroke our hearts, velvet-like.
Paham mae dicter, O Myfanwy,
Yn llenwi’th lygaid duon di?
(Why is it anger, O Myfanwy,
That fills your eyes so dark and clear?)
The harmony is close, with the baritones at the top of their range. I imagine them above me staring at the tenors who are about to close their eyes and soar into a white oblivion where nothing is certain. The last few notes of this song are for the top of the broken, male voice, beyond which it would become female.
A rho dy law, Myfanwy dirion
I ddim ond dweud y gair “Ffarwel”.
(Give me your hand, my sweet Myfanwy,
But one last time, to say “farewell”.)
On YouTube, there is a video of this song taken by somebody in the balcony on their phone. On the right-hand side, at the front you can make out a couple holding hands for the last time.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.
A delightful, complete and disturbingly identifiable elegy. Every aspect of small-town Mid-Wales, down to the last hand-clasp turned public property. I confess I had to satisfy my inner gossip, even after so many years.
Malcolm Pryce without the seaside.
I did think though, that Lily of the Valley was the name of the octogenarian perfume that informs my recollection of cold childhood chapel.
Delightful read Mr Wilde Smith. From Kevin.