Review: The Art of Music: Branding the Welsh Nation by Peter Lord and Rhian Davies
Go to almost any pub in Wales, and you are certain to see a sign advertising its karaoke night. I’m always amused when visitors from overseas attend one of these nights, as they often do during the Iris Prize LGBTQ+ film festival, and often at the Golden Cross.
For Americans, Karaoke is an ice-breaker, you get up and belt a song out, regardless of how badly it’s sung, but here almost every performance is a showstopper.
When asked why this is, I find myself relying on that old truism from Dylan Thomas’s 1954 play Under Milk Wood, in which the character Polly Garter sings a bawdily suggestive elegy to the men she has loved and lost before, about which the Reverend Eli Jenkins ironically remarks, “Praise the Lord, we are a musical nation!”
It was an idea which had become commonplace by the mid-20th Century, but Wales’ association with music goes back centuries, to the late Medieval and Early Modern period, as Peter Lord and Rhian Davies explain in the “Prelude” to their monumental history of the relationship between music and the visual arts in Wales, and how this has shaped Welsh identity, both within Wales and around the world.
One of the earliest depictions of the archetypal Welsh harpists is a woodcut in the English author Thomas Boorde’s 1550 guide and phrasebook The Fyrst Booke of Knowledge, published three years after the death of King Henry VIII, scion of the Tudors of Penmynydd, and a music lover and a composer of choral music.
An illumination in his own Psalter, made following the split from Rome, depicts him play the harp, a deliberate allusion to King David, long the hero of small, rebel states at war with the pope and rival states, and a figure who would be adopted by later generations of Welsh revivalists and antiquarians.
The industrial revolution and the emergence of the middle class brought musicmaking into the family home, as depicted in an early 19th Century drawing of Marianne Jones and her suspiciously sexy piano teacher Giuseppe Viganoni, and domestic paintings of professional musicians such as the blind harpist John Parry.
Wales would soon have its own iconic rebel in the form of the Bard, the legendary musician-poet hounded to his death by the invading forces of King Edward I.
In 1774 the artist Thomas Jones depicted the scene in what remains perhaps its best-known iteration. His bard, grey bearded, braced against the elements races towards the cliff’s edge, clutching a harp to his chest, his murdered brethren scattered on the ground behind him.
Inspired by Thomas Gray’s 1757 poem, The Bard, a Pindaric Ode, many more artists would depict the story, but few with the visceral power and righteous fury of Jones’s masterpiece. Within 50 years the Bard had more or less vanished from sight, the English crown’s victory complete.
What followed was an evolution of Welsh identity, within the context of the United Kingdom, but one still centred around music, via the chapel and choir culture of working class communities, and the rise of amateur ensembles from the burgeoning middle class, as detailed in John Hughes Thomas’s The Best in Form and Sound and Hue, reviewed in Nation Cymru in February 2022.
Even the whiskery, romantic figure of the Bard had a resurrection of sorts, with the revival of Eisteddfodau, the product of a growing Welsh Nationalist movement, and concerted efforts to preserve Cymraeg, as an increasingly industrialised Wales became predominantly Anglophone.
Written by Peter Lord and Rhian Davies, The Art of Music takes us from the very earliest artistic depictions of our cultural relationship with music, to the present day. Though Welsh identity was gradually subsumed by a more general British identity our reputation as a musical nation persisted and thrived during subsequent innovations in mass media and globalisation.
By the late 19th Century, figures such as Clara Novello Davies, mother of Ivor Novello, were gaining international fame, deserving of a monumental portrait painted by Barry’s Margaret Lindsay Williams, now in the collection of the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.
Around the same time, the soprano Adelina Patti, one of Verdi’s favourite singers retired to Craig Y Nos in the Neath Valley, staging performances at her own private theatre, such was the reputation of Wales as a country that appreciated good music.
Using his mother’s more exotic middle name as his stage name, Ivor Novello became a global star with his Great War anthem Keep the Home Fires burning. Further theatrical hits followed, along with a brief foray into the motion pictures.
The Ivor Novello Award for song writing was established four years after his death, and has since expanded into one of the world’s most prestigious music prizes, with multiple categories.
The mid-20th Century saw the celebrated bass-baritone Paul Robeson, a committed socialist and supporter of the miners, come to Wales, where he starred in the film Proud Valley, far away from the red panic paranoia and institutionalised racism of his homeland.
By the 1960s Wales had two international singing stars flying the flag for home, Tom Jones and Tiger Bay’s Shirley Bassey, who began her career singing in the pubs of Butetown while working as a secretary at Eastmoor steelworks, forming a bridge between the vibrant musical culture of the industrial heartlands in the 19th and early 20th Century and the present day.
In 1999 Dame Shirley performed at a concert to mark the opening of what was then called the Welsh Assembly, wearing a dress based on the Welsh flag, this musical nature rebranding itself once again for the 21st Century and beyond.
Even the great Bard himself had something of a comeback, in the form of Bedwyr Williams’s Bard Attitude, in which he portrayed this powerful symbol of resistance, complete with fake beard and suitably dramatic backdrop, with his trademark satirical wry humour.
The 1990s saw the emergence of ‘Cool Cymru’, with bands such as the Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia, and Super Furry Animals holding their own against Britpop titans Oasis and Blur.
Recent years have seen the revival of bi-lingual popular music, with singers such as Gwenno and Kizzy Crawford switching between Cymraeg and Saesneg, while artists such as Cate Le Bon and the rapper MC Deyah prove that Welsh Music is in rude health.
This magisterial book tells the epic story of how we got here, how centuries of music-making made Welsh ‘the land of song’. It’s a remarkable feat of research and analysis, exploring and unveiling many aspects of Welsh musical life, of which the general reader – myself included – might be unaware.
If this sounds weighty, fear not. Unlike many an academic tome, the writing here is lively and engaging throughout, making it accessible for readers of all ages, and a welcome addition to our national discourse.
Following last year’s Queer Square Mile, it marks out Parthian as a leading publishing house for serious, penetrative work about Wales and its place in the world. I’ll look forward to seeing what’s next.
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