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Letter from Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant

03 Feb 2024 7 minute read
1986 Royal Mail Stamp Depicting the Tanad Valley Plygain

Alun Hart

Sesiwn

Every second Wednesday of the month my teenage daughter and I break out the fiddle and tenor banjo and head to the Old New Inn in Llanfyllin to attend a pub music session of Welsh dance tunes.

The ‘sesiwn’ is run by accordionist Gary Northeast, originally from south London, Gary has lived in Wales for over thirty years and has played practically every form of roots and folk music at one time or another.

Since he moved to north Wales he has acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of Welsh dance music and he is unfailing in his encouragement.

The tunes are great fun to play, less rhythmically diverse than the Scottish though arguably a little more melodically idiosyncratic than the Irish.

This is largely due to their unique relationship with the Welsh triple harp which unlike most instruments on which dance tunes were written is able to play all 12 notes in the chromatic scale.

My current favourite is the set composed of ‘Rhisiart Anwyl,’ ‘Hen Meillionen’ in A minor then G major and ‘The Roaring Hornpipe.’

On this occasion the tune playing was boosted by fiddler, crwth player and Church in Wales vicar Cass Meurig, who has just released a new album of songs of faith, ‘Rwy’n Credu.’

Cass travelled over the Berwyns from Bala to join us, the quality music making a perfect accompaniment to a couple of pints of Reverend James.

 Angladd

There are few things the Welsh love more than a funeral, and the Tabernacle chapel in Llanfyllin was packed the following afternoon to give Tegwyn Jones, Ty Mawr a proper send-off.

Tegwyn was the musical director of Côr Meibion Penybontfawr for 17 years so it was only fitting that the we should attend and perform ‘Anfonaf Angel,’ one of his favourites.

We officially have 43 singers on the books at the moment, and only two were unable to attend a Thursday afternoon funeral, a solid testament to the affection the choristers still have for him.

We also did a good job of taking the quality and level of the hymn singing, from robust to roof raising before a eulogy, half in Welsh, half in English, equally witty and reverent told of 87 years of life well lived.

The funeral directors’ intention was that the congregation should leave the building while they played a recording of Tegwyn’s solo performance at the 1000 Voices concert in the Royal Albert Hall in 1994.

Everyone stood up but no one moved, entranced by the rich and potent baritone filling the unforgiving acoustic of the world’s most famous music venue from across three decades, we waited until the final notes had faded before shuffling out into the damp December gloaming.

Owain Glyndwr by Dan Llywelyn Hall – Sycharth, Spetember 2023

Sycharth

Two days later I was chasing the song of St Silin with the harpist Professor David Watkins. He and the painter Dan Llywelyn Hall, a fellow chorister, are currently working on a Senedd commission of art and music to celebrate Glyndwr Day in Cardiff on September 16.

Our search took us to Sycharth, the delightfully tranquil site of Owain Glyndwr’s famous court, much lauded by Iolo Goch and eventually razed to the ground by Prince Hal in May 1403.

This was David’s first visit and we spent a blissful hour wandering like Candice-Marie up motte and down bailey imagining the colour, smells and sounds that would have accompanied the court with a full compliment of soldiers, bards and minstrels.

Over an excellent roast turkey lunch at the Wynnstay in Llansilin David regaled us with extraordinary stories of his exploits in the pit at Covent Garden, in the London Philharmonic and beyond, taking in Maria Callas’s last ever performance and letters of appreciation from Simon Rattle and Dimitri Shostakovitch without missing a beat.

It turns out that the Song of St Silin is a pleasant, if unremarkable, bit of medieval muzak of the type that Owain may have enjoyed while he fretted about the onward march of the future Henry V. For a recorded version I recommend one-time Royal Harpist, Harriet Earis, from her album ‘Caneuon y Gaeaf.’

I should mention here that Dan and I are in the process of putting together a small festival to commemorate Glyndwr Day in Corwen this September.

Gwyl Glyndwr will take place on Saturday, September 14 and will encompass, live music, spoken word events, a symposium and even a twmpath.

Plygain

On to the Plygain at St Thomas’s in Penybontfawr. Growing up in Llanrhaeadr I was led to believe that the Plygain tradition was unique to the area, but I learn from the Facebook page that it has in recent years expanded beyond the confines of the Tanad Valley [sic], and there is even one held in that hitherto unacknowledged focal point of the Welsh diaspora, Coventry.

Originally intended as a Christmas morning service that was often run as an overnight vigil, the modern version consists of a short prayer, a reading and a congregational carol preceding a form of open mic session in which members of the congregation step forward to perform songs on the theme of Christmas.

The reading, Luke telling of the Angel Gabriel’s glad tidings, came from the 1988 update of the Welsh Bible, published to commemorate the 400thanniversary of William Morgan’s original, which of course he completed whilst vicar at Llanrhaeadr.

A reliable way of ensuring bums on pews at this sort of event is to invite the children of the nearby primary school; thus truculent, mulleted boys grudgingly rub shoulders with earnest, aggressively fringed girls to kick off proceedings with delightful songs of the birth of ‘Iesu Grist’ sung in strident two-part harmony. Then, the grown-ups take over.

Half a dozen parties of varying sizes and voice configurations sang some of the most beautiful and simple Christmas music I have ever heard, almost all of it acapella.

Many of the songs were written for the Plygain and are unique to the area. I left feeling the distinct lifting of one’s spirits that should follow a religious service, conscious of having been privileged to have witnessed a very special part of Wales’ cultural heritage.

Members of Penybontfawr Male Voice Choir, Former Accompanist Lynda Thomas, Musical Director Rhonwen Broome and Friends

Emynau

My week ends with a choir rehearsal. Having zipped through the set list for an upcoming concert our diary-keeper Gerald informed us that we had been contacted by the Monty Lit Fest.

They want to honour the work of the great Methodist hymn writer Ann Griffiths, who was born in nearby Llanfihangel-yn-Gwynfa, by getting us to sing at the 2024 event in June. They have a list of 12 suggested hymns.

One of the baritones ran home to retrieve a Welsh hymnal and returned with a tome the size of a shoe box from which our accompanist played through the proposed tunes.

As she did so, some of the older choristers joined in with half remembered words, giving voice to the ghosts of tunes in their heads and providing a glimpse of slow echoes returning from a faded world.

A time when all the tin and brick Bethels of Wales were full ‘llawn top’ with song every Sunday. I am pleased to confirm that the choir voted to accept the challenge.


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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
11 days ago

That was very reassuring to me that whatever handouts Mr Miles might extend towards the musical education of the youth of Cymru it will be as lichen on the quartz of Mynydd Clogau musically speaking…

Give my regards to the ‘horticulturalist’ of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant and Mr D Rust of Llanfyllin…

Last edited 11 days ago by Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
11 days ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

I met the Cray Twins in the stream above the waterfall, two local crayfish, both healthy and angry. I hope the water is as clean now as it was thirty years ago. Speaking of twins, they were stars of a film shot locally who refused the offer of a trip to America for the premier. Reminds one of the contented sheep farmer featured on here some time ago…

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