This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

May 2004


THE FIRST WELSH OPERA

21 May 1841:   Joseph Parry, Welsh composer, born.

A child of the Welsh coal fields, Joseph Parry was born on the banks of the river Taff in the industrial center Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales on 21 May 1841. The son of an ironworker, at the age of nine Joseph got his first job in a nearby coal pit before moving up to an ironworker’s job. At the age of thirteen he and his family followed his dad to Danville, Pennsylvania, where he got another job working in the Rough and Ready Rolling Mill.

The bleak industrial landscape of Pennsylvania’s coal and iron country hosted a vigorous cultural life among the immigrant Welsh community. Music being an important component of Welsh culture, Joseph attended some of the many local music and poetry competitions, known as eisteddfodau, that were held by Pennsylvania’s Welsh-speakers. Discovering a budding talent, Joseph sought out a musical education, and paid twenty-five cents a week from his meager wages to take lessons from a local teacher, concentrating on musical harmony.

The musical skills he displayed at the Pennsylvania eisteddfodau in 1863 and 1864 gained him so great a reputation that a special fund was set up in Wales and America to raise the means by which he could get a higher musical education. In 1868 he sailed to London to study at the Royal Academy, where he got his bachelor’s degree. His degree in hand, he returned to Pennsylvania and set up his own Danville Musical Institute. In 1874 the governors of the newly created University College of Wales in Aberystwyth invited him over to become their Professor of Music.

Although his relationship with the staid governors of Aberystwyth was not always a happy one, Parry thrived in Wales, and quickly hit his stride as a prolific composer of songs and hymns. For a while he got himself into the habit of composing a new hymn tune every Sunday afternoon after chapel services let out. His hymn “Aberystwyth” remains very popular to this day, along with the love song “Myfanwy,” said to have been inspired by his childhood sweetheart Myfanwy Llywellyn. In all he composed some 400 hymns and tunes, plus 10 operas, 5 cantatas, 3 oratorios and other works including a string quartet and “A Tydfil Overture.” His works won medals at the Welsh National Eisteddfod, and earned him a place among the Gorsedd of the Bards, where he adopted the bardic name of Pencerdd America (“American Chief Musician”).

In 1880 he teamed up with the Welsh bard Mynyddog (“Mountainous”) to compose the world’s first opera written in the Welsh language. “Blodwen” is set in the time of Owain Glyndwr’s revolt in the early 1400s, and tells the story of the Welsh knight Howell Ddu and his fiancÚ Blodwen caught in the turmoil of war and English invasion.

“Blodwen” enjoyed a good run of popularity, with some 500 performances. It is still occasionally revived today, and its “Huntsman’s Chorus” is a popular piece with Welsh male-voice choirs. By contrast, his other operas and operettas have sunk into obscurity, and his operetta “Marigold Farm” even suffered the ignominy of dying after one single performance. But with his reputation secured by the dozens of enduring hymn tunes he contributed to the Welsh-language repertoire, Joseph Parry himself died on 17 February 1903.


For more information on Wales, see the Wales Nation Page.

The stories featured in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2004 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.



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