CD A0124: Pencerdd Gwalia

The Complete Collection of Welsh Melodies for the Harp by John Thomas, Pencerdd Gwalia (1826-1913)

The Complete Collection of Welsh Melodies for the Harp by John Thomas, Pencerdd Gwalia (1826-1913) by Elinor Bennett

A double CD featuring all the Welsh tunes by John Thomas, Pencerdd Gwalia. The first recording of the whole collection of his famous arrangements published in 1862 as "Welsh Melodies for the Harp" performed by Elinor Bennett.

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Audio Samples & Track Listing

Track Listing
CD 1
1 RHYFELGYRCH GWYR HARLECH ('The March of the Men of Harlech')
Dedicated to The Honourable Miss Bickersteth
2 Y GADLYS ('The Camp - Of noble race was Shenkin')
Dedicated to Lady Williams Wynn
3 MORFA RHUDDLAN ('The Plain of Rhuddlan')
Dedicated to The Lady Sarah Hay Williams
4 BUGElllO'R GWENITH GWYN ('Watching the Wheat')
Dedicated to The Dowager Lady Willoughby de Broke
5 Y FWYALCHEN (The Blackbird')
Dedicated to Mrs. West of Ruthin Castle
6 CODIAD YR EHEDYDD ('The rising of the Lark')
Dedicated to Mrs. Fitzhugh of Plas Power
7 DAFYDD Y GARREG WEN ('David of the White Rock or The Dying Bard to his Harp')
Dedicated to The Dowager Lady Willoughby de Broke
8 CLYCHAU ABERDYFl ('The Bells of Aberdyfy')
Dedicated to Lady Shelley
9 FFARWEL Y TELYNOR (The Minstrel's Adieu to his Native Land)
An original melody by John Thomas
'Dedicated to The Misses Williams of Aberpergwm
10 AR HYD Y NOS ('All through the Night')
Dedicated to Mrs. Conway Griffith ofCarreg Lwyd
11 PERALAW ('Sweet melody - Sweet Richard')
Dedicated to Lady Hall of Llanover
12 TROS Y GARREG ('Over the Stone')
Dedicated to Miss M.Jane Williams of Ynys-Las
CD 2
1 MERCH MEGAN (Megan's Daughter)
Dedicated to The Dowager LadyWilloughby de Broke
2 LLWYN ONN (The Ash Grove)
Dedicated to Her Grace The Duchess of St.Albans
3 CODIAD YR HAUL (The Rising of the Sun)
Dedicated to The Lady Grace Vandeleur
4 NOS GALAN (New Year's Eve)
Dedicated to Mrs. Lucy of Charlecote
5 TORIAD Y DYDD (The Dawn of Day)
Dedicated to Mrs. John Biddulph
6 SERCH HUDOL (Love's fascination)
Dedicated to Miss Chichester of Burton Constable
7 SYR HARRI DDU (Black Sir Harry )
Dedicated to Lady Jen Rinson
8 CWYNFAN PRYDAIN (Britain's Lament)
Dedicated to The Honourable Mrs. Allan de Tatton Egerton
9 MERCH Y MELINYDD (The Miller's Daughter)
Dedicated to Mrs. Rainy
10 DEWCH PR FRWYDR (Come to Battle)
Dedicated to Mrs. Peploe of Garnstone
11 RIDING OVER THE MOUNTAIN - An original melody by John Thomas
Dedicated to Mrs. Lucy of Charlecote Park
12 YMADAWIAD Y BRENIN (The Departure of the King)
Dedicated to The Dowager Marchioness of Downshire


CD Notes & Credits

Sleeve Notes

JOHN THOMAS ('Pencerdd Gwalia') 1826·1913

John Thomas was born on March 1st, 1826 to Catherine and John Thomas, tailor, of Bridgend in Glamorgan. His home was next door to the Leicester House tavern, which stood on the site of Bridgend's present main Post Office. His father played the clarinet in the town Band, and he himself played the piccolo when only four years old. But the sound of the harp won him over, and he was bought a triple harp which he mastered to such a degree that he won the chief harp competition at 1836 Abergafenni Eisteddfod. His prize was a new triple harp by Bassett Jones of Cardiff (worth 25 guineas), which can still be seen at London's Royal College of Music.

It was at the 1838 Eisteddfod he met the first of the women who had such an influence on his musical career, and to whom he dedicated each of his 'Welsh Melodies'. She was the notable Lady Llanover, Augusta Hall, whose main passion was the promotion of traditional Welsh music and dance, and the triple harp. He also met Sir Charles Morgan of Tredegar Park who invited him to perform at his London home, and it was there that John Thomas met Lady Lovelace, the 23 year old daughter of Lord Byron. When he was admitted to the Royal Academy to study the harp under John Balsir Chatterton in 1839, three-quarters of his fees were paid by Lady Lovelace, to whom he gave harp lessons, and the re: by his father who moved with his family to London

John Thomas also studied the piano with CJ Read, and composition under Cipriani Potter, one of Beethoven's ex-pupils, and during this time he composed pieces for the harp as well as three operas. But his harp studies were his main priority, and his instrument was the pedal harp, which was rapidly gaining in popularity in England at the time. Lady Llanover never really forgave him for turning his back on the triple harp of Wales. The traditional Welsh triple harp was played on the left shoulder, with the left hand playing the higher notes and the right hand on the lower strings. John Thomas now had to learn to play the melody with his right hand, with the harp resting on his right shoulder, but he rose to the challenge, and soon had audiences spellbound with his technique. In his letters to Lady Llanover, he described some of his concerts, referring to his arrangements of Welsh airs. She however was not impressed, and disapproved of 'Italianising or Frenchifying national melodies'.

Upon leaving the Academy,John Thomas was appointed harpist with the Royal Italian Opera orchestra in Covent Garden, and spent the 1850's performing in London during the summer and on the Continent during the rest of the year. He continued to displease Augusta Hall by not performing many Welsh melodies in his concerts, and she urged him to play 'some of your best Welsh melodies in their original purity'. Meanwhile he made the acquaintance of other leading patrons of the arts, including Mrs. Lucy of Charlecote Park, born Mary Elisabeth Williams, of Bodelwyddan Castle. He met her at Llanofer, and she was immediately impressed 'for his playing was simply glorious and .... he seems so nice and gentlemanlike'.

He performed in all the leading cities of Europe, and his collection of letters of introduction opened the doors of the aristocracy. His virtuosity won him universal acclaim, and in Vienna he was pronounced a worthy successor to Elias Parish Alvars, the great ex-patriate English harpist. He met some of the leading composers of the time, among them Franz Liszt (who extemporized on one of Thomas' melodies, 'Adieu, my native country'), Rossini (in whose house he played with other musicians every Saturday night during 1858-9), and Berlioz, who said 'If I were rich, how I should enjoy the luxury of having such a virtuoso to soothe my sad hours and make me forget the realities of life'.

John Thomas' attitude as a professional musician was British, rather than Welsh, at this time, but the early 60's saw him return as it were to his Welsh roots. In 1961, at the Aberdare National Eisteddfod, he was acclaimed as 'Pencerdd Gwalia' (lit. 'chief musician of Wales') for his services to the Welsh musical tradition, an honour he greatly enjoyed, and on the following St. David's Day he published his two volumes of 'Welsh Melodies arranged for the Harp', which had taken him almost ten years to prepare. Between 1862 and 1904, he held grand Welsh concerts in London, and created 'a great sensation' with his choirs of twenty harps and 400 voices, and young Welsh singers such as Edith Wynne.

He founded the London Choral Society, and by 1872 was recognised as Harpist to Queen Victoria. He continued to compose, and in 1874 published 'The Songs of Wales', Welsh melodies arranged for voice. In 1878 he married one of his pupils, the 22 year old Alice Ann Keate who died following the birth of their son Llewelyn in 1880, and three years later he married Joan Frances Denny, who bore him three children. He was appointed Professor of the harp at the Royal Academy, where he founded a scholarship to enable young Welsh musicians to study there, and also taught at the Guildhall and the Royal College of Music. Upon the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, he became Harpist to Edward VII.

Despite his grand connections, he retained a close relationship with the people of Wales, held regular concerts for various Welsh causes, and his contribution to the repertoire of the harp was notable. He died on March 19th 1913, and was laid to rest in West Hampstead cemetery.

JW Hughes, 1998

Introduction by the harpist:

In common with many other Welsh harpists, John Thomas' arrangements of 'Welsh Melodies' were the starting point of my harp-playing education. But although his arrangements of 'Bugeilio'r Gwenith Gwyn', 'Ffarwel y Telynor' and 'Dafydd y Garreg Wen' have been popular on the Eisteddfod and concert stage for the past century, only a few of his 24 'Melodies' are familiar to-day, even to harpists. It is my privilege through this recording to make the complete collection accessible to present-day audiences.

Each of the arrangements is a jewel, and an important legacy of the Victorian era. Their main strength is the beauty and simplicity of the melodies themselves, since the musical style is fairly restricted. But they are a testimony to John Thomas' technical expertise on the harp, and to his tremendous enthusiasm for promoting the national songs of his homeland. Indeed, what inspired him to undertake such an important task', as he himself said, was his 'national zeal' for bringing our national melodies to the attention of far wider audiences in the 19th century. In his introduction to the two volumes published in 1862:
'It is a remarkable fact that Wales, possessing music of such originality and beauty, should have remained up to the present period without any important collection of national melodies, arranged in popular form'.

The 'wider audiences' John Thomas referred to were the rich and influential aristocratic families he spent so much of his time playing the harp in their stately homes. What is ironic to-day is that it is harpists from the general Welsh public who are benefitting from his arrangements, although they were dedicated to 20 fashionable ladies of noble birth a century and a half ago. I am very grateful to my friend Meinir Heulyn for the use of her fine Gothic harp (made by Sebastian Erard at the end of the 19th century), which suits the acoustics of Plas Glynllifon's Organ Room so wonderfully, - both harp and building dating from the age of Pencerdd Gwalia.

As a personal post-script, I was fortunate enough to have occasional harp lessons from Miss Gwendolen Mason, herself a pupil of John Thomas at London's Royal Academy of Music.

I thank the Welsh Arts Council for its support, and Sain for undertaking this historic recording.

Elinor Bennett, 7thJuly,1998,


Recorded and edited between April and June, 1998. Recorded digitally in the Music (Organ) Room at Plas Glynllifon, near Caernarfon, with the permission of Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor, and edited digitally at Stiwdio Sain. The harp used is a Gothic Erard harp, with the permission of Meinir Heulyn. Master-tape prepared by Sain, CD's duplicated by Nimbus, Cwmbran.

Editor of the Sain Composers of Wales series: DAFYDD IWAN

Portrait of Elinor Bennett by Keith Bowen
Photograph of John Thomas by Lavender, with the permission of The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.
Design by Charli Britton, printing by Castle Press, Cricieth.
Sain acknowledges gratefully the financial assistance of the Welsh Arts Council in the production of this recording.

Made in Wales

Album & Artist Information

Instruments: Harp
Genre: Traditional Welsh
Format: CD
Our Ref: A0124
Label: Sain
Year: 1998
Origin: Wales (UK)

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Other Recordings by Elinor Bennett

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Serenâd Pencerdd Gwalia Little
Collection of Airs