John Thomas Pencerdd Gwalia (1826-1913)


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John Thomas - A Short Biography 


Photograph of John Thomas'Voila comment jouer la harpe’ wrote Hector Berlioz on 2 March 1854. John Thomas, the subject of his comment, was born in Bridgend, South Wales, on St David’s Day, 1 March 1826. He was the eldest of seven children, four of whom became harpists. His father, also named John Thomas, was a tailor by trade, but he was a good amateur musician who played clarinet in the town band. Little John is said to have been playing piccolo in the band at the age of six, but it was the harp that he was determined to play, and an old one was obtained for him. This was a Welsh triple harp and John Thomas was playing it in traditional style (with his left hand playing the treble and his right hand playing the bass) when he won a new Bassett Jones triple harp at the Eisteddfod organised by Lady Llanover at Abergavenny in October 1838.

He was only twelve years old, and created a sensation. Invited to London by Sir Charles Morgan, the Eisteddfod president, he made such an impression on Ada, Lady Lovelace, Byron’s daughter, that she offered to pay for three-quarters of his education at the Royal Academy of Music if his father could find the other quarter.

John Thomas went to London. He learned to speak English and he re-learned his harp technique, abandoning the triple harp for one of Erard’s grand new pedal harps, and changing from the traditional Welsh method he had been taught, transferring the harp to his right shoulder, so that now his right hand played the treble and his left hand played the bass. His harp teacher was John Balsir Chatterton whom he eventually followed, both as Professor at the Royal Academy of Music and as Harpist to the Queen.

John Thomas became harpist to the Royal Italian Opera in 1850. The season ran from March to mid-July, so the appointment gave him the liberty to tour the continent as a soloist in the winter months. This he did from 1851, and over the next few years he visited France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Austria. In Vienna he was greeted as the natural successor to Parish Alvars, who had died there in 1849, and John Thomas dedicated his famous solo ‘Autumn’ to Countess Esterhazy, Parish Alvars’s main benefactress. 1852 was an important year, with a commission to compose and perform a Philharmonic Society concerto on 3 May; the manuscript of his ‘Minstrel’s Adieu’ dates from 30 July that year. Working at the Italian Opera also gave him a lifelong love of the human voice – in fact, in 1860, he was engaged for a year to the well-known soprano Desirée Artôt, who, in 1868, received (and refused) a proposal of marriage from Tchaikovsky!

At the Aberdare Eisteddfod of 1861, John Thomas was invested with the title of ‘Pencerdd Gwalia’ (Chief Musician of Wales), and in the same year he published his famous Welsh Melodies arranged for the harp. A year later he published his Welsh Melodies for the Voice to resounding success, and on 4 July 1862 he began his series of Grand Concerts of Welsh Music at St James’s Hall, Piccadilly, with a choir of 400 accompanied by a band of twenty harps! These annual concerts continued for 42 years.

John Thomas composed, arranged and published a vast amount of music, especially music for the harp. Harpists owe him a great debt for rescuing the works of Parish Alvars from oblivion and re-publishing them. Favourite works in his repertoire were Parish Alvars’s Serenade, Mandoline and Danse des Fées, and he was also the first in modern times to edit and publish both Handel’s Harp Concerto and Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp. He became Harpist to the Queen in 1871, and at the time of her Golden Jubilee in 1887, he composed a work entitled ‘Cambria’s Homage to our Empress Queen’ for Male Voice Choir and thirteen harps! He gave his last public concert the following year, in June 1888, when his programme included a remarkable performance of ‘Sounds of Ossian’ Parish Alvars’s great posthumous work, then, as now, still in manuscript. Adlais will publish this work in the near future.

Continuing to compose, edit and publish, John Thomas lived on into the twentieth century, and after the death of Queen Victoria, he became Harpist to King Edward VII. His death occurred in London on 19 March 1913.

©2005 Ann Griffiths


Two Extra Supplements are presented gratis with this number. A portrait of Mr JohnThomas, specially taken for this paper byMessrs. Russell and Sons, and a ChristmasAnthem, “While all things were in quietsilence,” by Henry J. King.


John ThomasThe antiquity of the harp admits of no disputation. The names of Jubal and King David are inseparably associated with the instrument. David was in all probability the most skilful harpist of his time.............

The Welsh people can lay claim to it (the harp) as their national instrument from time immemorial. In such honour was the harp held in Wales that a slave might not practise it. To be able to play upon it was an indispensable qualification of a gentleman, and a harp could not be seized for debt. Moreover, a professor of this favourite instrument enjoyed many privileges; his lands were free and his person sacred! The musically descended scion of these harpist of the Principality, one who has been placed at the head of Welsh music in these days, forms the subject of this biographical sketch.

John Thomas was born on St David’s Day (March 1), 1826, at Bridgend, Glamorganshire. He showed remarkable musical talent at a very early age. When he was only six years old he was quite a skilful piccolist. His father belonged to an amateur reed and brass band, and on the occasion of a county election the services of this instrumental force were called into requisition, doubtless to entice apathetic voters to hasten to the poll. Six-year-old Master Thomas, clad in a pair of “white ducks”, marched bravely along with the rest, playing his piccolo with electioneering vigour, if not shrillness. After a time the band was disbanded. Thereupon Mr. Thomas bought for his son a harp from the widow of Jones, the blind harper of Nottage. This Mr. Jones, of the large family of that name, is known to fame as the composer of the lovely melody of “Y Ferch o’r Scer” (“The Maid of Sker”). With this purchase came the turning point in young John Thomas’s life. Who knows how much he owes indirectly to old blind Jones of Nottage! The boy became simply infatutated with his new possession. He practised with passionate enthusiasm – from early morn to dewy eve.




The Eisteddfod! How often has that much-abused institution been the first stepping-stone to fame of clever young Welshmen! It was so in the case of John Thomas. At the age of eleven he competed at the Abergavenny Eisteddfod for one of four triple harps offered as prizes to the best players thereupon. Many competitors entered, of whom John Thomas was the youngest. To the great astonishment of all, himself included, Master Thomas, aged eleven, was declared the winner of the best harp. No wonder that today he treasures that old Abergavenny instrument with an affectionate veneration. This success did not spoil him: it indicated his life-work. The young piccolo player of Bridgend determined to become a harpist.



He found a true benefactor in Ada, Countess of Lovelace, Byron’s only daughter. “The Countess,” recalls Mr. Thomas, “adopted me, artistically speaking. She paid my fees at the Royal Academy of Music, which institution I entered in September, 1840 – when I was fourteen – and where I remained as a student for nearly six years. I was a boarder at Tenterden Street and wore the Academy uniform, which was not unlike a pageboy’s livery. In fact, on one occasion, when I strolled into the Pantheon on Oxford Street, the beadle said to me: “We don’t allow page-boys in ‘ere.” The food at the Academy was not over-abundant, and the butter was only upon a scraping acquaintance with the bread. In this connection it may not be without interest to quote from a very amusing history of the Academy contributed by Mr. Frederick Corder to the defunct Overture. In 1841 – the year after John Thomas entered as a student – we learn that Lord Burghersh, the father and the general factotum of the Academy in those days, made a thorough investigation of the housekeeping accounts, which had been very extravagant. Mr Corder says: “A Report was drawn up showing how a number of economies might be instituted and fixing an allowance of victuals per head, a very liberal one. It consisted of ¾-lb. Meat, 1 lb. of bread, 11/2- oz. of butter, 1oz. of cheese, 1 pint of milk, and 1 lb. of potatoes, on which substantial daily portion the students ought to have grown fat. Tea and coffee were expensive luxuries in those days, it should be remembered, and were therefore treated as extras, to be provided by the consumers themselves.” Amongst the fellow-students of John Thomas at Tenterden Street were Walter Macfarren (who was “a day boy”), C.W. Doyle, the late H.C. Lunn, formerly editor of THE MUSICAL TIMES, and the late. Brinley Richards.

“I worked very hard”, says Mr Thomas, “during my Academy days, much harder, I am afraid, than students do now. One of my fellow-students, the late Charles Fowler, afterwards of Torquay, used to get up at four o’clock in the morning to practise. I followed his example, and both of us, cov ered with a blanket – for the rooms were bitterly cold – used to be at work at that early matutinal hour. My professor for the harp – my principal study – was Balsir Chatterton, and I was a pupil of C.J. Read for pianoforte. I studied harmony, counterpoint and composition first with Charles Lucas, and subsequently with Cipriani Potter, who was a pupil of Beethoven.”



In order to induce his pupils to persevere in the study of counterpoint, Potter used to tell us an interesting story about the composer of the C minor Symphony. Potter went to Vienna to study composition under Beethoven. Upon his first visit to the great composer to arrange his lessons, Beethoven said: “You must also take lessons in counterpoint from Albrechtsberger,” which he did. After a time, Potter said to Beethoven: “Albrechtsbeger says that I need not study counterpoint any longer”; upon which Beethoven replied: “Tell him from me that he is an old flatterer! He did not keep me long enough at it.”

The student days of John Thomas were by no means unproductive in regard to composition. He wrote a Harp Concerto in B flat with orchestral accompaniment which was not only well received, but which made a very favourable impression. In addition to a symphony, several overtures, and quartets, he composed two operas – one entitled “Alfred the Great” and the other was on a Spanish subject – all of which were included in the programmes of the Academy concerts. He was by no means an idle student. To complete his record at the “old place” in Tenterden Street: Mr Thomas was successively elected an Associate, a Sub-Professor, a Professor, and a Fellow of his alma mater. For several years he has been a member of its Committee of Management. Thus he has known the venerable walls of the Academy as student and professor for nearly sixty years! This length of service must surely beat the record.

Upon the completion of his pupilage at the Academy, Mr. Thomas speedily became a distinguished performer upon the instrument of his choice. In 1851 he became a member of the orchestra of Her Majesty’s Opera, under the conductorship of Balfe, and played throughout that brilliant operatic season of the great Exhibition year, when Jenny Lind was at the height of her fame.



In the autumn of the same year he began those annual continental tours which brought him so much fame during the next ten years of his career. He first visited Vienna, where the Earl of Westmoreland (formerly Lord Burghersh) was Her Majesty’s Ambassador. The Earl gladly welcomed one of his old Academy boys, and showed him much kindness in that music-loving city, where he met Otto Nicolai, Czerny and Staudigl. In Dresden he played to the King and Queen of Saxony, and at Berlin before the Prussian Court. On the latter occasion, when he had finished his first solo, Meyerbeer (the director of the Court concerts), before the King and Queen, walked up to the young Welshman in the centre of the room and warmly shook him by the hand, at the same time paying him the most flattering compliments. The King of Prussia presented him with a costly diamond ring.



From Berlin he went to Hanover, with a letter from the Prussian Court to the King, who received him in the most flattering manner, which he recounts in the following words: “After having had the honour of dining with their majesties the King and Queen, conversing in the most homely manner over a cup of tea about the peculiarities of the Wellsh language, and teaching the King to pronounce some of the letters of its alphabet, I played to them several solos in the course of the evening. At the conclusion his majesty, after having highly complimented me, said: ‘I notice a remarkable peculiarity in your playing, which I have never found in any other performer upon the harp: it is that your execution in both hands is absolutely equal.’ Upon which I replied: ‘Your majesty, I think I can account for that. As a boy I commenced playing on a Welsh harp, the strings of which, being placed on the right side of the comb, necessitate its being held on the left shoulder and played upon with the left hand in the treble and the right hand in the bass; otherwise the comb would intercept the view of the strings. On entering the Royal Academy of Music as a student, I had to change the position – to hold the instrument on the right shoulder, to play with the right hand in the treble and the left hand in the bass, as, on the pedal harp, the strings are on the left side of the comb.’ His majesty replied: ‘You will give me some credit for having made the discovery.’ His majesty asked me whether I had ever played before the Queen of England, when I replied that I had not yet had that honour. Upon leaving Hanover I received a handsome present from the King, accompanied with a letter to our Queen, which secured for me the honour of my first appearance at Buckingham Palace.”

In addition to many costly gifts from Royal personages, Mr. Thomas returned to England “loaded with gratifying marks of attention from all parts of the Continent.” Mr. Davison, in an editorial postscript to an article in the Musical World (April 10, 1852), recording the successes of Mr. Thomas, thus characteristically expressed himself: “After this, let us hear no more of the hospitality of our continental neighbours, co-art lovers, and co-fiddlers, co-composers, and connoisseurs in general. – ED., M.W.”

At a concert given by him soon after his return to London, Mr. Thomas was assisted by Madame (now Lady) Macfarren, the late Herr Staudigl, vocalists; Miss Kate Loder (now Lady Thompson) and Herr Ernest Pauer, pianists. In the same year (on May 3, 1852) he performed a Harp Concertino in E flat, of his own composition, at a Philharmonic concert. Mr. Davison, in recording the event, said: “The Concertino of Mr. Thomas (lately a student at the Royal Academy of Music), a promising and talented musician, is a work of considerable merit. It is well written for the instrument – one by no means suited for combination with orchestra – and instrumented with decided ability. Mr. Thomas is one of our most skilful performers on the harp; and nothing could be more satisfactory than his performance, both as to mechanism and style. He was received with distinguished favour.”



At the Eisteddfod of 1861, held at Aberdare, Mr. Thomas, with all the ancient formalities appertaining to the Gorsedd, was invested with the title of “Pencerdd Gwalia,” which, being interpreted, means “Chief Minstrel of Wales.” In the following year (1862) he published his valuable collection of Welsh Melodies. On July 4 of that year he gave an important concert of Welsh music at St James’s Hall, the first of its kind in London, which clearly demonstrated to the dwellers in the Metropolis that Welsh music was not only worthy of attention, but that in the hands of Mr. Thomas the music of the Principality was in the safe keeping of one of her most gifted sons. A chorus of 400 voices was accompanied by a band of twenty harps. The late Madame Edith Wynne made her London début at that concert, “which”, said Mr. Davison, “was not only one of the most successful, but also one of the most interesting of the season. St James’s Hall, was literally ‘crammed’, and the audience included a large number of professors and amateurs.”

Amongst others, Thalberg was present, and after hearing the Welsh air “David of the White Rock” (“Davydd y Garreg Wen”), played as a harp solo by the concert-giver, he exclaimed: “Il-y-a l’âme de la musique dans cette melodie là.” He subsequently made a transcription of the melody for the pianoforte, and included it in his well-known work, “L’Art du chant appliqué au Piano.” Since 1862 Mr. Thomas has given annually a concert in St. James’s Hall.



John ThomasIn 1863 his dramatic cantata “Llewelyn” was performed, for the first time, at the Swansea Eisteddfod, for which it had been expressly composed, the English words of the libretto by Thomas Oliphant (honorary secretary of the Madrigal Society) and the Welsh words by Talhai[a]rn, the celebrated Welsh poet. An incident occurred on the evening for which the performance was announced (September 3), which might have been attended by very serious consequences. Mr. Thomas’s native town (Bridgend) is within twenty-five miles of Swansea; and his townspeople arrived at the Eisteddfod in thei r thousands, so that they crowded the building in every part. The gallery alone contained four thousand souls, and the iron girders which supported it were giving way under their immense burden. The area of the building was packed to such an extent that there was no possibility of escape. At this critical moment Mr. Thomas arrived on the platform, and heard the chairman request the trumpeter to blow a blast on the trumpet. This had such an electric effect upon the dense mass of human beings present that there was dead silence. He then besought them to be calm and to move quietly out of the building. Whilst the immense audience were slowly wending their way out of the building Edith Wynne, accompanied by Mr. Thomas, sang his Welsh patriotic song “Gwlad y Telynor a’r Bardd” (Land of the Minstrel and Bard”) ending with the following lines:-

In holy lays they ’ll ever praise
Walia, their kindred, and their God!

(Garoli mawr yn llawn o dân
I’w wlad, ei yenedl a’i Dduw!) [sic]

The gallery having been made structurally safe, the performance came off the following evening, when the building was again densely crowded. The work was received with the greatest enthusiasm, Chorley and Brinley Richards being present. It has since been frequently performed in London.

Its last performance took place at the Grand Welsh Eisteddfod held at the World’s Fair, Chicago, in 1893, at which Mr. Thomas was an adjudicator. Amongst those who sang on that occasion were Mrs. Mary Davies and Mr. Ben Davies. The following is an account of the performance:-

One of the leading events of the Eisteddfod was the performance of Mr. Thomas’s Welsh Cantata, “Llywelyn,”which took place on Wednesday evening, September 6. The principal characters were sustained by Mrs. Mary Davies (Eleanor de Montfort), Mrs. Jennie Alltwen Bell (Enid). Mr. Ben Davies (Llywelyn, Prince of Wales), and Mr. D. Gordon Thomas (The Bard). The Cantata was rendered by a chorus consisting of 1,000 voices, Brand’s Cincinatti Orchestra, and a band of twenty harps; altogether making an ensemble worthy of the occasion. An overture, written by Mr. Thomas specially for the event, led up to the opening scene: the convention of bards, minstrels, and soldiers, which was rendered with much spirit and verve. Suffice it to say that the performance was worthy [of] the author who had travelled so many thousand miles to let our cousins over the water know that there still remains amongst us a musical chieftain of the first water. A word as to the opinion entertained by our aforesaid cousins upon the merit of “Llywelyn”. The Chicago Tribune says: “It is seldom that a work of such sustained melody, simple, sweet, and pure, is to be met with. It bears the impress of natural spontaneity, and there is at no moment an attempt at over-ambitious striving, and the consequent anti-climatic result. , The direct simplicity of the work appeals to the heart rather than the head, and through that quality of all others that never dies – the quality of melody.”

At the National Eisteddfod of 1866, held at Chester, Mr. Thomas was the recipient of a purse of 450 guineas, subscribed for and presented to him as a token of appreciation of his unwearying exertions in the cause of Welsh music. Amongst the subscribers to this spontaneous testimonial was the Prince of Wales. At the same Eisteddfod his cantata “The Bride of Neath Valley” was performed. The English libretto was by H.F. Chorley, and the Welsh words by Talhai[a]rn.


A specially eventful year in the career of Pencerdd Gwalia was that of 1871. On the death of his old master, Balsir Chatterton, he was appointed harpist to the Queen, which office he still holds. Mr. Thomas refers to the Queen’s fondness for Welsh music and of the great interest she takes in the performances of his private band at Windsor and Osborne. It was in 1871 that he founded, in London, The Welsh Choral Union, which, under his conductorship, did excellent service in the cause of Welsh music for six years. A permanent outcome of this enterprise was the Welsh Choral Union Scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. It started in a modest way. Mr. Thomas was much struck with the ability shown by the younger members of his choir. He thereupon personally collected a sum of ninety guineas, sufficient to defray the cost of the fees of a student for three years. The first scholar was Miss Mary Davies, whose distinguished career fully justified the foundation of the Scholarship and the wisdom of the adjudicators. So good a thing deserved to be placed upon something more than a temporary footing. With all the musical enthusiasm characteristic of his race, and that indomitable perseverance so deep rooted in his nature, Mr. Thomas set to work to collect the sum of one thousand guineas. He succeeded. The Scholarship (founded in 1883) became a permanent institution, and is now called, and rightly so, “The John Thomas (Welsh) Scholarship” It is competed for triennially by vocalists and instrumentalists of both sexes, at alternate elections, and entitles the owner thereof to three years free instruction in the Royal Academy of Music.



In addition to the appointments already mentioned, Mr. Thomas is Professor of the Harp at the Royal College of Music and at the Guildhall School of Music. He is a Member of the Royal Philharmonic Society and a former Director, and also of the Royal Society of Musicians of Great Britain. He is also a Member of the Academies of the Società di Santa Cecilia, Rome, and of the Philharmonic Society, Florence.

Among his compositions, in addition to those above referred to, are numerous duets for two harps or harp and pianoforte; two sets of six studies; many solo pieces; transcriptions of the complete eight books of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, of Schubert’s Songs, of Beethoven’s Sonata in C sharp minor (Op.27, No.2), Handel’s Variations in E (“The Harmonious Blacksmith”) – all for the harp – songs with harp accompaniment, part-songs, &c. He also edited and published, in 1878, a concerto for harp and flute, with orchestral accompaniment, composed by Mozart whilst in Paris in 1787. He gave an orchestral concert at St. James’s Hall to introduce this work to the musical world, and has since played it at one of the Philharmonic concerts, the Hereford Philharmonic, and on many other occasions.

Mr. Thomas has shown literary gifts in various directions. For instance, the articles on “Welsh Music” and “Welsh Triple Harp” in Sir George Grove’s “Dictionary of Music and Musicians”; contributions to the “Myvyrian Archaeology of Wales” and the “Cymmrodor.” He has read interesting historical papers at the meetings of the Cymmrodorion Society and at the conferences of the Incorporated Society of Musicians. He wrote a very readable and instructive article in the Victorian Magazine, February, 1892. He speaks five langauages – Welsh, English, French, German, and Italian. It is hardly necessary to say that he is known throughout the length and breadth of his native land, where he has adjudicated at many Eisteddfodau; and he is already engaged as adjudicator and solo harpist at the National Eisteddfod to be held in Liverpool next year.



It would be presumptuous to pass any eulogy upon Mr. Thomas’s attainment as the foremost harpist of his time. But the following unsolicited opinion of one of the great masters of music – Hector Berlioz – may fittingly find a place here. Writing in the Journal des Débats on March 2, 1854, Berlioz said:-

“Quant à Mr. Thomas, premier harpiste du théâtre de la Reine. à Londres, je l’ai entendu,



As to Mr. Thomas, principal harpist of Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, I heard him, not in a concert hall, at a distance, between two romances, amid the noise of conversation, but as the things and the artists one loves ought to be heard, I listened to him in his own house; I was alone with him, and I appreciated quite at my ease the rare and poetic qualities of his talent. That is how the harp should be played. Mr. Thomas is thoroughly master of his noble instrument, but he does not aim at difficulty for its own sake; his tours de force have real charm. His style of playing is nervous, impassioned, feverish, as it were, but his expression is never exaggerated, and he never seeks to draw from the harp those violent, uncomely effects, which it only grants by losing that character of supreme elegance which gives it such power over certain organisations. The pieces composed by Mr. Thomas are, besides, of remarkable elevation of style. He charmed, fascinated, magnetised me. 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!



Mr. Walter Macfarren, a fellow-student of Mr. John Thomas at the Royal Academy of Music, has been kind enough to send the following “few words” about his old friend:-

“`I ought to have been called David’ said my old friend John Thomas to me in a recent chat; ‘for I was born in Wales and on St. David’s Day; but it was ordained otherwise, and I have had, although a Welshman, to put up with the very cosmopolitan christian name John.’

“John Thomas and I were born in the same year, we were fellow-students at the Royal Academy of Music, and we have been more or less intimately associated throughout our lives. If our extended knowledge of each other, similarity of taste, (indulgence in the vile weed – which John Thomas eschews – excepted), pursuits, and mutual respect and affection constitute friendship, then I may claim to be one of the oldest among John Thomas’s numerous friends, and claim also the right to speak of him as I have known him. Although in early days I did not enjoy very intimate acquaintance with the future Pencerdd Gwalia, yet I have a distinct recollection of his manner of speaking and personal appearance, and I marvel at the slight change which is apparent between the John Thomas of today and in the days when we were ‘school and form-fellows.’ My friend presents the same erect and dignified form and lithe figure, the same unclouded brow, and speaks in the same voice with which he conversed with me upwards of fifty years ago. His character has been equally consistent with his personal appearance. An admirable student, he developed into an equally admirable professor; the most modest of boys, he is now the most modest of men; his yearning for every sort of knowledge has made him an accomplished scholar and linguist; and last, but not least, being born one of nature’s gentlemen, he remains one of the most gentle of men.

“I am afraid that I have already occupied too much space, but I must be permitted to add a few words respecting my friend’s proficiency on his instrument, and having heard all the great harpists of modern times – to wit, Parish Alvars, Felix Godefroid, T.H. Wright, and the two Chattertons – I have no hesitation in saying that none of them approached John Thomas in the technical skill, beauty of phrasing, and refinement of style which have raised him to the very head of the musical profession in this country.”

John Thomas and Mdlle. AlbaniThe Last Rose of Summer was published in "The Graphic" on March 7, 1874 as a full page image (page 216) with the following caption:




The following text was repeated in the "Our Illustrations" page of the magazine


Is an incident at a concert given by the well-known Welsh harpist Mr. John Thomas, in the Chapel of the Choristers of the Imperial Court. Mdlle. Albani had originally been announced to sing, but owing to the stringent nature of her operatic engagement was at first unable to fulfil her promise. She attended the concert, however, and the chief director of the Opera being also present, he was appealed to for the necessary permission. He immediately granted it, and ‘‘The Last Rose of Summer,” sung in an exquisitely sweet and simple manner, was the result, the singer being rewarded by a storm of applause from the large number of English who formed the greater portion of the audience.

OF DAFFODILS AND DUVETS – A birthday tribute to Pencerdd Gwalia by Ann Griffiths

Imagine the scene. It is St David’s Day, March 1st 1871, and John Thomas is sitting at his desk in his house, 53 Welbeck Street, London. On the desk is a vase of daffodils, because not only is he celebrating St David’s Day, but also his own birthday. Quill pen in hand, and ready to dip into the inkwell, he prepares to sign copies of his music for his favourite pupils, as he does on St David’s Day every year. In early March 1871 he would also have just heard that he was to be appointed Harpist to Queen Victoria – a signal honour for the son of a tailor from Bridgend.

No-one could have been prouder of his Welsh roots than was John Thomas, and he was especially proud of the fact that he had been born on St David’s Day. He would always make a particular point of publishing any significant new work on March 1st, and newly published in 1871 was his third volume of Welsh Melodies for the Voice, subscribers to which included not only Welsh heiresses Mrs Lucy of Charlecote and her sister, the Lady Willoughby de Broke, but Miss Denny, of Tralee, Ireland (later to become his second wife), Mrs Berrington of Pantygoytre, Abergavenny and the amazing Mrs Rosher of Trewyn, Abergavenny, about whose weird will you can read in the current issue of the Lady Llanover Society’s Newsletter. I have a precious copy of a piece of his own music that John Thomas inscribed to Mrs Rosher on St David’s Day, as he did for so many of his pupils.

Contrary to popular belief, John Thomas composed much more than the well-known arrangements of Welsh Melodies – the National Library of Wales holds more than 200 of his manuscripts, as solo compositions, arrangements and special editions. It will also be remembered that it was he who brought to light and published both the Handel and Mozart Concertos. However, there is no doubt that it is his arrangements of Welsh Melodies for the Harp that brought him the most lasting fame.

The first collection of the Welsh Melodies for the Harp was published in the early 1860s, but John Thomas had been playing them all over Europe throughout the previous decade, albeit under names which are not familiar to us, because they conceal their Welsh origins under German titles, such as Kriegsmarsch, Die Glocken von Aberdovey (well, there’s a clue there!) and Abschied des Troubadour (The Minstrel’s Adieu). This last, although always grouped with the Welsh Melodies, is actually an original composition. The manuscript copy in the National Library is dedicated to Maria Jane Williams of Aberpergwm, and is dated 30 July 1852.

At that time, John Thomas had just returned from his first European solo concert tour, financed by a ‘matinee’ fund-raising concert he had put on at Lady Llanover’s London home, so it was only natural that ‘Ffarwel y Telynor’ should express his nostalgia for his homeland. A little-known fact is that while he was on his first European tour, he played at a soiree at which the composer Liszt was also present. Liszt was so impressed with ‘The Minstrel’s Adieu’ that he immediately sat down at the piano and asked if he might improvise on this lovely tune.

All this is related in John Thomas’s Journal of his first Continental tour. Having left London on 22 October, and going via Ostend, Cologne, Coblenz, Wiesbaden, Frankfurt, Mainz, Darmstadt, Heidelberg, Stuttgart, Augsburg, Donauworth, Passau and Linz, (and, as one does, having lost his portmanteau on the way), he eventually arrived in Vienna on 4 November 1851 - 14 weary, but eventful days after he had started out. Some of the impressions he recorded in his journal are worth recounting. Grapes were twopence a bunch, wine was sixpence a bottle; he took an instant dislike to sauerkraut, and hated the smoke-filled atmospheres of the restaurants, with all the clients puffing away at their meerschaum pipes. Most amusing was his battle with what must have been his first experience of a duvet, or continental quilt. I leave the words to him.

“The beds are not a little singularly made in this country to what they are at home. Instead of having sheets, blankets etc as we have, they have a large kind of pillow or what we call an eiderdown which extends over the bed – that is from the pillows for the head (which are very good & always two large ones) to the bottom of the bed; and you have to tuck yourself up as well as you can under this; and don’t be surprised, if you should happen to wake in the middle of the night, to find that the pillow has rolled off the bed, & left you minus of anything; which was the case with me the first night I had to sleep under one; & the first place where I had to do so was at Linz, about a hundred odd miles from Vienna; and although I am getting a little more accustomed to them now, (for all the beds are so in Vienna), I would still prefer our own blankets etc which may be well secured at the sides, so as not to run the chance of catching a severe cold during the night; by being deprived of clothes just as one may be in a state of perspiration, - or at least, glowing with warmth”.

Ah, the trials of a nineteenth-century travelling virtuoso! If you enjoyed these, more quotations from John Thomas’s Journals may appear at a later date.

©ANN GRIFFITHS 1 March 2006


Adlais 003: Selected StudiesA newly discovered copyright photograph of John Thomas, taken by Elliott and Fry, 1870-1878, and reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, appears on the front cover of Adlais’s new A4 format edition of his Selected Studies. It is not permitted to download or attempt to copy the photograph, but copies of the music are available direct from Salvi and other harp music outlets, or on-line directly from Adlais at








Een huldeblijk aan Pencerdd Gwalia (“Chief of the Welsh Minstrels”) ter ere van zijn verjaardag.

Stel je het volgende tafereel voor. Het is “St. David’s Day” (de nationale feestdag van Wales), 1 maart 1871. John Thomas zit aan zijn schrijftafel in zijn huis aan de Londense Welbeck-Street. Op het schrijfbureau staat een vaas narcissen (symbool voor Wales), omdat hij niet alleen “St. David’s Day” viert, maar ook zijn eigen verjaardag. Met de ganzepen in de hand, klaar om in de inktpot te dopen, gaat hij beginnen exemplaren van zijn muziek voor zijn meest geliefde leerlingen te signeren, een taak die hij traditiegetrouw elk jaar op “St. David’s Day” verricht. Begin maart 1871 zou hij bovendien net hebben gehoord dat hij benoemd zou worden tot “Harpist to Queen Victoria” – een opmerkelijk eerbetoon voor de zoon van een eenvoudige kleermaker uit Bridgend (in Glamorgan, een provincie van Wales).

Niemand kon trotser zijn op zijn Welshe oorsprong dan John Thomas, en hij was extra trots op het feit dat hij precies op “St. David’s Day” was geboren. Hij maakte er een speciale gewoonte van elk belangrijk nieuw werk van zijn hand op de 1ste maart te publiceren, en in 1871 was dat zijn derde band van de “Welsh Melodies for the Voice”. Onder de intekenaars, die hem daarbij al van te voren steunden, ziet men niet alleen de namen van de adellijke Mrs. Lucy van het kasteel Charlecote in Wales, en haar zuster, Lady Willoughby de Broke, (beiden niet-onverdienstelijke amateur-harpspeelsters) maar ook Miss Denny uit Tralee in Ierland (zij werd later Thomas’ tweede echtgenote), Mrs. Berrington van het landgoed Pantygoytre in Abergavenny (Wales) en de verbazingwekkende Mrs. Rosher van Trewyn, eveneens in Abergavenny, over wier bizarre testament men in een van de Nieuwsbrieven van de Lady Llanover Vereniging kan lezen. Ik (Ann.G.) bezit een waardevol exemplaar van een muziekstuk van John Thomas, waarin hij zelf op “St. David’s Day” een opdracht voor Mrs. Rosher had geschreven, zoals hij dat voor zovelen van zijn leerlingen heeft gedaan.

In tegenstelling tot wat men gewoonlijk veronderstelt, componeerde John Thomas zeer veel meer dan de bekende arrangementen van de “Welsh Melodies”. De Nationale Bibliotheek van Wales bezit meer dan 200 van zijn muziekstukken, waaronder solo-werken, arrangementen en bijzondere uitgaven. Ook moet men niet vergeten dat hij het was die zowel de concerten van Händel als Mozart herontdekte en opnieuw uitgaf. Maar toch bestaat er geen twijfel over dat zijn arrangementen van de “Welsh Melodies for the Harp” hem blijvende naam en faam opleverden.
De eerste verzameling van de “Welsh Melodies for the Harp” werd omstreeks 1860 gepubliceerd, maar John Thomas had ze in de tien jaar daarvoor al overal in Europa gespeeld. Weliswaar met titels die wij in Wales wellicht niet meteen herkennen, omdat zij hun Welshe afkomst onder Duitse benamingen verbergen: Kriegsmarsch bijvoorbeeld, Die Glocken von Aberdovey (hier is tenminste een overduidelijke aanwijzing!) en Abschied des Troubadours (The Minstrel’s Adieu). Hoewel dit laatste stuk bij de “Welsh Melodies” is ondergebracht, is het in feite een originele compositie (en dus geen traditionele melodie). Het manuscript-exemplaar in de Nationale Bibliotheek van Wales bevat een opdracht van Thomas aan Maria Jane Williams uit Aberpergwm, gedateerd 30 juli 1852. (Ook zij ging naarstig op zoek naar traditionele muziek van Wales en gaf die ook uit onder de titel “Ancient National Airs”.)

Omstreeks die tijd was John Thomas net teruggekeerd van zijn eerste Europese solo-tournee, gefinancierd door middel van een benefiet-concert dat hij ten huize van Lady Llanover in Londen gaf. Het is begrijpelijk dat hij met “Ffarwel y Telynor” (The Minstrel’s Adieu) zijn heimwee naar zijn vaderland Wales muzikaal tot uitdrukking wilde brengen. Weinig bekend is het feit dat hij, tijdens zijn eerste Europese tournee, optrad bij een muzikale soiree waar ook de componist Liszt aanwezig was. Liszt was zozeer onder de indruk van “The Minstrel’s Adieu” dat hij meteen aan de piano ging zitten en vroeg of hij op die prachtige melodie mocht improviseren.

Dit alles wordt verteld in het dagboek dat John Thomas van zijn eerste tournee op het vasteland van Europa bijhield. Hij verliet Londen op 22 oktober en reisde via Ostende, Keulen, Koblenz, Wiesbaden, Frankfurt, Mainz, Heidelberg, Stuttgart, Augsburg, Donauwörth, Passau en Linz (en raakte onderweg – zoals dat kan gebeuren – zijn koffer kwijt). Uiteindelijk kwam hij op 4 november 1851 in Wenen aan – veertien vermoeiende, veelbewogen dagen nadat hij de reis was begonnen. Enkele indrukken die hij in zijn reisverslag vastlegde, zijn de moeite waard om te vertellen. Een tros druiven kostte maar een schijntje en ook een fles wijn was spotgoedkoop; hij kreeg onmiddellijk een afkeer van zuurkool, en had een grondige hekel aan de rokerige sfeer in de restaurants, waar de vaste clientèle met meerschuimen pijpen zat te paffen. Heel amusant te lezen is zijn gevecht met donzen dekbedden waar hij voor het eerst mee te maken kreeg. Hier volgen zijn eigen woorden.

“De bedden in dit land worden in vergelijking met de situatie thuis op een zonderlinge manier opgemaakt. In plaats van lakens, dekens, enzovoort zoals wij dat gewend zijn, gebruiken zij een heel groot soort dekbed (wat wij een donsdeken zouden noemen) over het hele bed heen – vanaf het hoofdkussen (daar zijn er altijd twee van, groot van omvang en heel goed van kwaliteit) tot aan het voeteneinde. Je moet je daaronder maar comfortabel zien te nestelen; en wees niet verbaasd als je toevallig midden in de nacht wakker zou worden, en dan merkt dat de donsdeken van het bed is afgerold & je zonder enige bedekking achterliet; & de eerste keer dat ik dat heb ervaren was in Linz, ongeveer honderd mijl van Wenen vandaan; en hoewel ik er nu iets meer aan gewend raak (alle bedden in Wenen worden immers zo opgemaakt), geef ik hoe dan ook de voorkeur aan onze eigen dekens enzovoort, die aan de zijkant stevig worden ingestopt, zodat je geen gevaar loopt ’s nachts een fikse verkoudheid op te lopen, omdat je ineens beroofd blijkt te zijn van enige bedekking juist op het moment dat je bezweet bent, of tenminste gloeiend van hitte”.

Ach ja, de beproevingen van een rondreizende virtuoos in de 19de eeuw! Als je plezier aan deze aantekeningen hebt beleefd: later zullen er meer verhalen uit John Thomas’ reisverslagen volgen.


© Ann Griffiths, 1 maart 2006 – vertaling Edward Witsenburg


We will be adding some extracts from the journals John Thomas wrote while on tour.


Liszt extemporising on The Minstrel's Adieu

Weimar, 3 October 1852

"My health had anything but recovered, but I was enabled to keep myself sufficiently up to the mark as to accept an invitation to dine with Mr Forbes & afterwards spend an evening with Liszt and his Princess. They certainly received me very well …..

Liszt extemporised twice during the evening, & altho’ I much admired what he did, I could still have wished that he had performed something more connected & that had more meaning in it. It is wonderful what he does in the way of execution during his extemporaneous performances, but one requires more than that, for, after all, such passages as he played emanate more from his fingers than from the brain. He is much delighted with my Autumn, & I begin to admire it more myself now. He extemporised upon my ‘Adieu my Native Country’ in a very clever manner, but such performances are seldom effective."

Here are two articles about 1830s Bridgend.






BRIDGE END is a market hamlet, in the parish of Coyty, hundred of Newcastle, and county of Glamorgan, 180 miles west from London, 18 S.E. from Neath, and about 6 w. from Cowbridge; situate on both sides (of) the river Ogwr, which abounds with salmon, trout and other fish: the river is the boundary of the two divisions of the town, respectively named Old Castle and New Castle. The coal mines are many and rich in this part of the county, and their produce of an excellent quality. …… The places of worship are a chapel of ease under the establishment in Old Castle, another at New Castle; the mother church at Coyty, a mile distant; and chapels for dissenters in the town and neighbourhood. Here is a well-supported national school, in which two hundred boys and girls are instructed…… The weekly market is on a Saturday, and the fairs, which take place on Ascension Thursday and the 17th of November are well attended…….. The parish of Coyty (with which the population of Bridge End is returned) contained, at the census taken in 1831, 1,642 inhabitants.

Letters from LONDON and BRISTOL arrive every afternoon at twenty-minutes past four, and are despatched every morning at half-past eight.

GENTRY AND CLERGY - Rev. Thomas Hancorne
MALTSTERS – William Thomas
SADDLERS – Llewelyn Jones
TAILORS – John Thomas
TAVERNS – Leicester House – landlord William Thomas

'Bridgend Sixty Years Ago'

Extracts from articles by Ap Morgan in the Bridgend Chronicle Feb-April 1890

14th February
The old Town Hall stood in the middle of the town, and the old Bridge was the only one then in place. The post-office was on Newcastle ............. The Leicester House Inn “with its intelligent landlord (*1) and his amiable wife” stood on Heol y Cawl.

On the corner, in front, was Mr John Thomas's (*2) place, tailor, and his then three sons, John, William and Thomas (*3). They played much on the harp and fiddle between the basting and stitching intervals. The parents were a handsome pair and the eldest (John) is now the Queen's harpist and a man greatly respected; he is a credit to himself and to his native town. One of his brothers, I think it is Thomas, is also a renowned harpist”

14th March

Priscilla and Thomas AptommasBye-the-bye, it was about that time that Mr. William Thomas (1*), of the Leicester House; the Rev. J E Jones, minister and schoolmaster; and the Rev. William Jones, minister of the Tabernacle, got up the first miniature eisteddfod that had been held in our town, and that for the purpose of introducing to the public notice and encouraging the hitherto unknown abilities of the young townsman who was to play the harp at this meeting, which was held at the Club-room of the Leicester House Inn, and which was next door to where the eminent harpist's parents lived. The prizes were for the best singing with the harp, and a treatise on 'The Deluge'. The latter was awarded to the Rev. David Thomas, Baptist minister, Penyfai, and the singing to Edward Davids of Laleston. The young harpist was our honoured townsman Mr. John Thomas, now the Queen's harpist. Soon after this, his talents were exhibited and displayed at a large eisteddfod held at Abergavenny and there not only did he win a costly prize of a triple harp, but what has proved infinitely more – the patronage of one of the best and wealthiest ladies in the land.

*1 William Thomas, innkeeper, John Thomas’s uncle
*2 John Thomas (1807-1895), tailor, his father
*3 wThomas Thomas (1829-1913), brother, who adopted the surname Aptommas



21st March
The old benefit club at the Leicester House Inn held its annual feast on St David's Day and all the members went to church on that day, each with a long stick, and if I remember well, a leek attached to the top of the pole. Another annual treat was that for all the children of the Free Schools at the Town Hall. The introduction of the Oddfellows Club at the newly erected Bear Inn was a grand affair (as times were then-a-day). The showy and expensive banners and regalia, the officers, noble, vice and secretary with their splendid sashes around and across them, and the solemn service on entry and burial; but the climax of all was realised when the Bridgend Band was formed. John Griffiths with the big drum, and Watkin David, William David, William Thomas (*1), and half-a-dozen more besides. (*2)

*1 Uncle William, Innkeeper Leicester House
*2 John Thomas, tailor, played clarionet in the town band