Welsh Carols with Brass (featuring Côr Seiriol and Beaumaris Band)
Carols are not only amongst the earliest examples of Welsh song but are also popular songs, widely sung and appreciated within a living tradition. This collection draws on every aspect of this rich body of work. Early examples include ‘Myn Mair’ believed to have been written in the Middle Ages and ‘Plygain’ carols that are borne of an unique tradition within the Welsh church. Some of the great Victorian classics are here, as well as some relatively contemporary carols by our foremost composers and arrangers, including ‘Doethion a Bugeiliaid’ by William Mathias. Many of these arrangements with brass have been prepared especially for this recording and are performed here by two of the most distinguished musical names in Wales.
Since their formation in 1991,Côr Seiriol have achieved astonishing success both competitively and creatively. At the national ‘Cerdd Dant’ festival, the choir have been awarded first prize in the blue riband event on ten separate occassions. Their uniquely rich sound under the direction of Gwennant Pyrs, has redefined the cerdd dant repetoire and drawn many leading composers to write for them. Based in the Bangor area they have close ties with Beaumaris Band, who are the recently crowned first section champions of Great Britain. Competitive success for the band has firm roots in a youth band structure that draws the very finest local players from a young age. Meanwhile the musical director Gwyn M Evans places equal priority on local engagements and projects that emphasise the band’s heritage.
Grwp pres / Brass group, # 18.104.22.168 utgyrn / trumpets : Chris Williams # 7.10.12 / Bari Gwilliam # 5 Gwyn Meredydd Evans Aled Wyn Evans Corn Ffrengig / French horn – Jessica Evans trombôn / trombone – Kate Gwilliam Owain Arwel Davies tiwba / tuba Gavin Saynor # 7.10.12 / Bethan Lowri Evans # 5 offerynnau taro / percussion – Dewi Ellis Jones telyn / harp – Mona Meirion Recorded at St. Padarn Church, Llanberis with the kind permission of the Rev. Robert Townsend and thanks to Ernest Owen and Dick Jones
Whilst we now think of carols as hymns celebrating Christmas, the use of this term stretches back to the Middle Ages when it was used to describe a wide variety of songs, not all of them joyful or seasonal.
Most of the Christmas carols in the Middle Ages were secular or pagan in origin, and thus they were not popular with religious officials. On more than one occasion, as early as the 7th century and as late as the 16th century, Roman Catholic councils attempted to ban Christmas carols altogether.
The first Welsh references suggest that the carol was regarded as a form of dance-song, for two deliberate pairings of the words ‘caroli’ (‘carolling’) and ‘hopyaw’ (‘dancing’) occur in religious texts copied in 1346 at Llanddewibrefi. Gerald of Wales in his ‘Journey through Wales’, of 1187/8 describes a dance with sung refrain that moved between church and churchyard and was executed by men and young girls in the Brecon area on the feasts of St Eluned. Equally, the word ‘carol’ occurs several times in the poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym (fl 1330–50).
It is this period until the middle of the 16th century that is sometimes regarded as the ‘golden age’ of the carol. Many of the more devout examples had a repetitive burden-verse structure and praised the Virgin Mary, the infant Christ and the Saints. ‘Myn Mair’ and ‘Ar fore dydd Nadolig’ from the Carmarthenshire area are possibly survivors from this period although subsequent examples have also sought to imitate this style.
Following the Reformation and the rise of Puritanism, the joyful celebration of Christmas fell out of favour, and a tradition of carol singing only seems to have been recorded in strongholds of Roman Catholicism. It was possibly as a reaction to these circumstances that an uniquely Welsh tradition became prominent, that of the ‘Plygain’ service. Although the plygain has medieval roots, it later became a shortened form of morning prayer followed by a lengthy series of carols, many locally-composed. Performances retain a strong link to folk music, being performed by small groups of performers from within the congregation, often employing popular melodies such as ‘Y dirion wawr a dorrodd’, which takes as its melody a popular tune from the 17th century. Far from disappearing under the impact of Nonconformity in the nineteenth century, the plygain was one of the few traditional church festivals not discarded by Welsh Nonconformist chapels, although the character of the service was sometimes changed by making it a variation of the ordinary week-night prayer-meeting. ‘Ar gyfer heddiw’r bore’ is amongst the many plygain carols that are still widely sung in both church and chapel.
Meanwhile, Victorian antiquarians were becoming the new champions of Christmas, among them Charles Dickens (who wrote several Christmas stories including, of course, ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1843). Under the influence of these and other writers, Christmas became a popular celebration, a day for feasting and family. In this new industrial age, many carols became popular on an international level. The melody to the Latin hymn ‘Adeste Fideles’ was composed by John Francis Wade in 1743 although the words may have been written as early as the 13th century. It has since been translated into all the major European languages. Welsh material made its own contribution to the emerging carol repertory of this period, as ‘Deck the halls’ takes its melody from a Welsh folk tune first published in 1760 and used by Mozart for a violin and piano duet. However, it was first published as a carol by the poet and musicologist John ‘Ceiriog’ Hughes under the title “Nos Galan” (“New Year’s Eve”) in 1863. Its subsequent English translation is believed to be of American origin.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, brass bands began to emerge and a tradition of carol singing with brass accompaniment developed, thanks in particular to the Salvation Army. Another folk tradition was absorbed as neighbours sang carols from house to house in what we now regard as ‘caroling’, though the custom is in fact highly reminiscent of the Welsh tradition of ‘Calennig’ and the wider practice of ‘Wassailing’.
‘Carol y Blwch’ or ‘The Alms box Carol’ refers to the practice of nobles “boxing up” and distributing food and other gifts to their servants and to the poor on the day after Christmas. Boxing Day was traditionally when the alms box at every church was opened and the contents distributed to the poor.
The 20th century saw the wider acceptance of folk material into the Western classical tradition and there is hardly a Welsh composer who hasn’t been drawn to produce either new material or arrangements of carols. Carols are not only amongst the earliest examples of Welsh song but also retain their position as popular songs, widely sung and appreciated within a living tradition.
Emyr Rhys with thanks to Dr Sally Harper for her article ‘Early Welsh Carol’ published in The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, ed. J. R. Watson (London, Canterbury Press).
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