The Morriston Orpheus Choir
The Sounds of Cardiff Arms Park
If you had told me, say, forty years ago, that I would not only own this recording, but would listen to it and be moved by it, I would have reacted with derision and/or hostility, because I would have regarded the proposition as ridiculous and/or insulting. It’s a long way from Thelonious Monk, man. It’s a long way from Jerry Lee Lewis, too.
Wales is known as The Land of Song. Male voice choirs abound there. When I was a kid in the 1940s, people sang everywhere and anywhere a group of more than a handful of people were gathered, on the bus, in the pub, all over the place, including any social gathering at all. I wonder how many times I heard “Knees Up Mother Brown” and “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain When She Comes” and “Roll Me Over” and “If You Were the Only Girl in the World” and “We’ll Meet Again.” When I was a teenager, the pubs were filled with sentimental “old-timers” (anyone over thirty) having a sing-along. It represented everything that was not cool. Add to that the provincialism and narrow-mindedness typical of Welsh culture (as I saw it back then), and the Welsh male voice choir was even less attractive than the singing boozers.
The Sounds of Cardiff Arms Park adds yet another dimension: the culture of rugby football. In my life, rugby was the game of the ruling class, the playing fields of Eton, and in Wales the province of everything I wished to escape, thundering force combined with blind patriotism and rigid conformity.
So, you can see why I would rush out and buy a CD of a Welsh male voice choir singing songs associated with the most famous rugby stadium in Wales. Not just a Welsh male voice choir, but The Morriston Orpheus Choir, the most famous of them all. Morriston is a village halfway between Swansea and Clydach, the place of my birth. That is to say, about three miles south-west of Swansea. “Morriston was initially constructed for the workers of the tin-plate and copper industries that built up along the banks of the River Tawe in the 18th Century, and by the 19th Century it was the tin-plate capital of the world.” (Wikipedia) It is also famous for its hospital.
The distances of time and place can change many things. I never thought of myself as Welsh until my mother, my sister and I moved to Eastbourne on the south coast of England in 1963, where we were treated like lepers because of our accents. I lasted two months there, before I left Sussex and moved back to Swansea. Now, three thousand miles and half a lifetime away, the sound of a male voice choir singing “Myfanwy” or “Cwm Rhonda” “We'll Keep A Welcome in the Hillsides” or “Calon Lan” or “Sospan Fach” or “Land of My Fathers” brings tears to my eyes automatically. And moves me, more deeply than I care to dwell on. Those songs are all on this recording. There is a Welsh word, “hwyl” – pronounced huyl. The dictionary definition is “good spirit or enthusiasm” but every Welsh person knows that it is something closer to “soul” or to the Spanish “duende.” This music has it, mixed in with pride and a kind of generic yearning. I love these songs now. In fact, I’ve always loved “Myfanwy.” Myfanwy is a Welsh woman’s name, and the name of a famous figure in Welsh mythology, Myfanwy of Dinas Bran.
But the song “Myfanwy” (pronounced Mo-van-oy) is a simple love song.
Pa ham mae dicter, O Myfanwy,
Yn llenwi'th lygaid duon ddi?
A'th ruddiau tirion, O Myfanwy,
Heb wrido wrth fy ngweled i?
Pa le mae'r wen oedd ar dy wefus
Fu'n cynnau 'nghariad ffyddlon ffol?
Pa le mae sain dy eiriau melys,
Fu'n denu'n nghalon ar dy ôl?
2. Pa beth a wneuthym, O Myfanwy,
I haeddu gwg dy ddwyrudd hardd?
Ai chwarae oeddit, O Myfanwy
Â thanau euraidd serch dy fardd?
Wyt eiddo im drwy gywir amod
Ai gormod cadw'th air i mi?
Ni cheisiaf fyth mo'th law, Myfanwy,
Heb gael dy galon gyda hi.
3. Myfanwy boed yr holl o'th fywyd
Dan heulwen disglair canol dydd.
A boed i rosyn gwridog ienctid
I ddawnsio ganmlwydd ar dy rudd.
Aug hofiar oll o'th add ewidion
A wnest i rywun, 'ngeneth ddel,
A rho dy law, Myfanwy dirion
I ddim ond dweud y gair "Ffarwel".
Why is it anger, O Myfanwy,
That fills your eyes so dark and clear?
Your gentle cheeks, O sweet Myfanwy,
Why blush they not when I draw near?
Where is the smile that once most tender
Kindled my love so fond, so true?
Where is the sound of your sweet words,
That drew my heart to follow you?
2. What have I done, O my Myfanwy,
To earn your frown? What is my blame?
Was it just play, my sweet Myfanwy,
To set your poet's love aflame?
You truly once to me were promised,
Is it too much to keep your part?
I wish no more your hand, Myfanwy,
If I no longer have your heart.
3. Myfanwy, may you spend your lifetime
Beneath the midday sunshine's glow,
And on your cheeks O may the roses
Dance for a hundred years or so.
Forget now all the words of promise
You made to one who loved you well,
Give me your hand, my sweet Myfanwy,
But one last time, to say "farewell".
Male voice choirs (and rugby crowds) have always had a diverse repertpoire, and that aspect is represented here, also, with the inevitable “Danny Boy” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” as well as the bizarre Tom Jones hit song, “Delilah” and a very nice version of the Maori song turned Bing Crosby classic, “Now is the Hour.” The latter was also one of those songs that I heard repeatedly when I was a kid, a song sung by people who had direct experience of the sentiments the song expressed. Overall, this CD kills me, and it kills me that it kills me, but I love it, except for the parts I don’t love.