Land of song
Below you can find the origins of why Wales is traditionally called the land of song and for an overview of why Wales is keeping that reputation alive, please see our other music pages.
Wales gained the reputation as the ‘land of song’ in the 19th century, with Nonconformist choral singing and Eisteddfodau.
The 18th century saw the rise of Methodist movement and singing hymns was an important part of the experience.
Many hymns or their tunes written in Wales will be familiar world wide today.
William Williams wrote 'Guide me, O Thou great Redeemer' to the tune of Cwm Rhondda. His words have been translated into 75 languages.
Joseph Parry, born 1841 in Merthyr Tydfil is best known for his hymns Myfanwy and Aberystwyth, which are still sung today. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika is famous as an anthem of African unity and uses the tune of Aberystwyth.
Congregational singing gained momentum with the rise of the temperance movement in the early part of the 19th century. Annual festivals for singing were established.
Although there has been a decline in the number of people attending chapel, hymn singing remains popular in Wales.
Hymns are popular at rugby matches. Often called ‘Bread of Heaven’, Guide me o though great redeemer is known as the Welsh rugby hymn and Max Boyce captured the spirit in his ‘Hymns and Arias’ these days sung at many Welsh sporting occasions.
A Gymanfa Ganu is a singing festival involving the singing of sacred hymns. It involves a congregation singing in a four part harmony in Welsh and conducted by a choral director or choir master.
The annual Cymanfa Ganu is a key event at the National Eisteddfod of Wales. Wherever in the world Welsh people congregate, there is a good chance of a Gymanfa Ganu taking place. It is particularly popular in North America.
When people speak of Wales, they commonly think of male voice choirs. Many male choirs had their roots in the competitive choral singing and heavy industry of the 19th century. Often a group of miners working together would form a choir to enter a competition or eisteddfod and disband shortly after. Other choirs thrived and survived, such as the Treorchy and Morriston Orpheus choirs, now famous throughout the world.
More recently there has been resurgence for Welsh male choral singing. Tim Rhys-Evans, (the former musical director of the Welsh National Youth Opera and a classically trained singer) formed the award winning popular Only Men Aloud! Only Boys Aloud! and only Kids Aloud! followed, ensuring that choirs have a future among the younger generation.
Although male choirs seem to be particularly associated with Wales, female and mixed choirs are equally popular and these days singing in a choir is increasingly recognised for its health and wellbeing benefits.
Cerdd dant or penillion singing is a traditional style of singing in which poetry is sung to one tune against the accompaniment of (usually) a harp to a different tune. It has evolved over time, until the middle of the 20th century cerdd dant was sung by individuals and was very much an improvised performance, mostly sung by men. Today you may hear duets, trios, parties or choirs singing Cerdd Dant and the majority of singers are female.
Cerdd Dant is a very popular eisteddfod competition.
Another Welsh singing tradition is Plygain, where men would sing carols in Welsh from 3-6am on Christmas Day in rural churches. This tradition dates back to the 18th century. It has largely died out, but still continues in Montgomeryshire and can be seen at St Fagans Museum.
Competitive singing is very popular in Wales, another example of this can be seen in the the Mari Lwyd (the Grey Mare). This is a form of pre-Christian house-visiting wassail, said to bring good luck.
The Mari Lwyd and its party would go door-to-door, singing and challenging the families inside to a battle of rhyming insults in Welsh. At the end of the battle of wits (known as pwnco) the group would be invited into the house for refreshments.
This old tradition died out in many parts of Wales, but some parts still act it out and every December you can see it at the St Fagans: National History Museum.