‘Missionary Work in the North of England’
I’ve just returned from a weekend at my Dad’s in Swansea. Sadly I don’t get down to see him, or indeed the rest of my family, very often but of course, Wales and Swansea in particular will always be my ‘home’. My dad still refers to me, his eldest son, as being “on missionary work” when anyone asks where I’m living these days, even though I have now been living in the north of England longer than I have lived in Swansea. The reason for my visit this time was to hear Côr Meibion Pontarddulais (Pontarddulais Male Voice Choir) in their annual concert at Tabernacle Chapel in Swansea. I have a small book entitled “Xenophobe’s Guide to the Welsh” which although not a huge volume, is essential reading for anyone who lacks understanding of what it is to be Welsh. It was bought for me by a colleague not long after I moved to England. Not surprisingly it has a section devoted to ‘Welsh Culture’ which begins with a lengthy paragraph about ‘Singing’:
‘Singing is one thing the Welsh are really, really good at – and they know it. Choral singing is the jewel in their musical crown. Today’s choirs can be strong organisations in their own right, but they are also made up of men who joined because they take their music seriously, and some are positively fanatical in their pursuit of harmonic perfection. The result can be heard. Welsh male voice choirs are simply the best in the world. The Welsh, with uncharacteristic modesty, admit that there may be music of greater beauty – but not on earth.’ (and so it continues!)
I can hardly believe that it was almost a year ago when Roger Wild was speaking with me at the bar in the Civic Hall, Uppermill, when he came to one of Saddleworth MVC’s concerts, saying that he would be writing to me, as Choir Secretary, in the new year, to invite some of our choristers to join with Honley MVC for your visit to Cornwall in May. Having never been to the Cornwall MVC Festival myself, I was keen to find out more details. It took a few weeks into the new year before I could actually get to a Honley rehearsal, given the problems with the heavy snow in January and I can still remember the first time I made it over on a Tuesday night, only to park up and walk around the school building twice before I could find a door that was open! When I did get in, I received a typically warm, Yorkshire welcome and the rest, as they say, is history. I had only intended staying with the choir until the Cornwall trip was over, but it seemed such a waste of learning new pieces to stop singing them again and so those who were bending my arm succeeded, and besides, my car now knew its own way to Honley without the need of a sat nav!
As some of you will know, my joining Honley MVC completes a rather unusual circle of male voice choir friendship. My dad Robert (Bob) was a long-standing member and Vice President of Swansea Male Choir, having served (as he frequently reminds me!) in every committee post except Treasurer and in more recent years as Chairman. Sadly he no longer sings with the choir as, as Norman Mellor comments in his ’75 Glorious Years’ book (see my subtle advert there, Norman?) many such choirs are in decline for various reasons. However, he has since joined Pontarddulais MVC where he has been able to continue enjoying his singing (while taking a back seat from the organisational life of a choir for once!) and brushing up on his Welsh!
Of course Honley MVC made a number of exchange visits with Swansea Male Choir (see Norman’s book!) and I well remember, as a near 10 year old, the visit of Honley MVC to Swansea in 1983 when my mam and dad hosted Ken and Margaret Shaw. I have a clear memory of them bringing us four mugs, each depicting characters from ‘The Last Of The Summer Wine’ and a book each for my brother and I. And I have fond memories of nagging Ken to play snooker with me on my 6 foot table in the front room! They were happy days, as I know were the times when my parents visited Honley and enjoyed your hospitality here.
Older members of male voice choirs often ask one another why it’s so difficult to attract younger members to their choirs. I had a similar conversation with member of Pontarddulais just last weekend. I have various theories, including the lack of singing in most schools nowadays… especially in assemblies, shows, school choirs etc and the fact that far fewer children have a background in Sunday School and church music these days. I was fortunate in having a rich musical background in all these walks of life. Music was so much a part of life at home, school and church when I was growing up and indeed when I left home (the first member of the family to do so!) for university life in England, or Sheffield, Yorkshire to be more precise! I well remember being dragged along to male voice choir concerts from an early age. I’m sure I knew the words to ‘Gwahoddiad’ and ‘Morte Criste’ soon after I could talk! And as soon as I was old enough to be useful, I was often roped in to page turn for the visiting artists at concerts or, the less attractive option, of shifting staging and lifting pianos! It’s perhaps not surprising then, that when I moved to Oldham for my first teaching post, I actively undertook to find a male voice choir to join, not that it took long since our school caretaker at the time was a choir steward with Saddleworth MVC and a recruitment poster was already on display in the staff room.
Talking of ‘Morte Criste’, many of you will know that the music was composed by Emrys Jones, the founder conductor of Swansea Male Choir and indeed organist and choirmaster for over 50 years at, what was Manselton Congregational Church, where my mam and dad met and were married. Emrys was also my mam’s piano and singing teacher (up to grade 8) and so influential in her life. Although I never met Emrys, his daughter is still a close family friend and his granddaughter one of my best school friends. Sadly, my mother passed away in 2000 but I owe much to her indeed, for my love of music and rarely a concert goes by without me thinking of her through the words of one song or another. I am often given to ask myself the question posed by the song writer, “What Would I Do Without My Music”.
And so that’s a little but about me, but also, more importantly, a few words by way of a ‘Thank you’ to Steven, Roger and all of you at Honley MVC, (especially the baritones of course) for your welcome this year. 2013 has been a year of very mixed blessings for me, as I suppose are most years when we look back over them, but without doubt, my decision to join Honley MVC was one of my best moves this year and I am pleased to continue my weekly association with Yorkshire as a visiting Welshman!
Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda. (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all)
Pob Bendith (Every Blessing)
Ceri Davies (Baritone)