Welsh Hymnody


Wales is a section of Great Britain geographically consisting of a peninsula on the west coast of England and containing a land mass about a third the size of Ireland, a third the size of Scotland and perhaps an eighth the size of England. Historically, Wales has been politically connected to England since 1300 when King Edward made his son (also Edward) Prince of Wales. Since that time, the male king apparent of England (heir to the throne) has always been designated "The Prince of Wales." A brief rebellion occurred in 1404, when a native Welshman, Owain Glyndwr, claimed the title. However, the independence was short lived and in 1413 the rebellion was crushed and Wales reverted to English rule. The Welsh people have remained culturally independent and a certain political animosity has survived into the 20th century. For example, at the invesature ceremony for the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle in 1911, socialist Member of Parliament Keir Hardie remarked:

"Wales is to have an Investiture as a reminder that an English King and his robber barons strove for ages to destroy the Welsh people, and finally succeeded in robbing them of their lands, driving them into the mountain fastness of their native land like hunted beasts... The ceremony ought to make every Welshman who is a patriot blush with shame."

In 1969 at the invesature ceremony at Caernarfon Castle, Prince Charles announced his allegiance to Wales and promised as "liege lord" to protect his realm from "all manner of foes."

Traditionally, there has been animosity among the people of Wales over their cultural independence, particularly their indigenous language which is taught in Welsh schools today. Beginning in the 17th century, it became the custom of the Prince of Wales to travel for a brief time to Aberystwyth to study the Welsh language, the idea being of course that the Prince of Wales ought to, at the very least, be able to properly pronounce Welsh names and geographical locations without people laughing behind his back.

Today Wales has its own democratically elected Assembly which, among other things, sees to it that the Welsh language is taught along with English in all public schools. Political animosity continues as characterized by demonstrations against Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Aberystwyth in 1998.

The Welsh people have a strong sense of cultural identity and independence and this is particularly true where music and religion is concerned. Seeped in ancient Celtic traditions, Wales has always been a region of intense musical and religious activity. Evangelical Methodism made a particularly stong impact on Welsh society in the 18th century. However, Welsh Methodists embraced Calvinist theology and went on to developed their own administrative structure. The success of Calvinist Methodism in Wales led to a vast chapel-building program. It is estimated that, between 1800 and 1850, a new chapel was opened in Wales every eight days and by 1851, fully 80 per cent of the population of Wales who attended a place of worship went to Methodist chapels.

Welsh society in the early 18th century was largely illiterate. However, educational opportunities expanded with the success of Methodism due in large part to the efforts of the Methodist Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (S.P.C.K.). Through their efforts the establishment of schools coincided with with the growth of Methodism.

Before the 18th century, since Wales was largely a rural area, economic opportunities were mainly agricultural. However, dramatic industrial expansion occurred in the later 18th century as the coalfields in the southeast part of the region experienced phenomenal growth.

Throughout the history of Wales, the majority of the land was owned by a few nonresident landlords and the people who lived on the land were for all practical purpose, slaves who were sold with the land if it ever exchanged ownership. Consequently, there was never great incentive on the part of landlords to improve the living conditions of their tenants. Wales became a volatile region, particularly during the 19th century when there were food riots, enclosure riots, and the infamous "Rebecca Riots" (1830-1843). Wales had been primarily a rural, non-moneyed agricultural society where barter was common. Because of the rapid economic growth brought on by the successful industrial revolution, a large population shift was occurring throughout the region. The wealthy landlords imposed a money economy and unscrupulous magistrates set up "toll gates" on main thoroughfares knowing that people would have to pass through in order to get from one location to another. Rioters attacked the tollgates dressed in women's clothing and the name "Rebecca" was adopted because of the biblical verse: "and they blessed Rebecca and said: Let thy seed possess the gates of those who hate thee." Attacks spread from the tollgates to workhouses, and ultimately to unpopular magistrates and extortionate tithe owners. Troops were sent to southwest Wales and some rioters were arrested, although such was the general support for the protests that convictions proved difficult. As a result of the report of a commission of inquiry, road boards were set up and the tolls were reduced.

There was a vast rift between the resident people of Wales and the absent landowners, not only socially and economically, but religiously. The landowners were members of the established Church of England and the majority of the Welsh people had become converted to conservative Calvinist Methodism. The Welsh maintained a strong hold on their culture, music and language and eventually radical sentiment developed as the conservative Welsh developed more radical sentiment and began to embrace left-wing politics by the late 19th and early 20th century.

By the beginning of the 20th century Wales had a booming economy because of its massive coalfields. However, by 1920 there was a dramatic economic collapse and a consequent mass unemployment. Unfortunately, no serious attempts to revamp the Welsh economy occurred until after World War II. Politically, Wales has been one of the most volatile regions Europe with massive labor unrest and hotbeds of socialist and communist activity.

World War II solved the unemployment problem temporarily and by 1941 virtually everybody capable of working had a job thanks to the war industries which were established in Wales. Immediately after the War, it was estimated that Wales had 124,000 miners working in some 135 pits. The majority of the mines were remnants of the Victorian age and most of the easily worked seams of coal had already been mined. With the increased use of oil and natural gas after 1970, the demand for coal became less and less and there was an eventual collapse in markets. By 1975 there was only 33,000 coal miners working in the south of Wales and this declined to less than 1000 during the early 1990's.

The tradition of Welsh hymn singing began in the 19th century when evangelical Calvinistic Methodism spread through Wales which resulted in the building of countless chapels throughout the region. Hymn singing became more than just an aspect of the evangelical service and eventually evolved into a formal festival of singing called a "Gymanfa Ganu, "pronounced GA-MAN VA GAN-EE, meaning an assembly or festival of sacred song. Traditionally, when religious services were finished, the people would remain for an hour or so just to sing hymns. As formalized festivals became organized, a qualified director would be chosen to lead the singing. Individual churches (chapels) would spend months practicing a few selected hymns and perhaps an anthem or two. At the appointed time and place, the director would sound a single pitch on a pitch-pipe and the assembled singers would unite in unaccompanied song.

Modern Gymanfa Ganu maintain this tradition but instruments such as piano and organ are generally used. The hymns are not simply sung through, but the director may pick and choose among the verses; he may designate them for men's or woman's voices; he may order the organist to drop out so that something may be performed a cappella; he may repeat verses, either because they weren't sung enthusiastically enough the first time, or because he likes them and he feels like it. He decides what will be sung in English and what in Welsh. The director works the dynamic levels and the tempos swelling the sound here, slowing the pace there.

The selections sung may not all be originally Welsh and the music is intentionally arranged to challenge the singers, particuarly in range and contrapuntal complexity.

Here is a short list of hymn tunes from the Welsh tradition which have become common in most modern hymnals:

ABERYSTWYTH ("Jesus, lover of my soul")
EBENEZER or TON-Y-BOTEL ("Alleluia, sing to Jesus")
HYFRYDOL ("Come, thou long-expected Jesus")
LLANFAIR ("Hail the day that sees him rise")
LLANGLOFFAN ("O God of every nation")
RHOSYMEDRE ("Our Father, by whose name")
ST. DENIO ("Immortal, invisible, God only wise")

See Gymanfa Ganu

See Welsh Timeline (BBC History)

See Welsh Literature after the Reformation

See Welsh Literature (Bartleby.com)

See Exploring Wales

See The Landscape of Faith

Order music and CD's of Welsh and Celtic music

Read the biography of a Welsh hymnist: W. H. Williams (Watcyn Wyn)

See Gwybodiadur: A Welsh Informationary

See A Theological Tour of Wales

See Welsh Links

Learn about the Welsh Language

Listen to some people speaking Welsh (requires RealPlayer®)

Learn to speak Welsh

Learn some more Welsh

William Williams Biographies


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Site last updated: January 17, 2007