Rhondda Glee Society

Rivals in Song 1877 - 1900

“Cythraul y Canu” or the “Demon in Music” is a term used to encapsulate the intense musical rivalry which once existed between so many of Wales's leading male voice choirs. Today we cannot comprehend how significant the role choralism played in moulding an image of Wales. The Land of Song phenomenon continues to baffle historians today as they examine a period, predominantly from the mid 19th century through to the Second World War when this “golden era” shaped the very identity of the Welsh people. Yet behind the façade lay an undeniable tension as the rivalry between choirs was akin to tribal warfare.

It was much more than just the occasional remark over a few post-eisteddfod drink, or a short letter in a Welsh-language periodical. The 19 th century was a time of intense competitiveness between Wales's foremost musical ambassadors, the likes of which we will probably never see again. It wasn't just choir or community pride that was at stake. Increased cash prizes, behind-the-scenes betting, all created an atmosphere at competitions which saw the crowds flock in their thousands.

When Wales played England in rugby at Newport in 1891, there were 8,000 spectators there to watch the game. A few months later and the Chief Male Voice Choir Competition at the National Eisteddfod welcomed 20,000 fans, such was the popularity of choral contests. This exciting, vibrant and youthful industrial heartland of South Wales, of which the Rhondda was the most famous, became an entire hotbed of musical fanaticism. Competitors were vindictive: big money was at stake in bets, law suits took place and sabotage was used on more than one occasion. Long before village rugby teams reached a position of prominence, it was the choirs who inspired villagers to turn out en masse to watch the "battle of the giants". Newspaper reports of the period tell some joyous tales of adjudicators fleeing for their lives when awarded the first prizes at various eisteddfodau. Tomatoes, boots, even chairs were thrown across marquees at the adjudicator's table. At one semi-national in Carmarthen, the adjudicator escaped from his hotel dressed as a policeman to avoid an angry mob.

One of the 20th centuries most eminent Welsh composers, William Mattias, summed up the story of Rhondda choral music in Victorian times by saying, “The tradition of the 19th century Welsh choralism was as much a sociological as a musical phenomenon, arising out of the need of the people to express religious fervour or to rise above hardship and poverty through the means of choral singing. They are to be honoured for doing so. They and their leaders were in bond to their time in taking the only means open to them with results which were often inspiring.”

It was in such circumstances that the original Treorky Male Choir first found its voice in the Red Cow Hotel, Treorchy in the summer of 1883. The recorded history of the Choir has since been well documented, and while undertaking several years of research work into the subject, another choir's name came frequently to the surface. The Rhondda Glee Society existed but a mile or two away in neighbouring Ton Pentre but alongside Treorky, their competitive performances were greeted like two nations in armed combat. Choristers from both choirs often worked in the same colliery, or even lived in the same terraced streets, adding to the heightened tension. It was not uncommon for the strained eisteddfod competitions to cause tempers to fray, resulting in large-scale fights breaking out in adjoining fields, only to be quelled by the constabulary.

Tom Stephens Tom Stephens However, it wasn't only the organisations themselves that revelled in this animosity. The conductors could hardly be considered close friends either. Tom Stephens, like Treorky's William Thomas, also grew up in the Cynon Valley and also sang in Caradog's South Wales Choral Union, or Cor Mawr that went to Crystal Palace in 1872 to win the Thousand Guinea Trophy. Yet that was where their similarities ended. On the one hand Thomas was a staunch teetotaller whereas Stephens was the landlord of the Blacksmith's Arms in Treherbert. He moved to Ton Pentre as the precentor of Bethesda Independent Chapel and became the first and only conductor of the Rhondda Glee Society.
The Rhondda Glee Society enjoyed a proud, if short-lived history. Formed in 1877, they travelled far and wide to claim prize after prize in both local, county and even national eisteddfod competitions. A relatively small group of just 30 singers initially, in their debut year they claimed first prizes at Pontypridd, Tonypandy and Pentre.

Tom Stephens, next to Griffith Rhys Jones (Caradog) had for many years been the most famous choral conductor in Wales. He maintained a reputation never to shirk a contest and when his preminence was challenged, he continually produced many first class performances with the Rhondda Glee Society attaining the position as one of the top three choirs in Wales.

Tom Stephens was born in Brynaman on February 25 th 1856 and sixteen months later the family moved to Aberdare. The Stephens family were not known for their musical prowess, yet Tom was a gifted scholar at Ysgol y Comin where schoolmaster Dan Isaac Davies recognised his immense potential. A gifted violinist, Tom read and studied avidly, while taking every opportunity to watch choirs perform at local eisteddfodau where he observed the methods of singing and conducting. Caradog, the Trecynon blacksmith who later became landlord of the Treorchy Hotel, influenced his musical technique more than anyone else. In fact it was Caradog who appointed him as one of the alto singers in Aberdare Choral Union when Tom was a boy working in the local colliery. After Caradog retired and Rhys Evans took up mantle, Tom was his deputy and continued to develop his craft.

It was his musical prowess that led him to accept a position as precentor (or chorusmaster) to Bethesda Chapel in Ton Pentre in 1877, later becoming the landlord. At the same time Rhondda Glee Society was being formed by schoolmaster Rees Jones and James Thomas, originally of Llandysul. Together they approached Tom to become Conductor, recognising his musical accomplishment as the Conductor of the Aberdare Glee Society, Aberdare Temperance Bank and the Mid Rhondda Choral Union. He was also the deputy of the Sylvia Opera Company and trained the Santiago Choirs during the Cardiff Exhibition some years later.

For the next few years his training and mastery over the Rhondda Glee Society continued to bear fruit. In 1881 the Glee Society entered the male voice competition at Aberdare, beating the immortal Danny Davies and other capable musical leaders of his generation. Two years later in 1883 – the year Treorky Male Choir was formed - the performance of the victorious Rhondda Glee Society at the National Eisteddfod in Cardiff, led to a revolution in their particular style of singing, attracting thousands of spectators. At long last the male voice choir contest became the rage, with the largest prizes attracting larger crowds and competitors.

Over the coming years the list of first-prizes for the Glee Society increased, with major wins at Aberdare, Merthyr, Porth, Pentre and Treharris. By 1887 the membership had increased to forty and that year they shared the first prize at the National Eisteddfod, held in London, with the Huddersfield Choir. Incredibly in 1889 the party toured the Welsh settlements of the United States of America for months on end, but according to reports returned “somewhat disorganised and a long period of readjustment took place until Stephens could pull them together again”. If truth be told, they returned virtually bankrupt and entered numerous competitions in an effort to recover their financial losses. It was a new golden era for them with 15 successive wins and only three defeats in the next two years.

The 1889 National Eisteddfod at Brecon marked the start of the bitter rivalry between the Rhondda Glee Society and Treorky Male Choir that occupied the Welsh music scene for a decade. During their next encounter the constabulary was called to the riot-like scene of bloody-faced choristers fighting in the streets. In an eisteddfod in Porth, adjudicated by Mr D.W.Lewis, the test piece was Dr Joseph Parry's “The Pilgrims.” Treorchy was disappointed at not securing the services of Gwilym Thomas from Ynyshir, to perform a solo in this arrangement.

A few days before the competition Treorky's William Thomas secured the services of famous Welsh operatic baritone David Thomas Ffrangcon Davies (1855-1918), but the welcome he received at the competition was anything but friendly. Recognising the professional singer on stage (which was unacceptable in an amateur competition), an uproar ensued with Tom Stephen's men heckling throughout the performance. Mr Davies, raising his hand to the audience announced, “I see you object to a professional singing this solo. I am very sorry and did not know there would be an objection. But if the adjudicator awards me the prize for the solo performance, I will not take it. Let it go to the next best, if I happen to be best which I very much doubt.”

Eventually there was silence and the audience sat spellbound at his remarkable voice, breaking into rapturous applause and cheers when he concluded. The Treorky Male Choir did indeed win the first prize, causing heightened animosity amongst the rival male choirs.

At the 1891 Royal National Eisteddfod in Swansea the test pieces were “The Destruction of Gaza” by Laurent De Rille (with its remarkable eight-part harmony) and Dr Parry's “The Pilgrims.” A total of twelve male choirs competed including the Port Talbot Male Party, Rhondda Glee Society, Pontycymmer Glee Party, Glantawe Glee Society, Cynon Glee Party, Myrddin Male Party, Treherbert Male Party, Treorky Male Society (as it was named!), Rhondda Fach Glee Society, Cynon Valley United Glee, Brynaman United Glee and Llanelli Philharmonic Party.

Treorky came a creditable second behind the Pontycymmer Male Choir who won “£30, a gold medal and books to the value of £5.” The following year they also lost the National Eisteddfod in Rhyl where none other than Dr Joseph Parry himself led the adjudication panel.

Rhondda Glee SocietyRhondda Glee SocietyThe year of 1893 marked Treorcky's most important musical competition to date and also marked yet another fierce encounter with the Rhondda Glee Society. During the previous four years they had competed against each other on 11 occasions with Treorky winning six times, the Glee Society twice and both choirs sharing the first prize three times.

On one occasion a competition was brought to an abrupt end when the Glee marched around the back of the marquee, pulled out the ground pegs and the roof collapsed on the Treorky singers!

The Pontypridd Royal National Eisteddfod of 1893 was one of the most heated events because the winning choir was to be invited to travel to America and compete in the Chicago World Fair. The male voice choir competition generated tremendous interest with the test pieces "The War House" and "The Tyrol". Five male voice choirs competed including Treorky and the Rhondda Glee, Porth & Cymmer, Caernarvon and Maesteg. The adjudicators were Caradog himself and the eminent English composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor. At one stage Treorky was a point ahead with their performance of "The War Horse", but the Glee's performance of "The Tyrol" clinched the first prize by two points. Apparently Tom Stephens had received first hand information about the yodelling techniques of the Tyrolean mountains from a brewery traveller who visited his pub. This piece of realism was the turning point in the event and earned them the transatlantic ticket. They went on to win the Chicago World Fair eisteddfod against Choirs from Ireland, Italy and Holland, but on their return they never competed again, yet their absence from the eisteddfod field did not signal the end of the rivalry.

On White-Monday 1895 Treorky Male Choir enjoyed a memorable victory at the Caerphilly eisteddfod on the test piece “The Druids” by Dr Joseph Parry. The chief adjudicator, Dr Roland Rogers of Bangor, announced, “We could not find one single fault from beginning to end of the performance.” It was a remark that gave them the confidence to enter the Royal National Eisteddfod in Llanelli later that year.

Llanelli was a memorable National Eisteddfod. Treorky “showed such a unity of discipline, vocal riches and inspiration”, that three of the four judges, Sir Joseph Barnby, Dr Joseph Parry, David Jenkins and R.C. Jenkins independently had each written the word “Wonderful”, after Treorky's performance.

Although retired from the competitive arena, the Rhondda Glee Society, with 54 eisteddfod choral prizes to their name, heightened the rivalry with Treorky still further. Treorky had long-since been favourites of the Dunraven family, who, following the Llanelli victory, contacted the Royal Household, suggesting Queen Victoria herself should hear the Welsh miners for herself. The royal seal was finally set when the news was received by the Queen's Private Secretary, Lord Edward Clinton, “Mr Thomas, 70 Dumfries Street, Treorchy. The Queen has decided to hear Welsh Choir on Wednesday twenty seventh. Please communicate with me as to any arrangements you wish made.”

The news of the Royal Command Performance, which was to be held at Windsor Castle on November 29th 1895, resulted in remarkable newspaper coverage throughout the entire country. A circular was then issued throughout the Rhondda, reading: “Her Majesty the Queen has been pleased to allow the Choir to sing before her in Windsor Castle in the course of the next month and to give a selection of Welsh Airs to Welsh words. It is generally felt that the Choir, by its matchless singing and marvellous success, has conferred honour upon Wales.”

A major fundraising effort began with the Vicar of Ystradyfodwg appointed chair. An active working committee was elected with W.P. Thomas, the Secretary of the Ocean Coal Company, appointed secretary to the committee and E.H. Davies as treasurer. Weeks of fundraising and rehearsals dominated the Treorky Male Choir as they prepared for the royal concert. The rehearsal room was filled every night with visitors who came to hear the musical ambassadors before they embarked on their royal journey. Treorky Male Choir had achieved greater fame than any previous Welsh Choir of its kind.

William Thomas was regarded as a national hero. The invitation to sing before the Queen marked an important milestone not only in choral history, but in Welsh history. He was inundated the letters of congratulations, honorary titles, certificates and even poetry was written in celebration of his success. Tom Stephens and his men at the Rhondda Glee Society were furious. In fact, Tom went so far as to accuse the telegraphic office of sending the invitation to sing for the Queen to the wrong choir and that such a grave error had deprived his choir from the privilege. Tom went to the national press with the story, demanding the resignation of the Treorchy postmaster no less!

Rhondda Glee SocietyRhondda Glee SocietyDuring their prvious visit to Chicago in 1893, the Welsh exiles assembled at a massed concert and asked Tom Stephens and the Choir to convey to Prime Minister Mr Ewart Gladstone, an address of thanks for the part he took to meet the demands of the Welsh people to create a national university.

Rhondda MP William Abraham, (who coincidentally was the President of the Treorky Choir) introduced Tom Stephens to Mr Gladstone in a reception at the House of Commons, and the Liberal Prime Minister said his Choir should sing for the Queen and negotiations began. Sadly the Queen was at Cannes so the initial concert was postponed.

Shortly afterwards Gladstone retired and during Lord Roseberry's premiership Mabon reminded the Prime Minister of the promise, resulting in the Controller of the Household making arrangements. But once again these were scuppered with the death of the Duke of Clarence, the Prince of Battenburg and that of Sir Hugh Ponsonby. Major Walter Quinn took up the suggestion again and finally on January 25 th 1898 – more than two years since Treorky's visit – an official letter came from Quinn inviting them to appear at Windsor. It was closely followed by a telegram from Sir Walter Parratt, the Queen's Organist, directing them to appear in evening dress – and not “Sunday Best” as had been Treorky's way.

While Treorky had taken Dr Joseph Parry as their guest of honour to Windsor, Tom Stephens invited his good friend Eos Dar, the famous Pennillion Singer and multiple-winner at the National Eisteddfod of Wales. Ironically enough, six members of the Glee Society had previously sang with Treorky and appeared with them before the Queen in 1895.

On February 22 nd 1898 the Choir left Ystrad train station to a huge send-off. Along the hillside of Penrhys and Gelli people waved the royal singers while crowds gathered at Pontypridd and Cardiff to greet the choristers through the windows of their saloons of the Great Western Railway carriages. They reach Windsor at 6.10pm, settling into their accommodation at the White Hart Hotel and enjoying tea in the dining room where Mabon struck up “Crugybar” and the Choir sang for a few minutes before Tom Stephens ordered silence for fear they would lose their voices. He did, however allow them a rehearsal of “God Save the Queen” before they departed for their rooms to don their evening dress and white gloves, also bearing breast badges to say they'd won the National Eisteddfod in Pontypridd.

At 8.45pm they formed a procession up Castle Hill and entered through the Grand Entrance to be met by Mr Miles of the Lord Chamberlain's Department in the cloakroom. Then they were led up the grand staircase to St George's Hall where an orchestra had been erected and six tiers of seats for the Welshmen. A group of 36 gilded chairs in six rows were placed for the audience with a low armed black oak chair, richly upholstered, stood in the centre alongside a small table holding a pair of opera glasses, a magnifying lens and a copy of the concert programme bound in red borocco.

Mr D. Jones sat at the grand piano and Percie Smith was sat at the American organ. Punctually at 10pm the bells chimed and the doors opened into the hall. The Ladies and Gentlemen of the Household, with Lord Edward Clinton, Controller of the Household appearing to signal the Queen's approach. They all rose to the majestic strains of the National Anthem. The Queen, bent over, walked slowly. Her right hand was resting on a stick, her left holding her Indian attendant. Dressed in black with a flowing white head dress, the Queen sat with her daughter, the Princess of Battenburg to her right, with a Lady in Waiting to her left. The Queen smiled as they performed “God Bless the Prince of Wales” in English and Welsh, which was followed by “The Little Church” (Beckker) and “Comrades in Arms” by Adolphe Adams.

The Western Mail journalist Morien, who had also accompanied Treorky on their Royal Command, observed, “Other items were sung without any special incident except that as the choristers proceeded they gained in confidence. There was a fine rendering of Annabelle Lee to the words of Edgar Allan Poe and music by Dr Joseph Parry.” According to reports the “The Pilgrims Chorus”, with soloist David Jones of Cilfynydd and “Huntsmen's Chorus” was especially well received followed by “Day And Night”and “Men of Harlech” when “the choristers were at their very best”. Berleur's “Hues of the Day” followed with a solo and chorus of “matchless beauty”. While “Y Tyrol gave them admirable opportunity to display versatility and musicality of the chorus and soloist Ambroise Thomas which proved to be one of the best of the evening.”

A t this point Tom Stephens was called upon. The Queen said, “Your choir sang magnificently.”
“I am delighted”, he responded, “That Your Majesty is pleased with their efforts.
“Are they all professionals?” she asked
“No Your Majesty. Three fourths of them are colliers. We have but one professional, Mr D Jones and even he, Your Majesty, has been brought up in the mines and worked underground until the last two or three years when he won a scholarship and entered the Academy.”
“You surprise me.”

Princess Battenburg said, “That singing is really most beautiful.”
Her Majesty added, “I'm sure you wouldn't mind singing the Men of Harlech one more time?”
“With pleasure Your Majesty”, he replied.

The Choir launched into Gounod's “Soldier's Chorus”, “Italian Salad” and then “Men of Harlech” where the rafters resounded to “Cymru Fo Am Byth”. The choristers performed “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” next while the last item on the programme was Rhys Lewis's Welsh version of “God Save The Queen” with solos and chorus. “The Cymric fire was there in beautiful blend with the rich and sonorous intonation for which welsh singers are known.”

Following the performance the Choir resumed their seats. Her Maesty “gave gracious inclinations of the head towards her Welsh subjects. She placed an item in the hands of Mr Mutcher, her German librarian and he gave it to Tom Stephens, saying, “Her Majesty has wished me on her behalf to ask your acceptance of this gift”. The item was a precious gold scarf pin, glittering with precious diamonds and rubies with the VRI crest in the centre.

Tom Stephens was asked to visit the Queen at her private apartments. Led by Lord Clinton, the conductor was approached by Her Majesty who said, “I should like you to write your name in my autograph birthday book. Now take your time. Take your time, there is no hurry.” Trembling he wrote “Tom Stephens, Windsor Castle, February 22 nd 1898”

On the Choir's arrival in the Rhondda they were again treated to a hero's welcome, as had their rival singers. In Pentre the streets were decorated with streamers, flags and Japanese lanterns. The streets were “thronged with an immense crowd” carrying torches and lights. A procession was led by Tom Stephens in a trap accompanied by Mr E.H. Davies JP and Mr D Richards (grocer) who had been in charge of the local celebrations. The entourage was followed by the Cory and the Pentre Volunteer Brass Band while 200 people walked four abreast behind. The splendid spectacle led through the village to Treorchy where the “Choir was cheered vociferously as the procession wound its way to Treorchy, the home of the other male choir party who were accorded similar royal honours a few years ago”.

At Stag Square they turned back and reached Cory Workmen's Hall where Tom Stephens appeared at a window on the second floor. With a muffler around his neck and suffering from a cold, he thanked them all “Diolch yn fawr iawn I chwi I gyd” before the crowd sang “For He's A Jolly Good Fellow”. The Choir then sang “Men of Harlech”, “God Save the Queen” and “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” to the enthusiastic crowd.

Subsequent newspaper reports have often questioned whether the Royal Glee Society were afforded the same rousing applause from the Royal Family as Treorky had received earlier. Morien himself explained, “There was not on the part of the audience that cheering which characterised the reception afforded to the Treorky Choir two years ago. This was probably to be accounted for by the fact that whereas Treorky were in ordinary Sunday clothes, they had not gone in then for evening dresses and were consequently received and treated as miners. The present choir appeared in evening dress and white gloves and were more or less received and treated as professionals. There can be no mistake about it. They looked well, they sang splendidly, and they were thoroughly appreciated, but the method adopted to show the appreciation was not the same. Their singing was listened to in silence. There was not much sign of approval.”

Tom Stephens died eight years later and by which time the Rhondda Glee Society had disbanded. He was buried on January 29 th 1906 in Aberdare where a choir of 500 voices were led under the direction of his old friend, Eos Dar. His obituary remembered him for the kindness and support of all musical organisations in which he became involved. As a competitor he had been very successful, had followed the careers of Caradog and Joseph Parry, and above all was a “great believer in Welsh music who always wanted to promote the music of his country.”

 (c) Copyright Dean Powell