The Original Choir
The first recorded existence of the original, and quaintly named, Treorky Male Choir dates back to the summer of 1883 when a group of young men won a local eisteddfod in the mining town.
An impromptu eisteddfod competition was held in the Red Cow Hotel where the group of singers won the sum of £1 for their performance of Dr Joseph Parry’s haunting "Myfanwy". The choir of about twenty young men aged between eighteen and twenty two were all members of the Treorchy United Choir, conducted at that time by Rees Williams. They had decided to visit the public house to hold a farewell party for one of their fellow choristers who was emigrating to Australia and entered the singing competition, which they ultimately won.
Treorky Male Party 1883
The conductor that evening was eighteen-year-old George Thomas “Bach”, later to become a chorusmaster at Soar Chapel in Cwmparc and the Unitarian Chapel, Treorchy. Recognising their success, this fresh entity decided to continue as a male voice choir, rehearsing regularly in local public houses and open-air venues.
Eventually the Choir found a permanent home in the long room of the Treorchy Hotel thanks to the generosity of landlord Mr T. Jenkins. Rehearsing in a public house, and not in a local chapel, was of course bound to secure a plentiful membership. As one founder member recalled, “Perhaps there is a significance in the fact that we used to get numerous applications for membership. The committee of twelve met there on Sunday mornings, and became the object of considerable envy!” According to a newspaper report, the names of those original men who sang at the Red Cow (pictured above) were: John Rees, Phillip Watkins, William Thomas (Bosh), Jacob Davies, Thomas Bebb, John George, James Evans (March), David Walters, Eben Evans, Sam Rees and Edwards Rees.
Towards the end of 1883 the new choir entered an eisteddfod at the Corner House Hotel in Treherbert. The test piece was Dr Joseph Parry’s “Codwyn Hwyl” and the prize was thirty shillings. The adjudicators were David Miles (checkweigher, Abergorky Colliery) and Timothy Davies (postmaster) and the Choir again won the first prize.
The Choir gradually gained a reputation for their high standards of performance, so much so that the Choir attracted the attention of William Thomas. A contemporary of Caradog’s, Thomas had performed in the Cor Mawr and came to Treorchy from Mountain Ash as chorusmaster of Noddfa Chapel and the Ystradyfodwg School Attendance Officer.
When in 1885 the Choir was informed that their conductor was unable to continue in the post, it was decided to formerly approach Mr Thomas to take up the baton.
The thirty-four-year-old musician, who was a strict teetotaller, only agreed to conduct the male choir if they moved rehearsals from the pub to a more sober venue - the local school on Glyncoli Road. Understandably, membership fell slightly as rehearsals were not quite as fluid as before!
Under the baton of this strict disciplinarian the choir of sixty voices developed a broad repertoire of songs including “Can Y Medelwyr”, “Awn I Ben Yr Wyddfa Fawr,” “Mab y Don,” “Yr Eos” and the famous competition warhorse, “Comrades in Arms” by Adolphe Adams. It was the latter which featured as a test piece in the 1885 Whitsun Eisteddfod at St Fagans where an attractive first prize of £5 was offered. The adjudicator was the renowned Welsh choral conductor and competition champion Griffith Rhys Jones, better known as “Caradog”. Five choirs entered the competition, but it was the Treorky that gained the first prize, receiving the well-merited and high praise of the adjudicator. It was this initial success under the baton of the new, young conductor that laid the foundation of a long series of remarkable triumphs.
During the coming months a further twenty choristers joined the ranks of this increasingly famous local Choir as William Thomas worked tirelessly transforming them into a group of polished vocalists. During its history the Choir consisted of almost all miners and every one of them came from within a mile radius of the town. The Choir captured prize after prize in eisteddfodau during the coming years. As male voice singing rose to a high pedestal, the competition organisers saw the wisdom of increasing the prize money and so Treorky often found itself competing against a whole host of rivals. However, it did nothing to stop them from beating off all opposition to gain first prizes in eisteddfodau throughout South Wales.
At an eisteddfod in Neath the test pieces were “A Message To Phyllis”, (Cobb) and “The Word Went Forth” (Mendelssohn) and the adjudicator was George Riseley, Professor of Music at Covent Garden. The enhanced first prize of £50 was the highest offered in Wales until that time and it was won by none other than the Treorky Male Choir.
By the summer of 1889 William Thomas decided the time was right to enter his choir into the national arena. Their success at local and semi-national eisteddfodau was renowned, but as yet he had not introduced them to the country-wide competition. The Royal National Eisteddfod of that year was held in Brecon where the test pieces were announced as “The Young Musician” (Kucken) and “Y Seren Hwyrol” (Price). The Chief Adjudicator that day was Professor I. Atkins, a contemporary of the composer Edward Elgar. Following an outstanding performance he announced, “This was the best performance I have ever heard by a male voice choir”, and awarded them the first prize of £25.
It was the first time for the Blue Riband to return to Treorchy and Thomas, along with his faithful choristers, received a hero’s welcome in the streets of the town.
Following many years of dedicated training, they had become national winners on their first attempt. It was the accumulation of their efforts that resulted in this outstanding result for which they all felt justifiably proud.
However, such national fame was always bound to come with a price, and that was in the form of the famous Welsh devil himself, “cythraul y canu”, the phrase used to describe the near-tribal warfare that existed between opposing choirs. For Treorky the rivalry was made all the most intense as their enemy was but a mile or two away in neighbouring Ton Pentre. Treorky and the Rhondda Glee Society existed in the same valley, yet 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.
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". In the Treorky versus Rhondda Glee scenario, they had ample opportunity.
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 William Thomas, also grew up in the Cynon Valley and also sang in Caradog’s Cor Mawr. Yet that was where their similarities ended. Stephens couldn’t have been more different from Thomas since he was the landlord of the Blacksmith’s Arms in Treherbert. He moved to Ton Pentre as the precentor of Bethesda Independent Chapel and in 1877 became the first and only conductor of the Rhondda Glee Society, which won the Royal National Eisteddfod in Cardiff.
The 1889 National at Brecon marked the start of the bitter rivalry 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 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.
The year of 1893 marked Treorcky’s most important musical competition to date and also marked yet another fierce encounter with the Rhondda Glee Society. In 1889 the “Glee” had toured the Welsh settlements in the USA where the concerts were a success but the financial results were very disappointing. On returning home, they recovered their financial losses and following a run of three defeats, won fifteen first prizes in succession.
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 Griffiths Rhys Jones “Caradog” 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, but on their return they never competed again, yet their absence from the eisteddfod field did not signal the end of the rivalry.
Celebrating its tenth anniversary under the baton of William Thomas, the Treorky Male Choir entered 1895 with little realisation of the massive success that was on the horizon. It was a year of celebrations and yet also marked the untimely end of the large male voice choir.
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.
Llanelli was a memorable National Eisteddfod for one major reason – the chief male choral competition which was traditionally held on the final day of the competitions. 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.
When this was revealed there was joy and amazement amongst the adjudicators for it confirmed the decision was unanimous that of the four competing choirs, Treorky deserved the first prize of £60. One news report read, “It seems a very large number of people from the valleys were forced by their feelings to attend the eisteddfod because the superb choir from Treorky was going to contend. Treorky won with honours, and the shout which greeted the victory was such as only Rhonddaites can raise. Mabon seemed to lead the shouts of buddugoliaeth, and Pennyrch Mountain must have echoed back the hymn of joy.”
Dr Joseph Barnby, who succeeded Charles Gounod as Conductor of the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society and was the eminent Conductor of the Royal Choral Society, declared this “the finest specimen of singing I have ever heard and it had not been the privilege of any being on the face of the globe to listen to better.” It was one of the last competitions for Dr Barnby to adjudicate as he passed away the following year. Treorky were awarded 100 marks out of 100, a staggering result which had never been encountered at the national arena before. The test pieces on the day were “The Druids” (Dr Joseph Parry) and “Safe In Port” (Jean Limander) and an aptly worded telegram received from Daniel Thomas at Trealaw read, “Thanks to Admiral Thomas for steering The Druids Safe in Port.”
It is uncertain how the Choir first came into contact with the Dunraven family of Bridgend. One report suggests that following an eisteddfod in Swansea in 1895 the choristers relaxed for the afternoon in nearby Mumbles and were heard giving impromptu songs on the beach. The report claims Countess Dunraven was visiting the seaside town and on hearing the voices secured their services to perform at the Castle. Other reports suggest she was introduced to the Choir through her association with Rev W. Lewis, Vicar of Ystradyfodwg. Whatever the reason behind the introduction, she certainly had a profound effect on the Choir’s future.
Later in August 1895 a report also claims the Choir became a firm favourite with the Duke of Cambridge who arranged for them to entertain him at his country estate near Edinburgh. The novelty of listening to a disciplined choir of “common amateurs” caused a sensation and the concert in August was a tremendous success with three encores of “Men of Harlech”. The Duke remarked, “Your singing was most beautiful.”
In September 1895 arrangements were made for a selective thirty members of the Choir to entertain Lord and Lady Dunraven and their guests at the Castle. The special train from Cymmer arrived shortly after seven o’clock one Thursday evening and arrived at the castle to perform in the spacious hall conservatory following a dinner party. The programme, carefully prepared by William Thomas, included “A Little Church”, “Safe In Port”, “Mentra Gwen”, “The Tyrol”, “Gotha”, “Men of Harelch”, “Comrades in Arms, “Captain Morgan’s March”, “The Druids”, “Y Delyn Aur”, “Soldier’s Chorus” and “Destruction of Gaza.” The return journey was made at a late hour to Bridgend where the Choir stayed the night before returning home – and presumably work - on Friday morning.
Later in the month the Choir were engaged for seven consecutive nights to perform at Cardiff’s Panoptican Theatre (later the Cardiff Philharmonic Hall on St Mary Street) arranged by entertainment mogul Oswald Stoll. Each evening a new programme of music was performed, with one report reading, “The voices are rich and powerful, with perfect intonation; the effect of the whole was magnificent and could scarcely be surpassed for the remarkable and inspiring effect produced. Nearly every one of the vocalists, it may be added, was out of bed this morning at 5.30am and was working soon afterwards underground.”
Lady Dunraven had already expressed her intent to write to Her Majesty Queen Victoria and encourage her to hear the Choir at Balmoral. 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 date was altered because of the death of one of the Queen’s courtiers.
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.
The story of the Royal Command Performance is detailed in a separate section, but needless to see it was an unparalleled success and created a sensation not only within the United Kingdom but throughout the British Empire. The 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.
Coincidentally it is interesting to note that the rivalry between Treorky and the Rhondda Glee Society re-emerged because of the Royal Concert. Tom Stephens accused 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. It had become the custom of the Queen to invite many outstanding choirs to perform at Windsor over the next six years of her life. Treorky was honoured in being the first, thanks to the Countess of Dunraven. However, it was no secret that Prime Minister Ewart Gladstone favoured the Rhondda Glee Society. Since the Queen enjoyed the company of his rival Disraeli, it is hardly surprising why the Rhondda Glee waited a further three years for their invitation.
A report by the Western Mail in 1898 read“There was not on the part of the audience that cheering which had marked the reception given by the Treorky Choir. This was probably because the Treorky Choir wore ordinary “Sunday” clothes, and were consequently received and treated as miners,” while the Ton choir appeared in evening dress and gloves and were received and treated like professionals.”
The Treorky Male Choir received a supper in the Royal Audience Room while the Rhondda Glee returned to the White Hart Hotel for their meal. Tom Stephens was invited to sign Her Majesty’s Birthday Book in the state apartments however, but only received a gold scarf pin glittering with precious stones as a memento of the visit.
In comparison, on Friday December 13, William Thomas received a letter from Lieutenant Colonel Sir Fleetwood Edwards which announced that he had been commanded by the Queen to officially present him with a baton to commemorate the visit to Windsor.
The baton was received on the following morning,enclosed in a fine Moroccan case, lined with white silk and blue velvet. The baton was about eighteen inches in length and near the middle was a royal monogram of VRO, beautifully encrusted with gold, diamonds, rubies and emeralds. Near the handle is a broad band of gold, bearing the inscription, “Presented to Mr William Thomas by Queen Victoria, Windsor Castle, November 29th 1895.”
At the Drill Hall, Pentre, on Thursday January 2nd 1896, a banquet was held in honour of the Treorky Male Choir and a souvenir brochure of the visit to Windsor was presented to each chorister.
In the midst of the jubilations, hundreds of invitations for concerts and tours to the British Colonies were received and it was obvious to Conductor William Thomas and Secretary W.P. Thomas that a decision on the future of the Choir had to be made. Realising how impossible it was to undertake so many fruitful offers with eighty men in tow, difficult decisions faced the two men. In 1895 alone they had raised annual profits of £2,500, a remarkable amount of money at that time. Therefore, it was obvious that given their total success, there was a possibility of enjoying further fame and fortune as a professional choir – but with fewer singers.
Therefore in the early part of 1896 William Thomas made the very difficult decision of reducing the Choir to a more manageable twenty-five of his best choristers and soloists. He renamed the entity the Royal Welsh Male Choir and although numerically a shadow of its former self, the new choir maintained its high reputation for almost a century.
They embarked on a new era as their presence was in demand not only in Britain where they performed for successive monarchs at the royal households, but also on tours to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Some of the tours lasted up to eighteen months in length which is why the singers were forced to become a smaller, professional choir, in order to support their families at home.
The remaining choristers of the original Treorky Male Choir, were understandably disillusioned by the decisions of their Conductor. From the peaks of a National Eisteddfod success and Royal Command Performance, they were reduced to a Choir of remnants. One of the choristers, John Bebb (the father of bandmaster Haydn Bebb) appeared determined to ensure the Choir continued and they certainly competed locally up until 1897 when they took they final, graceful bow. It marked the end of the original Treorky Male Voice Choir.
(c) Copyright Dean Powell