Waiting for the maestro: St David's Day, 1913. Courtesy of Cardiff Central Library, Local Studies Department.
Waiting for the maestro: St David’s Day, 1913.
Courtesy of Cardiff Central Library, Local Studies Department.

Of the great composers of the nineteenth century, few were British. Indeed, it was one of those running jokes on the continent that British music wasn’t British at all: it was German. Think Handel, for instance, who Baroque masterpieces still infuse a certain sense of the eighteenth century dominance of British power. We know, of course, that this joke was a harsh one – British music was very much alive, whether in the form of brass bands, folk songs and tunes played in pubs, eisteddfodau, wakes, or ceilidhs,  or in the choral tradition of the Welsh chapels. Composers such as Parry, Parry and Stanford stamped an identifiably British voice on their music and ensured the vitality of that voice in an era of European dominance. But then we ask the simplest of questions. Just who was the most popular composer Victorian Britain? Answer: Felix Mendelssohn. Behind him came the three giants of concert music: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. And then? Well, the European romantics of Dvorak and Tchaikovsky, and Wagner of course.

The musical culture of Wales, particularly, was dominated by this continental idiom. Those who search the National Library of Wales’ fine new digitised newspaper database will quickly discern that. There were, though, early attempts at distilling Welshness into orchestral form but as the Evening Express pointed out in 1892, ‘few Welshman are aware that there is a Welsh symphony’. So who wrote it and when? The honour of the first symphony to be called ‘Welsh’ lies with Sir Frederic Cowen’s fourth symphony in b-flat minor, which received its premiere at St James’s Hall in London on 28 May 1884. The Western Mail was particularly enthusiastic in its praise for Cowen’s borrowings from Welsh music declaring that the work would ‘give delight to every Cymric heart’. It hasn’t been played much since, and Cowen’s current reputation isn’t all that great. Compared to Stanford’s Irish symphony produced a few years later or Mendelssohn’s popular ‘Scottish’ symphony, it’s a minor work but one that prompted some consideration of where to go next. Here’s the Evening Express again: ‘But why, oh, why did our Welsh musicians allow Mr Cowen to anticipate them in producing a national Welsh symphony?’

It was a long wait for the next one. Indeed, it was not until the maturing careers of Grace Williams, David Wynne, Alun Hoddinott, and William Mathias, after the Second World War, that Wales broke out of it is choral tradition and into the orchestral programmes of the concert hall. My favourite piece of all this is Grace Williams’ ever popular Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes, a work that I first played with the Rhondda Symphony Orchestra as a sixth former, and a violinist. Here it is performed by the National Youth Orchestra of Wales.

What difference did this make to the musical tradition of Wales in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? It’s a difficult question to answer in a quantifiable way since it depends on the emphasis you place on orchestral music as a manner of musical performance. Certainly, Wales was relatively slow in developing community-based orchestral societies, particularly outside of the seaboard towns of the South Wales and North Wales coasts; many places in the South Wales Coalfield, for instance, didn’t form orchestras until the inter-war years and they did not survive for very long. Brass bands and choral societies, of course, thrived in that part of the country where working-class traditions held sway. Where they did form, in towns such as Newport, which had its own Royal Albert Hall, it was choral repertoire such as Handel’s The Messiah, Haydn’s Creation, or Mendelssohn’s Elijah that held sway.

Perhaps the finest orchestra in Wales in the late nineteenth century was that of the Cardiff Orchestral Society and it provides us with a very clear and tangible idea of just what sort of musical identity, in the concert hall at least, existed in coalopolis in that period. It’s worth pointing out that the society’s conductor from 1889-1892 was Joseph Parry of Merthyr Tydfil, the noted Welsh composer. So: the repertoire. The obvious thing to note, as we go along here, is how similar nineteenth century concerts are to today’s mainstays. In one concert given by the Cardiff Orchestra Society in the early 1890s, for instance, there was the overture to Weber’s Oberon, excerpts from Gounod’s Faust and Bizet’s Carmen. Their 1890 season featured equally standard fare such as Beethoven’s Egmont overture; Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, and, for the first time, the overture to Rossini’s William Tell. But Cardiff, I hear you cry as you read this, was the main city – it would present that kind of repertoire, wouldn’t it? Well, here’s the favoured composers of Neath Orchestral Society, which was founded in 1904: Mozart, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Borodin, Saint-Saens, Svendsen, and Strauss.

The Europeanness of the concert hall in nineteenth century Wales ensured that some of the great musicians of the day played there, including the Danish violinist Frida Scotta. Scotta played the Mendelssohn concerto at the Park Hall in Cardiff in February 1895. Here’s what Joseph Parry had to say about it:

Miss Frida Scotta’s violin concerto (Mendelssohn) is worthy of criticism. In the first movement the time was satisfactory, but occasionally the wood wind wanted a little more suppressing- The strings in their piano pas- sages were very good, and the soloist’s octave passages were very well rendered, while the intonation was praiseworthy. In the cadenza the violinist’s shakes were meritorious; her upper notes were at all times most- pure. and the arpeggios at the close and the harmonies were invariably clear. In the transitional bridge connecting the first with the violinist’s beautiful solo movement, the intonation of the wind instruments was not as pure as could be desired. The fairy-like last movement, with its jetty wood wind and pizzicati, was at times lacking in steadiness of tempi, but in each (as the shortcoming soon disappeared. The celli contrapuntal passages against the solo were very effective. At the close the audience showed an enthusiastic appreciation of an artist who is certainly an acquisition to the concert-room.

Not the most effusive review in the world, but one that hints at the charming character of Scotta’s playing. That Mendelssohn Concerto again, though. Gets into your head a bit, doesn’t it.

Historians of other forms of popular music, notably brass bands and choirs, have remarked on their essential national character and linked them very carefully to community identities and to facets of social relations such as class and gender. Clearly orchestral music is never going to yield that kind of localised narrative, the Western canon is much too powerful. But I think it tells us something else about Victorian Wales which is often overlooked as we strive to find the elements that mark the Welsh out as distinctive and different from the other peoples of the British Isles. That is, in short, that Wales was a European nation attuned – to Concert A, if I can make that bad pun – to the cultural life of the rest of Europe. It was not cut off from ballet or opera because it happened to be on the margins of British power, what the London media (and the historians who know no better) happily calls the ‘Celtic Fringe’ or the ‘Provinces’.

What remains to be seen is just who was turning up to Cardiff Orchestral Society concerts, for example. Filling the Park Hall with 2,000 people was no mean feat and clearly not all of those sat in the stalls or in the upper circle were middle class. But that’s a line of thought for another day.