Some time ago, I published a blog on music in Victorian Wales drawing on the rapidly expanding digital newspaper archives available from the National Library of Wales. I was struck, then, at the possibility of being able to reconstruct concert programmes – some original programmes have survived in Cardiff Central Library, but the local history collections are not accessible at the present time – and seek some answer to the question of what concert-going audiences in Victorian Cardiff actually heard. Programmes, then as now, were balanced between choral music, solo performance (either vocal or instrumental), and orchestral music. Today’s blog is part of some research I’ve been doing on popular culture and the development of taste in nineteenth-century Cardiff, which I’m hoping will provide some sense of the balance of class awareness in the sphere of popular culture. Whilst we know how class was perceived from the point of view of sport and the labour movement, historians of Wales have been lax in their study of popular culture – at least in terms of what has made it into print – and the article will hopefully offer some insight into that.

But where to begin? It’s worth offering some sense of the emergence of organised orchestral music in Cardiff, since this provides a clearer picture of who was playing in the town’s orchestras and who was going to listen. Although Cardiff’s first orchestra was formed in 1821 (it collapsed after playing just a few concerts), it was not until the formation of the Cardiff Orchestral Society in 1881 that the town gained a symphony orchestra of any notable size. Its early years were modest – the orchestra was initially formed to provide concerts during the Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition of 1881 – and the repertoire reflected that. The first concert included, for instance, Meyerbeer’s overture to Le Prophète, the French grand-opera first performed in Paris in 1849 that provoked Wagner’s first anti-semitic outburst in print. This relationship with the Paris opera is perhaps not surprising, given the first conductor of the Cardiff Orchestral Society was a Frenchman, Frederic Ternon. Born in Le Havre in 1826, and a graduate of the École Centrale in Paris, Ternon came to Wales to teach French and Art at Cadoxton-juxta-Neath High School and Swansea Grammar School. He later secured a post at Llandovery College. A successful violinist, he moved in musical circles in Cardiff and Swansea, holding violin lessons in the latter through the late-1850s, 1860s, and 1870s.

As the orchestral society developed in Cardiff through the 1880s, under the direction of Andrew Leaman, a violinist and tax inspector for the Inland Revenue; and Sidney Fifoot, an organist but otherwise industrial agent for the Dowlais Iron Company. They initially moved the orchestra’s repertoire towards the comic-opera of Gilbert and Sullivan, hoping to ride the wave of popularity for works such as Iolanthe. But as Fifoot settled down in the late-1880s, his range came to encompass Meyerbeer, Rossini, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner. Symphonic music appeared for the first time, with Beethoven’s first two symphonies making what seems to have been their Cardiff debut in the mid-1880s, and the lighter classical fare of Haydn was similarly heard, although not entirely to audience tastes – they were, perhaps, too heavily weaned on operatic overtures. A sign of the times, though, was the engagement with the waltzes of the Frenchman Émile Waldteufel. Having performed for the Prince of Wales in 1874, Waldteufel’s music quickly became fashionable amongst London high society, and was performed at Buckingham Palace for Queen Victoria. His most famous work – the Skater’s Waltz (1882) – was first heard in Cardiff in 1887. Here it is conducted by Toscanini:

Serious classical fare, the sort of concert programme that audiences know today, did not really arrive in Cardiff until 1889, when the conductorship of Cardiff Orchestral Society passed from Fifoot to Dr Joseph Parry. As the finest musical mind to come out of nineteenth-century Wales, it is perhaps not surprising that Parry’s interests, tastes, and knowledge, spread much further than amateur conductors who worked day jobs somewhat removed from the world of classical music. Nevertheless, the period of Parry’s conductorship is remarkable for its modernity. He introduces the town – by then already calling itself a city, which it would not become officially until 1905 – to Liszt, Schubert, and Saint-Saens; to Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Berlioz’s Faust, and Grieg’s Peer Gynt. Under Parry anything remotely related to light comic-opera was off the menu, instead it was replaced by the big German opera overtures of Wagner and the serious operatic works of Mozart. Under his baton, the city heard the Eroica Symphony for the first time as well as Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. This direction presented a much more sophisticated musical palate than the orchestra were used to playing, and tensions bubbled underneath the surface leading to Parry’s premature departure from the society in 1892. Yet this was a golden age for the society, with concert attendances at an all-time high. His replacement, Theodore Aylward, had to work hard to maintain Parry’s standards.

To begin with he struggled to do so: the orchestra switched from Beethoven and Wagner to ballet music by Gounod and eventually to works by Gilbert and Sullivan, the comedic fare that it had found its feet with in the 1880s. Aylward’s departure in 1894 left the baton in the hands of Joseph Deacon, a musician with more of the tastes of Parry than any of his predecessors. Deacon’s tenure was to take the orchestra up to the First World War and is by far the longest of any of the Victorian wielders of the baton. Under his conductorship the orchestra’s repertoire extended enormously, Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei appeared in 1897, for instance, Bizet’s ever-popular (at least now) Carmen suite a few years later, and as the society entered the twentieth century we begin to see more familiar work too: Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien in 1900 and Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture in 1910. Ralph Vaughan Williams even turned up to conduct his early work, Bucolic Suite, in 1907.

Cardiff Orchestral Society was not the only classical music organisation in the town: the Cardiff Musical Society which formed in 1888. For several years it concentrated on choral music and the presentation of cantatas and oratorios. But in the mid-1890s, under the conductorship of Theodore Aylward, it began occasionally including orchestral music in its concert programmes. A notable performance was of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in February 1896 alongside Mendelssohn’s Hebrides overture, the first time these works were heard in the town.

So what to make of the music that was being played in Cardiff through the Victorian period? Well, it seems that Cardiff was somewhat less sophisticated in its musical tastes – not to mention its musical offerings – than  audiences in similarly-sized towns elsewhere in the country, at least initially. Under the baton of Joseph Parry and then Joseph Deacon that changed dramatically. Between 1881 and 1889, the most popular composers were men such as Auber, Suppé, Sullivan, and Rossini. But over the nineteen year period from 1881 to 1900 as a whole, the most popular composers became Mendelssohn (ten works), Sir Arthur Sullivan (eight works), Beethoven (seven works), Anton Weber (five works), Rossini (five works) and Mozart (five works). Not far behind were Wagner, Haydn, Waldteufel, and Edward German (each on four), and Daniel Auber, Charles Gounod, Camile Saint-Saens, and Jacob Meyerbeer (each on three). By the 1890s, then, Cardiff had caught up in the sophistication of its concert music. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that at no stage was there a professional orchestra in the town, these concerts were played by amateurs with the skill of amateurs (albeit relatively well-drilled ones). Cardiff Orchestral Society was not the Hallé, nor did it have the illusion that it could be.

What is, nevertheless, notable is international character of the music being heard: of the composers listed above five are French and four German. Others that could be listed were Italian, Norwegian, Danish, Irish, and Czech. In an era when German and French music towered above all except Italian opera, this is perhaps not surprising, nor is the presence of Felix Mendelssohn at the head of the list. And yet, at a time of musical nationalism, evidenced in the work of Dvorak and Grieg, in particular, the absence of Welsh composers is telling. Whilst Joseph Parry and his son Haydn Parry did write nationalist music, their focus was primarily on choral works rather than orchestral compositions. As a result, the closest that anyone came to defining a ‘Welsh’ orchestral sound was in 1904 during the Cardiff Musical Festival. The piece, Welsh Rhapsody, was by Edward German, an Englishman of Welsh ancestry, and combines well-known Welsh folk songs such as Dafydd y Garreg Wen, Men of Harlech, and Ymadawiad y Brenin (Loudly Proclaim). Upon hearing the piece, one Welsh conductor suggested that: ‘after having witnessed the extraordinary enthusiasm and appreciation of the audiences […] there would be little difficulty in getting Welsh people to thoroughly appreciate orchestral music. But it must be served judiciously, and what could be a better means than through the medium of our national folk-songs?’ Over a century later, a century in which Welsh composers transformed the orchestral sounds of their own nation, but still remained broadly absent from the concert hall, it may be wondered what really has changed. Perhaps, in the end, it’s just easier to listen to this: