Martyrs of the Arena: Music, Sport and Society in
This month’s meeting featured the Annual Noel Thomas Memorial Lecture and it
would certainly have been one that Noel would himself have enjoyed immensely.
The speaker was Professor Gareth Williams of the University of Glamorgan, one
of our foremost social historians on nineteenth century Wales. The large
audience were given a real treat.
Professor Williams began his lecture by stating that he had never
stopped at Resolfen before but he was aware of some of the great rugby players
and musicians which emanated from the village, including David Evans and Tom
Hopkin Evans. He then passed a hand-out to everyone in the audience and alluded to the headlines of the 1880s which included Afghanistan, Tory
dissension and problems in Europe which sounded very familiar to a modern
audience. He then turned to headlines which were more biblical and comedic e.g.
Last Judgement in Treherbert, Crucifixion in Machen which were reports on great
choral works that had been performed locally. This was a society of teeming
masses, industry and a new culture which was being forged in its furnace.
He then turned to the Cardiff International Competition in 1903 for Male
Voice Choirs. The adjudicator that day was none other than Laurent de Rillé composer
of the familiar anthem “Martyrs of the Arena”, which featured an item for all
the finalists. Despite the fact that 15 Welsh choirs had taken part the first
prize was taken by Manchester Choral Society. Mme de Rillé apparently was so
overcome by the combined singing of Joseph Parry’s hymn tune “Aberystwyth” that
she readily joined in even though she did not know the Welsh words. The fact
that the English choir had won was significant since they came from middle
class musical backgrounds whereas the Welsh choirs were working class and self-taught.
The number of choirs was representative of a very competitive society in
all aspects of life. The Population of Wales had doubled twice since 1850 and
1:3 of the men were coal miners some 250,000 all told. The population of
Rhondda alone had rocketed from a few dozen to nearly 200,000 in less than
fifty years. The society was dominated by young men, and rugby teams or choirs served
as a release valve from the drudgery of their working lives. Professor Williams
also stated that the coal owners were quite happy with this situation since it
took the men away from grievances and joining trades unions or political
agitation. Rugby teams were usually based in pubs and drew the ire of the
Juxtaposed with this social mix was the rise of nonconformity and
Temperance. Some 5,000 chapels were built during this period and music played a part alongside the musical literacy of the tonic sol-fa. Congregations were immense,
for instance Bethania, Dowlais had 730 regularly attending Sunday school (adults
and children). The chapels viewed sport with suspicion, and it was condemned
from “Y Sêt Fawr” with utterances such as “Kick! men were not made to kick!!!”The
rugby games were both fierce and violent. Quite often games were accompanied by
crowd trouble, which included women who made up a third of the crowd, and sides
were sometimes suspended for weeks to cool down. A comment made by a more sober
member of south Walian society stated that “scores were to be sung from”.
Yet, the image of Wales as a land of song was largely an invention of
this period. Rugby was an import as was the music of Handel and the first Cymanfa
Ganu only came in 1859. The Welsh however were good at it and the chapels
offered halls big enough to hold choirs of immense size and in subsequence a
substantial quasi-religious repertoire developed. Professor Williams vividly
exemplified the popularity of music by showing that more people attended the
choral competition at the National Eisteddfod in 1893, some 20,000, than had
attended the Wales international against England. The numbers of soloists in
eisteddfodau also showed a huge gain during the second half of the nineteenth century.
However, the rivalry between choirs was often intense enough to end in fights
and adjudicators were often intimidated by charismatic conductors such as Dan
Davies of Dowlais.
Professor Williams, who is himself a member of the Pendyrus Male Voice
Choir interspersed his lecture with passages from well-known musical works of
the period. He paid special attention to “Teyrnasoedd y Ddaear”, by J Ambrose
Lloyd which was in the style of the great masters.
Mr Phylip Jones thanked Professor Williams for a very memorable lecture.
He also added to the professor's surprise that Noel Thomas himself was a nephew of David
Evans and that Resolfen possessed three doctors of music as against two. Some of the immediate family were also in the audience.