Merlin Morgan. What a name, and what a musician.
At the age of eighteen, he won the Challenge Gold Medal for piano at the Royal Academy of Music, and was awarded a three year Academy scholarship. Upon completion, he returned to his native Aberdare with credentials that marked him as an up and coming figure in the world of music. He married, came back to London, became organist of Charing Cross Chapel and was appointed as the first conductor of the London Welsh Male Voice Choir.
It all began in September 1902 when William (Cook) Davies convened a meeting to form a male voice choir. Advertisements were placed for choristers and the first practice took place on October 8th in the vestry of Charing Cross Chapel. Competition was the motivation of the new choir, and they immediately gave themselves an ambitious goal – to take part in the Mountain Ash Eisteddfod, on Easter Monday, only six months later.
Merlin's wizardry did the trick. The choir won the premier honours and achieved immediate fame, going on to compete at five subsequent National Eisteddfodau including Llanelli 1903, Mountain Ash 1905 and Abergavenny in 1913. In London the choir won first prize at a competition in the Queen's Hall in May 1908 and again in November 1911. It also achieved first prize at Carmarthen on August Bank Holiday 1913.
International Success in Paris
Another highlight of the choir's early years was to take the male choral prize (and 5,000 Francs) and a place in the Grand Final of the Paris International Tournament of Music in 1912 in the presence of the composer Camille Saint Saens and the President of the French Republic. This had been achieved after an epic journey by train and boat from London, and walking miles through Paris in a heatwave to reach the competition hall.
For the Paris trip the baton was handed over to Merlin's brother Ganmor, who was a cellist. Merlin's increasing fame and appointment as Director of Music at Daly's Theatre ensured close links with star names of the day and emerging talents such as Ivor Novello, but it limited his general availability to the choir. He did, however, manage to retain his high profile involvement in the London Welsh community through his role as organist at Charing Cross Chapel and his involvement with the Welsh Choral Society, which was allied to and governed by the London Welsh Male Voice Choir.
PostWar Reformation (1)
The last competition for the choir in this era was at Bristol on July 1st 1914 when it carried off the second prize of £50. War broke out a month later and the choir was disbanded. It was not until June 6th 1920 that the choir was reformed, but it quickly merged itself into the Choral Society with Merlin Morgan as conductor and Idris Lewis as deputy conductor. The Choral Society was disbanded early in 1922 and the male choir revived under the baton of Idris Lewis with the brilliant Swansea born pianist Llewelyn Bevan, organist at Jewin Chapel, as accompanist and deputy conductor. The chairman was Luther Evans with Leslie Evans as accompanist and librarian. The long term future of the choir was also being shaped by the appointment of H.O. Harries of King's Cross Chapel as Honorary Secretary. H.O., as he was always known, was the son of a founding member and remained with the choir for many years.
Idris Lewis, who had worked closely with Merlin Morgan at Daly's Theatre , went on to become the musical director at Elstree Studios when silent films were beginning to give way to sound. Idris worked in particular with Richard Tauber on a number of films and recordings. He also arranged and composed music, notably the favourite Welsh tunes Bugail Aberdyfi and Can Yr Arad Goch. He subsequently moved to Cardiff where he became Director of Music at BBC Wales.
In 1923 Llewelyn Bevan became conductor and Horatio Davies as his deputy. This latter appointment brought into the choir's circle another talented pianist with theatrical connections. Whilst a student at the Royal Academy of Music, Horatio had become organist at Mile End Chapel and later at Jewin Chapel. Assisting Merlin at the theatre, Horatio voice trained musical stars of the day including Evelyn Laye and Jessie Matthews. In addition he became musical director of the London Cambrian Choir, a group that would later adopt the title of the lapsed London Welsh Choral Society.
Under the auspices of Llewelyn Bevan, attempts were made to generate interest and raise musical standards. He formed a music club at Charing Cross Chapel and invited prominent speakers to lecture on musical topics, which he illustrated at the piano. The choir encouraged a new musical awareness through its high profile, and respected Vice Presidents such as Sir Hugh Allen and Granville Bantock publicly urged male choirs generally to take an expansive approach and extend the scope of the male voice repertoire.
In 1924, at 48 years of age, Merlin Morgan was taken ill with a chest infection. Straight from conducting a production at the Gaiety Theatre he took to his bed and died within a week. The shock was enormous, not only to the London Welsh but also to the wider theatrical community. More than six hundred people attended his funeral at Kensal Green Cemetery.
In 1927 the choir held its annual dinner, a special occasion to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the choir's inauguration. The choir President, Captain G.C.H. Crawshay presided over the dinner at the Holborn Restaurant. He welcomed founding members and in particular the choir's Vice President William (Cook) Davies who had convened the first meeting of the choir in 1902. A silent toast was drunk to the immortal memory of the founder and first conductor, Merlin Morgan.
When Horatio Davies moved into the full-time conductor's role in 1927 George Thomas, the popular organist at Charing Cross Chapel became the choir's accompanist. Among the traditional male voice repertoire at the time was a composition by Arthur Sullivan The Long Day Closes, which was sung often by the choir on special occasions.
Inaction and Depression
The 1926-1927 season, however, proved to be one of the most inactive of the choir's history outside the war years. Increasing problems and depression in Wales prompted benefit concerts in an attempt to ease the situation. A general atmosphere of gloom pervaded. One benefit concert stood out, however, and this was on behalf of distressed miners and their families in South Wales. The well received and emotional concert, although surprisingly to a largely Scottish audience, included Welsh hymns, the ever popular Men of Harlech, and The Soldiers' Chorus from Faust.
Unfortunately, at the next annual meeting of the season, to the regret of all concerned, Horatio Davies tendered his resignation as conductor due to pressure of of his other professional work. In his place, the young George Thomas became conductor and Elfed I. Morgan, organist of Hammersmith Welsh Chapel, became accompanist. At this time Secretary H.O. Davies arranged for the choir to sing at prison concerts, and in December 1930 the choir made its first recording of traditional Welsh tunes with English words for the Crystalate Gramophone Recording Company. The social and economic climate, however, became increasingly more depressed and this reflected itself in the life of the choir, where it was more difficult to muster enthusiasm. In 1930 George Thomas resigned for professional reasons and Elfed I. Morgan was appointed as his successor.
In the 1930s several groups and famous names emerged, offering alternative outlets for the members of the community. The newly formed St. David's Singers, a small group of handpicked choristers, conducted by a relative newcomer to London, Kenneth Thomas, with Meirion Williams as accompanist and the outstanding Gwladys Williams as contralto soloist, were creating a storm and giving sellout concerts. By the end of the decade Kenneth Thomas was also conducting the London Welsh Male Voice Choir at concerts, including one to celebrate St. David's Day in 1938 at the Welsh Guards Headquarters in London and at the National Eisteddfod in Denbigh in 1939.
With the coming of World War 2, the choir again disbanded.
Postwar Reformation (2)
Kenneth Thomas became the catalyst for the formation of the third era of the London Welsh Male Voice Choir. Throughout the war years he kept the community together musically by conducting communal hymn singing events on Sunday evenings and the newly dedicated London Welsh premises at Gray's Inn Road, which had been converted into a Services Club for the duration of the war. The emergence of a celebrated London Welsh Youth Choir in the early 1950s, also under the baton of Kenneth Thomas, brought together a new generation of choristers that became the seedbed of all the current London Welsh choirs, including the London Welsh Male Voice Choir.
The 1961 re-establishment of the London Welsh Male Voice Choir was born out of the David James Singers, who were in turn 'mature' members of the London Welsh Youth Choir. It was driven primarily by the brothers Gwilym and John Evans. After the first year, Gwilym became its chairman and was its driving light until his untimely death in 1965. John was its secretary for the first six years. Indeed, John was the mainstay of many London Welsh Centre musical initiatives and activities for no less than fifty years.
Lyn Harry was appointed Musical Director and his wife Sally as accompanist. At the time, Lyn was head of music at King's Cross School and the organist of Walham Green Welsh Chapel, and he had previously conducted the Metropolitan Police Choir. Later, Lyn was musical director of the Morriston Orpheus Choir before emigrating to Canada, where he was musical director of the Canadian Orpheus Male Choir for twenty five years.
The Red Jackets
The first two years of the 'new' choir's life were exceptionally busy, though low in terms of public engagements compared with the present day. When only a year old it competed in the 1962 National Eisteddfod in Lyn Harry's home town of Llanelli and gained third prize. It appeared on several television shows and made its first trip to the divided city of Berlin to support the 1st Battalion the Welsh Regiment's celebration of St. David's Day in 1963. The regiment's mess dress prompted the choir's President William Harries to purchase for the choir the red jackets by which the choir is now instantly recognised.
This visit triggered an international incident when choristers tried to cross into the Eastern Sector of the city, and the Soviet guards would not accept the high number of Joneses and Evanses in the choir.
A Thousand Festive Voices
1967 saw Tudor Spencer Davies appointed as musical director, with John Peleg Williams as accompanist. Both were already well known on the London Welsh musical scene at the time. It was during this period that the first 'Thousand Voices' concert was mooted, and this actually took place on October 25th 1969 with Roy Bohana as conductor, Tudor Davies as organist and John Peleg as pianist.
The idea for such an event is credited to Gerry Martin, the then choir secretary, and its initial success was due to the energy and drive of Elwyn Roberts, the organiser and chairman of the first four biennial festivals. The following choirs will go down in history as having participated in, and supported the London Welsh Male Voice Choir in this entrepreneurial first venture: Aber Valley MVC, Beaufort MVC, Blaenavon MVC, Cor Meibion Cwmfelin (now Llanelli), Cor Meibion Myrddin, Cor Meibion Pontypridd, Cwmbach United Male Choir, Dowlais Male Choir, Ebbw Vale Male Choir, and Treharris and District MVC.
John Peleg Williams was appointed musical director in December 1969, a position he held until he accepted a post in Powys ten years later.
The Seventies saw a number of changes to the choir, particularly to the age of the choristers: in the mid1970s about half the choristers were under thirty years of age. Annual concert tours at home and abroad became the norm, including two further trips to Berlin.
The introduction of pop music into the repertoire, and the release of the single Sloop John B, which had been the theme song of the victorious British Lions rugby touring team in 1971, was a first for male voice choirs. Its reputation as a modern groundbreaking choir was further enhanced by the release of the Take Me Home album in 1975, with the title track specially written and arranged by Rod Edwards and Roger Hand. It has now become a standard song in male choir repertoires. Singing pop songs may have been alien to most choristers at this time, but the successful transition from hymns and arias to unfamiliar syncopated rhythms owed much to John Peleg's ability as a teacher.
The choir's association with pop music reached a new high when it was invited to support the group Take That at the height of its popularity, in its ten day appearance at Earls Court. In addition to the regular CD and DVD recordings of the biennial male voice choir festivals at the Albert Hall, the choir has also made numerous other recordings including Songs of the Valleys for K-Tel (1989), which gained it a unique gold disc among male choirs, and One Hundred Years Of Music 1902-2002.
Over the years, the choir has been privileged to work with almost all of the nation's military bands, but we have a special relationship with the band of the Welsh Guards. We have shared the stage with the band at Royal Albert Hall festivals, and another was the CD Sing the Songs of our Homeland in 1985.
By the end of the Seventies, due to unprecedented demand for appearances by the choir it was decided to restrict public performances to one per month, and not to appear at the same venue within two years. It is a policy that remains to this day, with the choir's diary booked for up to two years ahead.
In the 1990s the choir was invited to work with Sir Anthony Hopkins and Sir George Martin on anew recording of the Dylan Thomas classic Under Milk Wood. This enabled us to join with the late Sir Geraint Evans and record The Reverend Eli Jenkins's Prayer in a special arrangement by Sir George. The choir was thrilled when all three knights of the realm accepted invitations to become Vice Presidents of the choir.
In the 1990s, in order to bring the sound of the choir to a Welsh record buying public, we teamed up with Mike Evans and his Black Mountain Recording Company to produce Rhythm in Red (1991) and In Harmony (1996). On the former we experimented with overdubbing of instrumental sounds, while on the latter we joined forces with the Cardiff County and Vale of Glamorgan Youth Orchestra to bring a fresh voice to some male voice classics.
During its first centenary, the choir's longest serving musical director, by far, has been Dr. HaydnJames. These years have seen exceptional demands to appear at sporting venues such as the old Cardiff Arms Park, the Millennium Stadium, the Stade de France, Twickenham and Wembley, for rugby internationals and the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final. The choir has also appeared in the Long Room at Lord's Cricket Ground, and Kempton Park racecourse. In recent years it has undertaken overseas tours to Barbados, USA, Ireland, France, Slovenia, Hungary, Germany, Cyprus and Italy, and has made numerous appearances on television including two Royal Command performances, a theatrical celebration of the Prince of Wales's 50th birthday, and the 40th anniversary of the BBC's Songs of Praise at the Royal Albert Hall. The choir has sung with leading soloists such as Sir Geraint Evans, Sir Harry Secombe, Bryn Terfel, Charlotte Church, Shirley Bassey, Katherine Jenkins and Sir Tom Jones.
Never lacking in ambition, the choir decided to seek appearances, in the first decade of the 21st Century, in the great cathedrals of the land. In these wonderful places of worship the echo is longer, providing a deeper and more thrilling experience. It brings us closer to musical heaven.
Chorister Owen Jones was tasked by the Choir Committee in this detailed work, and it paid off handsomely. We have sung at St. David's and Canterbury (twice), and also at Bath/Wells, Brecon, Bury St. Edmunds, Chichester, Ely, Exeter, Gloucester, Guildford, Hereford, Llandaff, Norwich, Peterborough, Rochester, St. Albans, St. Paul's, Salisbury, Southwark, Winchester, Worcester and Westminster Abbey.
Significant anniversaries have also been marked in recent years. We sang for the Army Benevolent Fund, the soldiers' charity, at Eton College Hall in 2009, and on Remembrance Day 2008, we were invited to sing at the Cenotaph in Whitehall to mark the 90th anniversary of the Great War Armistice. To some choristers, it was a precious opportunity to acknowledge, in song, the debt we owe to a father, grandfather or relative who had died for our freedom.
At the outbreak of the war in 1914, many choristers had joined their fellow London Welshmen informing the London Welsh Battalion, the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers, a voluntary unit which had trained and paraded in the grounds of Gray's Inn. In the following years the battalion fought at the Somme and Ypres. The London Welsh Centre's premises in Gray's Inn Road that we enjoy today was dedicated to the memory of those lost in the Great War.
The anniversary of remembrance inspired our conductor and Musical Director, EdwardRhys Harry, to compose a new work Can You Hear Me? for the choir's concert programme, that coincided with the Olympic Truce in 2012, and has remained on our repertoire since then.
We will not forget the tribute concert we gave to the people of Wootton Bassett in 2010, when we arrived before the concert to see the sombre shape of a Hercules transport aircraft returning home with its sad cargo from the conflict in Afghanistan. In 2014 we also recorded music for BBC TV's commemorative programmes, and were invited to the Tower of London to be involved in the centenary commemoration of the outbreak of the Great War with the band of the Welsh Guards and the Honourable Artillery Company.
There was also the particularly effective remembrance concert at Westerham in Kent in 2014 with Harry Secombe's daughter and Randolph Churchill, the great man's great-grandson.
The war has personal memories for one chorister, Father of the Choir Don May. Don's father, Robert John May's citation certificate records his distinguished involvement in action: “In the Ypres Salient on the night of 2122 June 1917, during a raid on the enemy's trenches, this NCO did excellent work, covering the retirement of the raiders with Lewis Gun fire. On hearing that one of the wounded had not returned to the trenches he went out again and helped to bring in his platoon sergeant. He has also done good work in the last 19 months.” At the time he was 19 years old. He was later awarded the Military Medal and was mentioned in dispatches.
As the Olympic Games approached the choir determined to identify with the unique occasion, a once in a lifetime opportunity. After much trial and tribulation, an Olympic concert was held at the Royal Festival Hall three weeks before the opening ceremony. A new work was commissioned from the composer Karl Jenkins entitled The Hero's Journey, and Bryn Terfel rounded off a memorable programme with some solo pieces.
The choir's Musical Director EdwardsRhys Harry composed a work entitled Can You Hear Me? on the theme of the Olympic Truce, and in recognition, the choir was awarded the Inspire Mark by the London organising committee of the Games. As Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, said of what was to be called Choralympiad, “Drawn from the five continents and with a sonorous lineage stretching from the valleys of Wales to cities and towns around the world, The London Welsh Male Voice Choralympiad epitomises the Olympic ethos with the added distinction of a Karl Jenkins world premiere. This unique concert promises a resonant and uplifting contribution to the excitement of 2012.”
Imagine our surprise, therefore when at short notice we were invited to sing the Olympic hymn in the Closing Ceremony of the Games. Those who were there will never forget that magic moment.
Edited by Ian Edwards, April 2015, with acknowledgements to Dr. Haydn James, Rita Clark and Gethin Williams.
Nobody does it better
By Ian Edwards
Nobody does it better. The London Welsh Male Voice Choir has had two opportunities to bid ffarwel to Dr. Haydn James, its Musical Director and Conductor for the past 30 years, and to Cliff Morgan, its retiring President. The first was Haydn’s last concert at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff in January, and the second was a glittering tribute dinner to both in London in March. Both occasions tugged at the heartstrings. Above all, however, music was the winner because this choir knows no better way in which to pay tribute than to sing. Both men are stepping down after many years of distinguished service to the choir.
Haydn’s list of achievements since he joined the choir as a second tenor and soloist in 1966 are legion. His own fond recollections included his 12 years as conductor of the ladies of the Dylan Singers “in a little room at the back of the London Welsh Club”. “I took 25 women to Paris” was another highlight. Many of these delightful and delighted ladies had a table of their own at the dinner.
Overall, he remembered 1,400 rehearsals, 589 engagements and 1,200 committee meetings. But it would be the musical memories that he would cherish most, the association with Sir George Martin and Rick Wakeman, and soloists including Rita Hunter, Sir Geraint Evans, Bryn Terfel, and Katherine Jenkins. Ten nights with Take That at Earls Court also stood out, as did engagements at Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, the Sydney Opera House, and the unforgettable service at the Cenotaph on November 11th 2008 that marked the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
Even now, Haydn is working with a group of young voices at the London Welsh Centre. We will see him continue to pursue an active life as Musical Director of the Welsh Rugby Union. He is also in continuing demand as conductor of the British and Irish Lions touring choir, and with a number of Cymanfa Ganu festivals in North America.
Colin Jones, Chairman of the choir’s music committee, read congratulatory messages to both men from the Comrades Choir and the Hong Kong Male Voice Choir. A message, however, was not enough for Jim Burns, President of the Saengerfest Choir who had brought his wife Elaine ona special journey from Boston, USA, to present Haydn with the gift of a Paul Revere bowl and a commemorative certificate.
Proposing the toast to Cliff Morgan, OBE, CVO, who has been President of the choir since 1989 and a Vice-President for a number of years previously, Haydn noted that Cliff initially declined the invitation to succeed Doug Evans as President, thinking he wasn’t up to the job. However, Haydn said “this most unassuming man” had been “one of the most brilliant ambassadors the choir could have had, and a great inspiration to us all”.
Cliff won 29 caps as fly half for Wales. He was a natural broadcaster, talker and communicator, and his commentary on one of the best tries of all time, during the Barbarians’ match against the All Blacks at Cardiff Arms Park in 1973, is rightly celebrated.
He became head of sports and outside broadcasts for the BBC for 11 years, and for ten years was the inimitable presenter of the radio programme Sport on Four. His sporting reputation is therefore secure. His love of music is not as well known. A pianist, he knows how the power of music can transcend barriers of geography and language, and can bring diverse people close together by expressing emotions that lie deep within the soul.
Cliff’s reply to the toast was necessarily brief in length, but full of his trademark warmth and appreciation. As 90 present and former choristers joined to end the evening with song, Haydn invited Cliff to conduct Gwahoddiad. He knew this one by heart. We could see from his face how important this moment was for him. This was “his” choir, and the pride was mutual.