Welsh song and the London stage by Elizabeth Edwards

Dr Elizabeth Edwards is a Research Fellow at the University of Wales (CAWCS). She is a core network member for the Romantic National Song Network.


In August 1804, George Thomson invited the Welsh poet Richard Llwyd to contribute his ‘mountain Muse’ to the upcoming song project, A Select Collection of Welsh Airs, published in three parts between 1809 and 1817. In this project Thomson, a civil servant and music collector-editor based in Edinburgh, commissioned lyricists from across Britain and Ireland to set new English words to existing Welsh tunes. ‘I would … hope’, he wrote to Llwyd,

that you will find it an amusement to sing of those localities, to glance at the gloomy castle in ruins, the grandeur of the roaring cataract, the tranquil cottage, & the rich vales with which Cambria abounds, and to proclaim the innocence & the pleasures of rural life (Thomson and Llwyd, 1804).

Thomson’s project was unusual in several ways, but there is nothing surprising in his sense of Wales as defined by pastoral scenes of castles, cataracts and cottages – mainstays of Anglophone Romantic-period poetry, fiction and travel writing. However, music in general and song in particular would also have shaped ideas of Wales for Thomson’s projected audience, especially for those who had not experienced the country at first hand. Evidence from London theatre history, for example, shows that singers and listeners around the turn of the century could have encountered something of Wales in staged performances as well as through published songs. This blog post looks briefly at Welsh (and to a lesser extent Irish) music in one such example: Harlequin-Amulet or The Magick of Mona, the hit pantomime staged at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the winter of 1800-1 (1).

The text of Harlequin-Amulet survives as a 16-page publication, ‘The Songs Chorusses [sic], &c. with a Description of the Pantomime’, with a brief overview of the plot, which was also widely reported in contemporary newspapers and periodicals. Harlequin-Amulet sets the typical storyline of an eighteenth-century pantomime – a love match between Harlequin and Columbine, thwarted by Pantaloon but then happily resolved – in Welsh scenes, beginning on the island of Anglesey (‘Mona’). The pantomime’s Welsh setting provides a dramatic backdrop of bards in peril (Pantaloon, a mine owner with shades of Edward I in this version, is attempting to destroy them), alongside a series of magical or supernatural events that drive the rest of the plot. Missing from the published songbook, however, are the specific details of the music that was clearly an integral part of this pantomime. Reconstructing its soundtrack means looking elsewhere.

The cast list shows that the music for Harlequin-Amulet mixed old and new material, with a ‘New Overture, Songs & Choruses’ by the Drury Lane musician Thomas Shaw and ‘Tunes Selected from the Welch Bards, by Mr. BYRNE’. ‘Mr. Byrne’ was the dancer James Byrne, whose portrayal of Harlequin in this production was a defining moment in the history of pantomime, while ‘Tunes … from the Welch Bards’ probably refers to Edward Jones’s 1784 Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards, the most influential collection of Welsh song in the later part of the eighteenth century (2). An accessible and well-known sourcebook, Jones’s Relicks would have been the obvious place to turn. Using Wales as the basis for a successful theatre piece in 1800 would perhaps have seemed even more obvious. Celtic revivalism in the second half of the eighteenth century had made Wales one of Romanticism’s key zones in ways that are widely visible in the period’s art and literature, not least in Harlequin-Amulet’s Thomas Gray-like bardic scenes. As a nearer precedent, the most popular play staged in the summer of 1798 was James Boaden’s Cambro-Britons, an Historical Play – a Welsh-set medieval drama featuring wild and desolate landscapes, Gothic shocks, and a deception-and-murder plotline.

Fig. 1. John Ehrhardt Weippert’s version (for harp) of ‘Ar Hyd y Nos’ (p. 1).

With its happy ending, Harlequin-Amulet was probably a much lighter affair, even though the scene of the action (like Thomson’s letter to Llwyd) called for ‘striking and picturesque views of Wales, of castles, sea prospects &c.’, in addition to Gothic interiors, a crowd of bards, and (briefly) a dragon (1801: 154). As far as we can tell from songsheets published separately (further evidence perhaps of Harlequin-Amulet’s popularity), its music was cheerful and upbeat. The published ‘Sketch of the Pantomime’ shows that it included airs, choruses and a recitative, as well as character songs for a fisherman, a band of gypsies, and a shepherd girl. At least three tunes from the play can be positively identified: the Welsh pieces ‘Ar Hyd y Nos’ (‘All Through the Night’) [fig. 1] and ‘Pen Rhaw’ (‘The Spade Head’), both of which were likely drawn from Jones’s Relicks, and the Irish tune ‘Garry/Gary Owen’ (3). Reviews show that some of the music for Harlequin-Amulet was performed by the harpist John Ehrhardt Weippert, who worked both in Drury Lane and Covent Garden (4). In 1802, Weippert would collaborate with Byrne to produce another Welsh-themed piece, a ballet titled The Welsh Dairy; or Suitors in Abergavenny, which ‘adapted “Cambro-British” folk songs’ (Highfill Jr., Burnim and Langhans, 1993: 337),. His work for Harlequin-Amulet survives in standalone published versions of ‘Ar Hyd y Nos’ and ‘Gary Owen’, while ‘Pen Rhaw’ appears titled ‘A favorite Dance by Mr. Byrne & Miss Menage’ in the undated tunebook Wigley’s Pocket Companion [fig. 2].(5)

Fig. 2. ‘Pen Rhaw’ (here ‘A favorite Dance’) and ‘Gary Owen’ (here ‘Carey Owen’), as published in Wigley’s Pocket Companion for the Improved Octave Flageolet Violin (London: C. Wigley, n.d.), p. 48.

By the time that Cambro-Britons, Harlequin-Amulet or The Welsh Dairy appeared in the theatre, Wales had long experienced a displaced public sphere in London, comprised of expatriate artists, businessmen and other cultural connectors. However, these productions, which mesh drama, dance and song, and draw on a variety of contemporary popular and antiquarian sources, represent something different. Harlequin-Amulet concludes not with the Welsh scenes of its opening, but with a panorama of London as the backdrop to St. David’s Day (1 March) celebrations. The pantomime perhaps not so much imagines as stages a nation, offering up a mirror to metropolitan audiences of what they expected to see of Wales – framed by bards and druids, sublime and rustic landscapes, historical tensions, and increasingly familiar tunes.


Reference list

The Lady’s Monthly Museum, or Polite Repository of Amusement and Instruction, Volume 6 (London: Vernor and Hood).

Highfill Jr., Philip H.; Burnim; Kalman A. and Langhans; Edward A., (1993). A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800 Volume 15: Tibbett to M. West (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press).

Thomson, George & Llwyd, Richard. (1804). 1804 British Library Add. Ms. 35266, f. 45v.

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