The history of song in Wales before the eighteenth century lies first in oral and then in manuscript cultures. Transmitting their craft via performance, itinerant bards were a distinctive feature of Welsh life until well into the seventeenth century. Song arrived in print culture later, and the period 1750-1850 is notable for a series of landmark publications. These collections presented Welsh-language lyrics and Welsh melodies to an English-speaking audience, transforming the reception of Welsh-oriented material. Through translation and adaptation, or using dense contextual apparatus, they brought Welsh songs across the linguistic border, developing a variety of enduring images of Wales as bardo-druidic, idyllically pastoral, historically heroic, elegiac and exilic.
In 1757, the Welsh harpist John Parry famously inspired Thomas Gray to complete his poem ‘The Bard’. ‘Mr. Parry has been here’, Gray wrote, ‘and scratched out such ravishing blind harmony, such tunes of a thousand years old, with names enough to choke you, as have set all this learned body a-dancing’. Gray’s ‘Bard’ went on to define Wales for many eighteenth-century readers, but John Parry had other uses for Welsh tunes: by the time he met Gray he’d already published pioneering early song collections in Antient British Music (1742) and A Collection of Welsh, English & Scotch Airs (1752).
A vital point in Welsh song appears in 1784 with the publication of Edward Jones’s Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards. Jones, known as ‘Bardd y Brenin’ (‘the king’s bard’) on account of being harpist to the Prince of Wales, was an antiquarian and composer who assembled an unrivalled resource for Welsh music at the turn of the nineteenth century via the Relicks (republished in expanded form in 1794), The Bardic Museum (1802), and Hen Ganiadau Cymru (‘Old Melodies of Wales’; 1820). Jones is an intriguing figure who published some 20 volumes of music, including collections of Cheshire, Maltese and Norwegian song, but as part of a wider cultural renaissance his Welsh volumes clearly aimed at constructing or defining a nation.
The Relicks and Bardic Museum quickly became essential reference points for later collections of Welsh song, such as George Thomson’s A Select Collection of Original Welsh Airs (1809-17) and John Parry’s A Selection of Welsh Melodies (1822). Parry’s collection, a collaboration with the North Wales-based poet Felicia Hemans, is a complex blend of invention and antiquarianism. Thomson’s volume is an even more multi-layered production, offering musical arrangements of ‘native’ Welsh airs by Haydn and Beethoven, and replacing Welsh lyrics with English-language texts commissioned from a host of eminent writers, including Walter Scott, Joanna Baillie, Amelia Opie and Matthew Lewis. A real melting pot of British Romanticism, it is collaborative, transnational, and full of jarring cultural cross-currents that have yet to be fully explored.
Featured image: John Parry; A Selection of Welsh Melodies; frontis and title page; London: Bland & Weller’s Music Warehouse; 1809.