‘Blessed is a world that sings, gentle are its songs.’
Motto of the International Musical Eisteddfod
The origins of the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod can be traced to the inspiration of one Harold Tudor, native of Coedpoeth and a journalist at the Wrexham Leader before joining a newspaper in Liverpool. Between 1942 – 1945, Tudor was an officer of the British Council, and was tasked with developing cultural relations with overseas countries - impressive given that the world was busy tearing itself apart during World War Two at the time. In 1943, Tudor had organised for members of governments in exile in Britain to attend the Welsh National Eisteddfod in Bangor, with much success. So much so, in fact that enquires were made as to the feasibility of choirs from around the world competing at future events.
Tudor proposed such an addition to the Council of the National Eisteddfod in 1945, but it was thought that such an event would be unfeasible, given the hardships faced by all concerned at the end of the Second World War. Tudor was, however, undaunted, and proposed that a separate independent musical festival be created. This idea was taken up by two men of Llangollen, W.S. Gwynne Williams, music organiser to the Gorsedd of Bards, and G.H. Northing, school teacher, talented organist and chairman of the Llangollen Urban District Council. After receiving council support, a meeting was held in the Llangollen council chambers in May 1946, attended by interested parties, including Harold Tudor.
The idea of a, ‘Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod’ took shape, with Northing becoming director of the executive board, Gwyn Williams the musical director, Tudor director of publicity and the local businessman, W. Clayton Russon established as president. Public subscriptions to the value of £1100 were raised, largely through the generosity of locals, and it was decided that the Festival would be held on the recreation ground, now the playing fields of Ysgol Dinas Bran, overlooking the town. The Minister for Food at the time, John Strachey was persuaded to release ration coupons for the competitors, who were welcomed into local homes for the duration of the Festival.
The Festival began in June 1947 with over 40 choirs invited. All made the journey at their own expense, overcoming a French rail strike, some hitchhiking, some singing their way across Europe to pay their way. To the surprise of the organisers, two groups of Spanish folk dancers, who happened to be in Britain at the time, turned up, despite there being no dance category for them to compete in. They danced anyway, and ever since folk dance competitions have featured at the Festival.
The Festival began with an opening ceremony on the evening of Wednesday 11th June 1947, followed by a concert by Gwen Catley, Alexis Kligerman, Robert Easton and Eleanor Dwyryd. The Festival was brought to a close by Sir John Barbirolli and the Halle Orchestra, in what has become a tradition - the Sunday evening concert. The Festival was an enormous success, even making a small profit.
Today, on the Friday afternoon of the festival, a parade is held in which the competitors sing and dance their way through the town. This popular delight of colour and music is astonishing, and is generally attended by all the local schools.
The Festival has enjoyed performances from some of the most famous performers since, including Bryn Terfel, Karl Jenkins and the Cor Cantorion Sirenian Singers, who were the first Welsh choir to win the, 'Choir of the World' trophy in 1998. However, perhaps the most famous was Luciano Pavarotti in 1955. The tenor performed and won as a 19 year old, with his father in the Chorus Rossini. He performed once again in 1995, stating that his performance at Llangollen was the catalyst to his career in singing. While staying at the nearby Bryn Howell in 1995, he met the Griffiths family, in whose house he and his father stayed in 1955.
“I remember well the house I stayed in. All the way from Italy, I was exercising my English. But when we are brought to the house in Llangollen and meet the family, I understand not a word. I did not know there was such a language as Welsh. Even now I think how lucky they don’t write operas in such a language for me to sing. I would be out of work. It is impossible for us Italians to learn.”
At all times since, the Eisteddfod has maintained true to its ideal of promoting, ‘healing through music’ and friendly competition. In 1949, the first German choir, from the northern German city of Lubeck, performed at Llangollen. The choir was welcomed with, it is said, ‘tears, tea and sandwiches’, which seems entirely right. They were introduced to the Festival audience with the words, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome our friends from Germany’. A special concert was held in order to raise funds for the choir.
The popularity of the International Musical Eisteddfod was such that by 1958 new premises were required. Penddol Farm was purchased and the Eisteddfod still resides there, with the old farm buildings still present and in use every year. After seven years of fund raising, the iconic Llangollen Pavilion was built, opened by the Queen in 1992. She had last attended not long after her coronation in 1953. Princess Margaret also attended in 1964, as did the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1985.
Today, the International Musical Eisteddfod still promotes the ideal of peace and reconciliation through music and the arts, a message that the inspired appointment of Terry Waite as President of the Eisteddfod continues to support. In these troubled times, such a message is refreshing, and Llangollen's continued support of artistic endeavour is needed more than ever. It is to be hoped that both the public and the Welsh Government continue to support the incredible International Musical Eisteddfod in Llangollen.
'Byd gwyn fydd byd a gano gwarriadd fydd ei gerddi fo.'