Welsh Music in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Welsh Music in Canada

Immigration of the Welsh to Canada occurred in cycles corresponding to economic depressions in the homeland in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some moved to Canada via the USA and others via the Welsh community established in the Argentine.

Immigration of the Welsh to Canada occurred in cycles corresponding to economic depressions in the homeland in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some moved to Canada via the USA and others via the Welsh community established in the Argentine. They settled in coal-mining areas and farming districts of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario, and some later were drawn to urban centres, mainly Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Montreal, and Vancouver.

An early settlement (ca 1902) was Bangor, east of Regina. Accounts refer to song as an integral part of celebrations in the community. A clergyman in Bangor wrote of a church service: 'The old tradition of the men sitting on one side of the church while the women sat on the other goes back to the days when they sang in four part harmony. At Bangor a Mr. Griffith led the singing. He marched up and down the aisle to make sure everyone kept in tune and kept the tempo properly... with only 28 people in the congregation, they could carry [various hymns] with a volume comparable to that of a congregation six or seven times their size' (The Canadian Family Tree, Ottawa 1967). An eisteddfod (choral competition) was held annually in Bangor during the early 1900s.

Indeed, the Welsh contribution to music in Canada lies mainly in the field of singing. This has been sustained by both the churches (the Welsh protestant service may be held in English or Welsh) and the many St David's societies (named for the patron saint of Wales) across the country. Choral groups include the St David's Welsh Male Voice Choir in Edmonton, the Welsh Male Choir (Saskatoon) in Saskatoon (fl 1913 under John Parry), the Welsh Male Voice Choir in Winnipeg (fl 1920s), the Cymric Singers in Vancouver (heard on CBC radio in the 1940s), the Vancouver Welsh Choral Society (1946-54), conducted by Evan Walters), the Vancouver Welsh Male Voice Choir (formed in 1962 and directed in turn by Evan Walters, Lloyd Wade, John Williams, Enid Lewis, and Robin Thomas), the Montreal Welsh Male Choir, formed in 1974, the Ottawa Welsh Choral Society (directed in 1990 by Marilyn Jenkins), and the Gwalia Singers (Ottawa, directed by Roy Morris in 1991). The Dewi Sant Welsh United Church in Toronto is the centre of many Ontario activities. The Welsh Club of Ontario began sponsoring annual spring hymn-singing weekends (in Niagara Falls, then in Kingston) called Cymanfa Ganu, which in 1978 attracted 1500 people. By 1990 the International Welsh Association had held eight Cymanfa Ganu in Canada (1959, 1967, 1973, and 1982 in Toronto, 1977 in Ottawa, 1980 in Vancouver, 1985 in Montreal, and 1990 in Victoria). During these festivals, folk singing and dancing and recitations precede the singing of hymns.

The 90-member Rhos Male Voice Choir conducted by Colin Jones toured in Canada in 1967, and in October 1978 the 85-voice Trelawnyd Male Voice Choir of North Wales visited Canada under the sponsorship of the Centennial Choir of Cornwall, Ont. The BBC Welsh SO toured Canada in 1983 and the Morriston Orpheus Choir of Wales toured Canada in 1989 (when it took part in the 1989 International Choral Festival) and again in 1991. The South Wales Male Choir visited in 1990. Several Canadian choirs have competed in the eisteddfods in Great Britain: the Elgar Choir of British Columbia placed first in the girls' choir division of the 1936 National Welsh Eisteddfod, the Anne Campbell Singers won firsts at the 1968 Tees-Side Eisteddfod (England) and the 1972 Llangollen International Eisteddfod (Wales), the Leamington Choral Society placed third at the 1970 Llangollen competition, and the Jeunes Chanteurs d'Acadie won three first prizes there in 1974. Other competitors at Llangollen have included the Ottawa Board of Education Central Choir (1976), the Toronto Children's Chorus (1982, first-place winners), the Oshawa Festival Singers (1983), the Montreal F.A.C.E. Treble Choir (1985, third-place winners), the Vancouver Bach Choir (1987), the Hillsborough Girls Choir (1988, third-prize winners), and one of the latter's choir members, Caroline Schiller (1988, first-prize winner in the International Young Singers Competition). The Ottawa Welsh Choral Society toured Wales in 1990.

Canadian musicians who have appeared in Wales include Victor White, principal tenor with the Welsh National Opera ca 1957, Bernard Turgeon, who sang with that company in 1962, Joseph Rouleau and Barbara Shuttleworth who appeared with it in 1970 and in 1973 respectively, and Jean Stilwell, who made her European debut with the company in 1990; Arthur Davison, who conducted the National Youth Orchestra of Wales in 1966 and made two recordings with it; and Boris Brott, who was conductor of the BBC Welsh Orchestra 1974-9. The Welsh Arts Council commissioned Welsh composer William Mathias to write a work for the Toronto Children's Chorus. It premiered his Learsongs at the 1989 International Choral Festival.

The Welsh choral conductor Iwan Edwards came to Canada in 1965, and in 1991 was head of the choral dept at McGill University, director of the Montreal Symphony Chorus, the St Lawrence Choir, and the F.A.C.E. Treble Choir. He took high school groups on concert tours to Wales in 1969 and 1972, took the F.A.C.E. choir to Llangollen in 1985, and conducted the 1981, 1985 and 1987 International Welsh Assn's Cymanfa Ganu. Other Welsh-born musicians active in Canada include Henry Abley, organist-composer active in Sault Ste Marie, Ont, 1957-9, in Lethbridge, Alta, 1961-7, and in Saskatoon thereafter; Gwilym Bevan, director of music 1979-91 at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown; Merlin Davies, tenor and voice teacher at McGill University; Vic Franklyn, a pop singer and recording artist in Toronto in 1972, who began his own nationally syndicated TV show from CHCH, Hamilton, in 1976; Fred M. Gee; Howell Glynne (1904-69), who after becoming leading bass at Sadler's Wells and Covent Garden, joined the COC in 1963, began teaching at the RCMT in 1964, and participated in the premiere of Somers'Louis Riel; William J. Hendra (1880-1966), who moved to Canada in 1906 and settled in Edmonton, where he taught voice and strings at Alberta College 1913-64 and founded, and conducted 1917-47, the Edmonton Male Chorus; John Edward Hughes, active as a conductor in Brandon; musicologist Gaynor Jones, who began teaching at the University of Toronto in 1971; Glyndwr Jones (1901-75), who moved in 1929 to Calgary, where he taught voice at the Banff SFA, and in 1944 to Vancouver, where he directed the Canadian Memorial Chapel Choir 1944-70 and was principal of the British Columbia Institute of Music and Drama (see TUTS); Ernest Morgan (1899-1959), an organist-choirmaster and baritone soloist in Toronto churches and for some years a CBC producer; Robbie Rae, a pop singer who, with his wife, Cherrill (of St Thomas, Ont), recorded the hit single 'Que Sera Sera' for A & M in 1977 and starred on a CBC TV summer series in 1978; Stanley Saunders; B.F. Shinn (Shinn Conservatory of Music); Rhys Thomas, voice teacher and conductor, fl 1903-18 in Winnipeg; Ifan Williams; and Rhyddid Williams, an organist-choirmaster in Sault Ste Marie and a composer of choral works.

Many Welsh tunes are included in hymn books of the Anglican and United churches in Canada. The theme and setting of Raymond Pannell's opera Aberfan were suggested by the 1966 disaster at that mining village in Wales.