Midweek Music Break: Pendyrus Male Choir, “Cwm Rhonnda

[Image: the valley of the Rhondda]

I’ve mentioned before that while writing Seems to Fit, I used a variety of musical playlists to put me in the proper frame of mind for a given chapter. The selections on the day’s playlist were among those which (so I imagined) would be favorites of the character most heavily featured in the section or chapter on which I was working at the time. Two characters, for instance, were World War II veterans, so (naturally) they listened regularly to Big Band/swing music… and so did I.

Actually, I took it further: one of the two preferred the smoooooth sound of Glenn Miller; the other, the more raucous Benny Goodman Orchestra. They argued about it periodically, one sarcastically, exasperatedly, and the other with gentle good humor.

Anyway, a handful of chapters scattered throughout recount the story of an eighteenth-century Welsh brewmaster named Emrys ap Rhys, and how he came to brew a particular ale which plays a significant part in S2F‘s storyline. Even Emrys had his own “My Music” sort of playlist, which may sound like a tall order… unless you know about the history of music in Wales.

Briefly, the Welsh love music, particularly choral music — and further particularly, choral music performed by men. The tradition goes back centuries, with much of the music composed and sung in the performers’ native Welsh language rather than English. As it happened, then, it wasn’t hard to build a good soundtrack for the Emrys chapters.

One tune in particular stands out.

Cwm Rhondda” (Welsh for the Rhondda Valley, in South Wales — the Rhondda being a river there), like many tunes, isn’t in itself a song to be sung. It has no words of its own. Instead, the melody which goes by that name is used as a scaffold for the lyrics of a hymn: several hymns, in fact. Although the tune is sometimes described as the unofficial national anthem of Wales, the hymn has no lyrics of a typically national-anthemic sort. (Given the title, for instance, one might expect a praise song about Nature’s beauty on display in the countryside of South Wales.) Instead — at least in the versions I know of — the supplicant just asks God for help on his or her journeys through life and the world. Nowadays, the tune also underlies the chants of You’re not singing anymore! which erupt among Welsh fans, from time to time, when their football teams are on the field.*

(The specific circumstances calling forth this chant, apparently, are a form of Schadenfreude: delight in someone else’s troubles. If one’s culture encourages one to burst into song when things are going well, then a sudden turn in fortune tends to shut one up.)

My favorite writeup about “Cwm Rhondda” is the one on the h2g2 site. (This is the pre-Wikipedia and often much more informal online encyclopedia originally established by Douglas Adams as the Earthbound counterpart to the one described in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.) It’s tempting to quote the entire piece, but I’ll offer just this:

‘Cwm Rhondda’ is a belter of a hymn that defies one to sing it quietly… It is the very embodiment of hwyl, the Welsh love of homeland and of culture, and as such has come close to supplanting the official Welsh national anthem. This is especially the case at rugby ‘internationals’, where the faltering, bathetic, falsely-devout Land of My Fathers [JES: that’s the actual Welsh national anthem] is soon dispensed with in favour of something far more robust. England fans often respond with their own countermeasures, often the Negro spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, but soon buckle under the sonic onslaught of ‘huge gangs of tough, sinewy men… terrorising people with their close-harmony singing.’


Anyway, here’s the Pendyrus Male Choir (Welsh-language version of their home page here), and “Cwm Rhondda“:

[Below, click Play button to begin Cwm Rhondda. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 2:43 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

When the group hits and holds those high notes, it makes me wish I could join them in song. (Not a reaction I commonly have, which many people would consider a mercy of the gods deserving a hymn in its own right.)

Tracking down the lyrics to the above is complicated by my not recognizing spoken (let alone sung) Welsh. This page (about which I know pretty much nothing) suggests that it’s the hymn called “Lo, Between the Myrtles Standing,” which you can find in Welsh and English translation at Wikipedia.

(By the way, yes, I know: the tune “Cwm Rhondda” was actually composed in the early twentieth century, and thus would have been unknown to a real Emrys ap Rhys. So would his late-twentieth-century creator. :))


* Videos of these mass outbursts constitute almost an entire sub-genre… and given the context (cellphone and other handheld video cameras; the natural rowdiness of crowds at sporting events; mass quantities of brew), their quality is, well, all over the map.


Send to Kindle


  1. Oh lovely. I’m such a sucker for anything Welsh, and especially the choirs. I love Bread of Heaven as well.
    Embarrassed to say I hadn’t known about h2g2 but as a very recent Gaiman-convert, I’m terribly excited.

    • Hi Deniz — there seems a certain amount of confusion as to whether “Bread of Heaven” is the same hymn, or a different one. Wikipedia says they’re different, but most of the videos of “Bread of Heaven” in fact depict musicians singing [whatever] over “Cwm Rhondda.” So, who knows. :)

      Glad you like it!

  2. There was a wonderful oddball little sitcom on BBC2 round about the late ’70s, called Roger Doesn’t Live Here Any More, about a man in early middle age coming to grips with divorce. It was the sole television appearance I can recall of the great comic actor Jonathan Pryce. There was only ever one six-part series, and I don’t think it was ever repeated.

    It came to mind now because Pryce’s poor protagonist, after losing his family home, had to move into a small London lodging house run by a Welsh landlady. I think it was must have been one of his fellow tenants who warned him that the landlady flaunted her Welshness so oppressively that his predecessor in the room had been driven to madness, and perhaps suicide: “She valleyed him to death.”.

    Growing up on the Welsh border, close to ‘the valleys’, I was all too familiar with what this meant.

    I have to admit, though, that Bread of Heaven – the most common Cwm Rhondda hymn – is a terrific singalong… one of my few positive memories of twice-weekly compulsory chapel sessions during my schooldays.

    • Have I mentioned that a couple years of ago we learned that a neighbor of ours is Welsh by birth? His name is Gareth, even. From earlier conversations, I’d concluded that he must be British (well, in a way he is — but you know what I mean); when he said he was from Wales I almost keeled over.

      And for all the talk about hwyl and homesickness and all that, he says he’s never regretted living and moving to Florida. He said the rain is too depressing.

      By sheer coincidence, the night before this post went up, our local PBS station broadcast an episode of Rick Steves‘ Europe, about North Wales. It included this segment, the first half of which is about the Welsh language:

  3. What I like best about the choir, or choral music, is the conductor. I still remember my old voice coach/conductor waving his arms in glee, wide smile, as if saying Yes, yes, you hit the notes! (with a nod to the heavens above). In the nave, it was especially endearing.

    These guys are good! Doesn’t the valley of the Rhondda look lovely?

    • It does look lovely there… But to tell you the truth, I was very selective. Many of the photos I found highlighted coal mines, slag heaps, grimy miners, and so on. None of which “spoke” to me quite like the photo I chose! :)

      I never participated in choir, but I too always liked watching the conductor. Especially the sort of conductor who gets so caught up in it the beauty and/or majesty of what the group’s singing that he closes his eyes and, transported, begins to sing himself.

  4. Seems To Fit is going to be one hell of a well-researched novel and this reader’s anticipation couldn’t get much higher.

    The Presbyterian hymn to this tune is dancing just out of reach in memory, a fragment of the title comes up…must have sung it hundreds of times….ah, here it is. Number 376, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” This site names the tune HYFRYDOL.

    “One of the most loved Welsh tunes, HYFRYDOL was composed by Rowland Hugh Prichard (b. Graienyn, near Bala, Merionetshire, Wales, 1811; d. Holywell, Flintshire, Wales, 1887) in 1830 when he was only nineteen. It was published with about forty of his other tunes in his children’s hymnal Cyfaill y Cantorion (The Singers’ Friend) in 1844.”

    • Indeed, I couldn’t decide whether to include “Hyfrydol” or “Cwm Rhondda.” I’d uploaded ’em both and decided more or less at random to go with the latter.

      Here y’go (also performed by the Pendyrus fellows):

      [Below, click Play button to begin Hyfrydol. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 3:39 long.

      Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

      They’re not the quite same tune, although they keep getting all twisted ’round each other in my head. Of the two, “Hyfrydol” seems, well, kinder: less vigorous, and much more likely to be paired with (as you say) “Love Divine…” than with “God of Grace and God of Glory,” which is my favorite “Cwm Rhondda” rendering.

  5. “she valleyed him to death” – I hope I can use this phrase somewhere, someday.

Speak Your Mind