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    men singing

    Welsh Male Voice Choirs Keep on Singing

    Will a tradition of community-based male voice choirs – born out of churches, factories, mines, and slums – survive for another generation?

    By Stephen Pearson and Susannah Black Roberts

    March 28, 2023
    • Ray Sparks

      An absolutely lovely commentary of the world-renown Welsh Men's Choirs! I have been privileged to hear a performance, rather an exhilarating performance, while holidaying in this beautiful country. Thank you!

    Plough’s Susannah Black Roberts talks to Stephen Pearson, a member of the Morriston Orpheus Choir, about the roots of the tradition and the community that it offers participants.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Let’s start here: What is the Morriston Orpheus Choir?

    Stephen Pearson: Morriston Orpheus is one of a number of large male voice choirs in Wales. It’s based in Swansea, but we now have members from across South Wales. It began in 1935, in the suburb of Morriston, which is just to the north of Swansea.

    When it was formed, it was a breakaway from other choirs that were having disagreements about the way the music should go. So our choir was created from a schism in 1935, and has basically been going ever since. The founding musical director was a man called Ivor Sims, and there have been eight musical directors since.

    The choir has performed in many of the world’s great auditoriums; we had a standing ovation in the Sydney Opera House; we’ve performed in Carnegie Hall in New York, in the first few weeks after 9/11. We were out there as part of a trade delegation; we sang in Grand Central Station too.

    Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in the choir?

    I was an IT teacher during my working career; I’m retired now, and I came into the choir because two or three friends and work colleagues were a part of it. I’d sung in a church choir in my teens, but done nothing with it since, and they asked me along to one of the events where they were performing, and I thought, “Well, it would have to be wonderful to be part of that.” I wasn’t sure that I would be good enough, but eventually I plucked up the courage. I learned, and eventually got accepted into the choir. I presently sing in the second tenor section. There are four sections in traditional Welsh male choirs: bass, baritone, second tenor, and top tenor.

    It’s not a professional choir?

    No, they’re not professional musicians. From the choristers’ point of view, it’s an entirely amateur operation. No one in the choir is paid to perform. The only people who receive any remuneration are the musical director and the accompanists. We meet twice a week, and we try to achieve a professional standard, but we are all amateur singers, and that’s been the case for the whole history of the choir.

    Who are the people who tend to join the choir?

    Well, originally, most of the men were industrial workers. Swansea was renowned for its heavy industry, and for two hundred years before the choir formed, it had been known as a copper-smelting and tinplate-smelting town. When the choir formed, the majority of the men would have been working in that heavy, hard slog of industrial metal work and mining. Now those days are gone; we are a cross-section of the community but most of the heavy industry has left.

    the Morriston Orpheus male voice choir in Wales

    Photograph courtesy of the Morriston Orpheus Choir

    From what I can tell, in that part of the country the land has healed from some of the worst of industrialization, but the economy and especially the church culture has been hard hit by the demise of these industries.

    Well, it has changed. The choirs in the early days were drawn from church choirs; churches and chapels in Wales were a fundamental part of the culture. As I said, that’s where I started singing. There has been a decline in people going to those traditional church services, although there is quite a resurgence in religion, just not in that chapel culture.

    Can you describe that resurgence?

    Well, it is a more evangelical approach to religion; there are these new churches which seem to be flourishing. They tend to use popular music; there are groups of young people singing and playing guitars and keyboards and things like that. That is a scene that didn’t exist when this choir was formed.

    It seems to me that the choir does have a Christian backbone, or at least a communitarian backbone. There is an intense sense of the need to show up for each other, of practical brotherhood.

    You know, I’m glad that that’s come through; it’s certainly been the case over my time in the choir. I’ve been a part of it for twenty years, and there are many of us who are good friends with one another; we’ve been all around the world together. A number of the men are single because their partner has died, or single by choice, and for those men that friendship is particularly important. Certainly there is a camaraderie that exists amongst us all. And we certainly do have a history of looking out for one another. Recently, we performed at the cathedral at Ely, in the eastern part of England, and one gentleman suffered a heart problem while he was there. So, you know, we had to rally round, and we took him to Cambridge to the hospital, and he had to have a pacemaker fitted. He lives alone and has no family to call on, so once we knew that he was ready to come home, two of us drove up to Cambridge to collect him and his possessions and brought him back home. We always try to put an arm around those who need it.

    The choir has been quite international and eclectic in its repertoire while maintaining a Welsh sense of itself. One man I spoke with called you “ambassadors of song,” and said that you learn a new song from every place you perform. Can you describe how that balance is maintained?

    Yes, well, it’s very much a deliberate policy. There is a core of the traditional Welsh pieces; we like to sing them and it’s a tradition that we’re trying to keep alive. But we also do a lot of gospel singing, and we also sing songs that were made famous by Elvis Presley, and songs from the West End shows in London. So when we perform in theaters and cathedrals in England, we generally put on a mix of things: traditional Welsh material but lots of other things too, something to suit all tastes as much as we can. 

    We also have a competition for “Young Welsh Singer of the Year,” which has been going on for forty-five years or so. Some very famous people have taken part. Every year we run that, and it helps put young singers on the path to making their way in a solo career.

    What interest do younger people have in the choir? Are there younger members?

    There are some younger members, but as is the case with most Welsh male voice choirs, we’re mostly fifty-plus, and a lot of us are seventy-plus. It is something that men tend to take up when they’re older, because when you have a young family and you’re bringing up children, the rehearsal schedule is daunting, as well as traveling to perform. And then some young people think of this as music they’re not interested in; they listen to whatever’s popular.

    In the Unites States, we’ve seen in some people a desire to return to more traditional styles of church music. I wonder whether there will be a revival of traditional chapel music, even within those more evangelical churches, at some point.

    Well, these things are inevitably somewhat cyclical. In religion there are revivals, and then a fading away, and then another revival. So perhaps it will be the same with interest in this music, or with this music being a part of Welsh Christianity.

    Can you describe the history of the repertoire? And why the focus on men singing – I associate that very much with Wales, but why is that?

    You know, if we were starting from where we are now, we probably would be thinking of starting a mixed choir – that’s where the culture is. But the repertoire that we have is a male repertoire; the tradition, which was picked up in the 1930s, was of men gathering together to sing. It came out of the church and chapel tradition, and also out of the songs of the mines. Most people back then led a fairly basic life. People had to make do with what they had. The working conditions were poor, and the housing a hundred years ago in my area was fairly basic. People managed without things we take for granted now. The music grew out of that.

    That’s what our choir is built on. What has changed down the years has often been a reflection of the new musical directors. One had us record two albums with the band of the Royal Marines. Another brought in some of the music that Elvis Presley made. Another had us singing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which was very poignant. And now we have a new musical director who came in just this year, he’s quite a young man; we will see where he wants to go. He has ideas: we’re about to start practicing for a flash mob! We wait with interest and excitement to see what repertoire he will introduce in the years ahead.

    Some of my friends who are involved in choral singing describe the first couple of times that they started singing together again after the Covid lockdowns as really emotionally intense. Did you have that experience as well?

    I certainly did. It’s one thing singing in your bedroom into your iPhone, but it’s definitely a long way second-best to being in a group with friends you’ve known for twenty years. When you are singing together, you’re picking up the pitch from one another and you’re getting support from one another. We’re not individually great singers, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. There’s nothing that can compete with being with the men, and singing, and supporting each other. Zoom did keep us in contact with one another, but there’s a definite joy in being back with everybody.

    Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but immediately next door to the chapel where we rehearse there happens to be a pub. When the rehearsal is finished, we move next door, and we sit around and we put the world to rights, and we talk about the choir and where it should be going. That’s an integral part of what it means to be in the choir: there’s this camaraderie that we’ve talked about. When you’re in a foreign country and things go wrong as they sometimes do – people fall ill, people lose things – we close ranks and help each other out. That’s part of what it means to be in what we would call an extended family.

    What do you hope will be carried forward from this legacy to the next generation? 

    One of the most important things is this sense of family: we all contribute in whatever way we can, as our talents and capabilities allow. I think it would be a terrible shame if the tradition of Welsh male voice choirs were to fade away. Wales is often referred to as a land of song. And we’ve produced some fine singers – the likes of Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey. So it’s a tough act to follow, but our new musical director has plans to do more work with the local schools and colleges. I think it’s a happy accident of the pandemic that in the next few years we might find ourselves doing fewer showpiece concerts abroad, and committing more to community-based work with schools, colleges, and local young people, having the chance to show them this history to give them a sense of who they are.

    If we can go into the schools and show young people this music, they might just become more interested in their own musical history. We are a small country, but I think we should build on the things which are our strengths. Wales does count itself strong on community links, and caring for extended families, and it does care about its reputation as a land of song. We aspire to keep that torch lit for music.

    Contributed By Stephen Pearson Stephen Pearson

    Stephen Pearson was the events manager of the Morriston Orpheus Choir for eight years.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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