An awful lot seems to have happened since Dr Angela Elizabeth Slater asked me to publish the first-ever composer blog about Morfydd Owen for the Illuminate Women’s Music website on 3 January 2018.As Illuminate moves into a second year with performances of Morfydd’s 1915 ‘Piano Trio’ taking place in the USA and UK, it’s a pleasure to reflect on events that marked the centenary of the composer’s death last September and to preview some of those to come.
I met Angela by chance when we were both invited by Dr Rhiannon Mathias to give papers at the First International Conference on Women’s Work in Music at Bangor University in September 2017. The timing really couldn’t have been better: Angela was planning to launch Illuminate while I was revisiting my Doctoral research with a view to programming a year-long commemoration of the centenary. By the end of the conference, we had agreed that Morfydd’s Four Welsh Impressions for solo piano would benefit both projects by forming part of Késia Decoté’s repertoire for Illuminate’s inaugural concerts in Stafford, Cardiff and Brighton (10, 11 and 20 April 2018).
2 Késia Decoté playing Morfydd Owen’s Four Welsh Impressions
Publication of the blog gave an immediate sense of the level of interest to come. Within a day, BBC Cymru Fyw, the live-stream Welsh-language news channel, had picked up the story and turned it into a feature piece, Cofio Morfydd, cerddor lliwgar y cymoedd [Remembering Morfydd, colourful musician of the valleys] that reached the top three news headlines in Wales. Requests for interviews, repertoire suggestions and programme notes soon started arriving via @MorfyddOwen100, the Facebook and Twitter channels that I set up to publicise and archive centenary activity and, by February, it was clear that Morfydd was becoming a full-time job in her own right. This had some practical implications, given that my usual job is to programme the Gregynog Festival, the oldest extant classical music festival in Wales, but happily, we had just enough time to retailor our 2018 season so that we could present a programme of events in Mid Wales as usual, focusing on Morfydd Owen’s family roots in the Montgomeryshire village of Llanbryn-mair, while also leaving me the flexibility to respond to other invitations and opportunities. And so @MorfyddOwen100 evolved into a series of concerts, talks, exhibitions and special events in the UK from January to December 2018, plus other performances and broadcasts worldwide that I was able to assist via e-mail and social media.
Highlights in Wales included two ceremonies over centenary weekend to unveil blue plaques on the houses where Morfydd Owen was born (68 Park Street, Treforest), and in which she died (Craig-y-Môr, Plunch Lane, Oystermouth). Creating and delivering these occasions, including arrangements for performers, audience members and television camera crews, kept us all so busy in the moment that it is good to have quieter time now to realise how significant they were. Few people can ever been paid such a compliment, let alone a musician who died when she was just 26 years of age. There were large attendances at centenary lectures for the Royal Institution of South Wales and Oystermouth Historical Society at Swansea University (6 September 2018); the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth (11 September 2018); Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives (12 November 2018), and the University of South Wales’ Treforest Campus when Morfydd Owen was the subject of the Ursula Masson Memorial Lecture for the Centre for Gender Studies in Wales and the Women’s Archive of Wales (International Women’s Day, 8 March 2019).
Other audiences were reached through frequent television and radio broadcasts, including a 90-minute drama by Boom Cymru for S4C (Channel 4 Wales) that was given a preview screening by BAFTA Cymru in Cardiff (25 October 2018) prior to broadcast (16 December 2018). During a year of #Sheroes and #Herstories, Morfydd Owen’s life and example also came to symbolise something more than musical achievement alone and there were requests for interviews for current affairs programmes as well as those specialising in music and the arts. Morfydd was chosen, for instance, as one of five inspirational Welsh women to mark one hundred years since the Representation of the People Act by BBC Radio Wales’ flagship news programme, Good Morning Wales(8 February 2018). Rhondda Cynon Taf Borough Council also announced that it would be honouring three women including Morfydd with commemorative panels in local libraries with the intention of telling their stories so that future generations of women in the area may be inspired to follow in their footsteps. The Morfydd Owen panel will be unveiled when a new library building has been completed at Llys Cadwyn, Pontypridd.
But the most impactful event of centenary year must surely have been the fine performance of Morfydd Owen’s Nocturne by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Thomas Søndergård, at the BBC Proms on 20 July 2018. This was the first time that the work had been heard in London since it was premièred at Queen’s Hall, Langham Place, by the Royal Academy of Music Orchestra, conducted by Alexander Mackenzie, on 12 December 1913, and the performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio Cymru as well as being recorded for delayed television transmission by BBC Four. What a whirlwind of a day that was, including an interview by John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4’s Today; a Proms Plus talk with Steph Power and Petroc Trelawny that was edited to form the interval feature during the live performance on BBC Radio 3; and concert commentary for BBC Radio Cymru that was broadcast live from within the Royal Albert Hall itself.
Nocturne was heard alongside two scores by Lili Boulanger, who also died prematurely in 1918 at the age of 24; and she and Morfydd Owen were two of 21 women whose music was represented at last year’s Proms – that is, 15 per cent of the 133 composers whose work was heard during the season as a whole. According to the annual survey conducted by Women in Music, these figures were substantially better than the previous best of 12 female composers in 2015. Proms Director David Pickard has also pledged to increase the number of commissions so that male and female composers are treated equally by 2022.
Nocturne was greeted by rave reviews in the British and French press and, believe you me, when Richard Morrison concludes his Times review with ‘More Morfydd soon please’ after you have sought to draw attention to the significance of a score for 35 years, it feels like a really good day at the office. The Proms performance has since been rebroadcast by ABC Radio in Sydney (28 July 2018), Radio Monalisa in Amsterdam (26 and 29 August 2018), and as part of Mexico City’s leading classical music programme, Música en Red Mayor, presented by Jose-Maria Alvarez (4 September 2018). Nocturne was also featured by Steve Lamacq on BBC Radio 6 Music and by Huw Stephens and Clemency Burton-Hill on BBC Radio 3’s podcast Classical Fix, making this one of the year’s highest-profile events for Welsh culture in terms of impact and reach. A cumulative audience of millions must have been able to access the concert itself, plus the live, delayed and on-demand broadcasts via BBC radio, television and online, and the subsequent relays by other radio stations.
From one major national festival to another and it was standing room only at the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay for a presentation about Morfydd Owen’s pioneering work as an ethnomusicologist as part of Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru’s new strand of classical music programming called #Encore (7 August 2018). The Welsh Folk-Song Society generously made it possible for me to include live performances of Morfydd’s rarely-heard transcriptions and arrangements of Welsh and Russian folksongs by Siân James and Steffan Rhys Hughes, accompanied by Rhiannon Pritchard, as illustrations to my script and the presentation also served as the Society’s Amy Parry-Williams Memorial Lecture for 2018. We repeated the event at Llanbryn-mair as part of Gregynog Festival's Morfydd in Montogomeryshire programme (29 September 2018) when it was emotional to do so within sight of the framed portrait of Morfydd Owen that her father presented to the village after her death and which still hangs in the entrance hall of the Community Centre. Llywelyn Ifan Jones also made an effective transcription for solo harp of Morfydd Owen’s haunting piano miniature Glantaf that he premièred during his Gregynog Festival recitals in partnership with Live Music Now.
9 Llywelyn Ifan Jones playing his transcription of Morfydd Owen’s Glantaf
Two new scores took Morfydd Owen’s legacy in fresh and imaginative directions by sampling her songs. Psychohistory, a sound installation commissioned by Swansea International Festival from Locus (Richard James of Gorky’s Zygotic Monkey and Angharad Van Rijswijk of Accü) for Swansea Museum (22 September-21 October 2018), drew on a fragment from A mother’s lullaby; while Robin Haigh’s score ‘Morfydd’, premièred at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, by the Berkeley Ensemble (22 November 2018), used the vocal line of The lamb as the only melodic material throughout. Haigh's score was one of eight commissioned as part of Acclerate, PRS for Music's inaugural career development programme, and received a second performance as part of a Tŷ Cerdd Night Music showcase at St David’s Hall, Cardiff (9 April 2019).
Significant revivals of Morfydd Owen’s vocal, choral, chamber, piano and orchestral works took place throughout centenary year, including seven songs by Katherine Aregood Crusi and Keith Trievel at the Trinity Lutheran Church, Reading, Pennsylvania, USA (2 May 2018);Threnody for strings played on tour from Beaumaris to Milford Haven by the Welsh Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Anthony Hose (May-October 2018); a full recital of Morfydd Owen’s vocal and piano music, given by Gail Pearson and Christopher Williams at Cardiff University School of Music (13 November 2018), and Nocturne played by the Philomusica of Aberystwyth, conducted by David Russell Hulme, at Aberystwyth Arts Centre (8 December 2018).
Cardiff University honoured Morfydd as an alumna during concerts by its Symphony Orchestra (24 November 2018)and Chamber Choir (14 December 2018); and the Choir has since toured three of Morfydd’s choral works to China (June 2019).Morfydd’s scores have also been championed by the student musicians of Stetson University, Florida, USA; the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiffl and the Royal Academy of Music and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London (part of the #VenusBlazing initiative). After 35 years’ research, I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to see the composer reach a tipping-point where personal lobbying is no longer required from me for her music to be programmed, and long may it continue.
11 The Ethel Smyth Trio and Prism Trio playing Morfydd Owen’s ‘Piano Trio’
Which brings me to the current sequence of performances of Morfydd Owen’s 1915 ‘Piano Trio’, programmed by Illuminate Women’s Music and given by the Prism Trio as part of the Music Marathon at the Women Composers Festival of Hartford, Connecticut, USA (30 March 2019), and the Ethel Smyth Trio in Brighton (30 August 2019), York (7 September 2019) and Stafford (14 September 2019). Angela Elizabeth Slater and I will be giving a pre-concert talk in York and look forward to seeing you there. Other performances of Morfydd’s music are already being planned as far ahead as September 2020, so do follow the @MorfyddOwen100 accounts on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest news.
Meantime, Zoë Smith has just released a recording of the Four Welsh Impressions as part of a disc of Welsh piano music on the Tŷ Cerdd label;and a few copies of my ‘life in pictures’ of Morfydd Owen, Never So Pure A Sight, are also available from Tŷ Cerdd. Morfydd’s published music can be obtained from Tŷ Cerdd and Oriana Publications; while the main collection of her manuscripts is held at Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives.
I’ll end with some reviews of Nocturne at the Proms that speak for themselves and I trust will convince others to programme Morfydd Owen’s music in future. Do be in touch if there is anything I can do to help; and with sincere thanks – diolch o galon- to all who have helped in so many ways already.
Alongside Schumann’s Fourth Symphony and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, we had two works by Lili Boulanger and the Nocturneby the little known Morfydd Owen … Only twenty-six when she died, she left behind a substantial corpus which is too infrequently performed. What stands out in her Nocturneis the beautiful writing for woodwind, subtle but virtuosic, and the advanced nature of the orchestration as a whole, hinting at works that might have matched Strauss if only she had had the time … At fifteen minutes long, it’s a work we could do with hearing more regularly in the concert hall.
Morfydd Owen's Nocturne in D flat major (1913) … should transform perceptions about Welsh (and British) music history … Unlike far too many supposedly ‘lost’ composers, Owen's legacy was substantial. Her reputation doesn't rest on sentimentality or gender alone, but on the hard evidence of her music itself.
The Nocturne is sophisticated and highly original … Such deftness of design, such precise orchestration, and such beauty … unhurried and clear of purpose … its serene confidence is highly distinctive: Owen most definitely had a voice of her own, though she was only 22 when it was completed. BBC NOW should make this Nocturne part of their standard repertoire … Owen's music speaks for itself regardless of reputation.
Morfydd Owen’s tragically short life is rendered even more poignant by a haunting photograph of a beautiful young woman gazing confidently out at you. She wrote Nocturne in 1913, and it is, in our global village, a powerful reminder how a couple of hundred miles can make a world of difference. As with Lili Boulanger, there’s an element of Impressionism, although from a darker, grey-green palette. The various influences – Delius, northern Europe, Russia – might not sound so assimilated, but Owen had a freakishly astute orchestral ear, clearly knew the power of a good tune and was an imaginative manipulator of mood, all aspects of her musicianship given full expression by this beautifully engaged, spacious performance.
Morfydd Owen was a revelation to me. The only thing more astonishing than the quality of her orchestral Nocturne is the fact that she wrote 250 other pieces in her 27-year life … Performed for the first time in London since its 1913 première, the Nocturne begins with very French flourishes for woodwind, then unfurls the most gorgeous melody. More Morfydd soon please.
© Rhian Davies, 2019
The Times, 23 July 2018.
A BBC Proms press release suggests that ‘over 16 million people watched the BBC Proms on TV’ in the UK alone in 2017, see: https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/mediapacks/proms-2018.
Dr Helen Thomas