Morfydd Owen’s high achievements as a composer and performer, her movie-star looks, mercurial personality and mysterious death have all combined to ensure her posterity as the great lost hope of Welsh music. As we move into a New Year when many commemorations are planned to mark the centenary of her passing on 7 September 2018, I’m grateful to Angela Slater for this invitation to launch Illuminate’s blog series about women composers by reflecting on a remarkable creative artist whom I’ve been researching for the past 35 years.
Born in Treforest, Glamorgan, on 1 October 1891, Morfydd was considered a prodigy when she went to the piano of her own accord at the age of four and started composing at six. She followed the traditional Welsh apprenticeship of chapel and eisteddfod performances before entering University College, Cardiff, to study with David Evans as first holder of the Caradog Scholarship,1909-12. Morfydd played Grieg’s Piano Concerto in 1911 as well as hearing 20 of her own compositions performed in Departmental concerts. These scores were already unusual for a Welsh composer. All Morfydd's Cardiff songs set English words, for example, rather than Welsh; Mirage dabbles in whole tones; The Nightingale has a waywardly experimental vocal line, and Sea Drift, a scene for voice and orchestra, was written 16 years before the Welsh National Orchestra (now the BBC National Orchestra of Wales) came into being. To Our Lady of Sorrows, Morfydd’s finest song, also dates from this period, its craftsmanship and emotional intensity marking it out as a particularly remarkable achievement for a 20-year-old undergraduate in early 20th-century Wales.
Morfydd might well have become a teacher herself if not for a chance connection with Eliot Crawshay-Williams, the Liberal MP for Leicester. Recognising the quality of her work, he persuaded Morfydd - and her parents - that she should come to London to study composition with Frederick Corder at the Royal Academy of Music, 1912-17. Morfydd won every available prize at the end of her first year, including the Charles Lucas Silver Medal for her orchestral Nocturne. Hailed by Corder as one of the most individual student works ever heard, the impressionistic Nocturne was premiered at Queen's Hall in Langham Place in 1913, followed by a tone-poem based on the folk tune Morfa Rhuddlan [The Marsh of Rhuddlan] in 1914 and excerpts from a cantata, Pro Patria, in 1915. The critic of the Morning Post observed: ‘It would seem that in the process of time Wales, in the person of this clever young lady, will supply, is supplying a modern composer of whom much will be heard’ (1).
During her time at the Academy, Morfydd Owen became a member of Charing Cross Chapel and began to move in influential London Welsh circles. Her career was advanced by concert invitations and composition commissions from other Liberal MPs including David Lloyd George, H. Haydn Jones and J. Herbert Lewis, and she collaborated with Mrs Herbert Lewis to transcribe and arrange Welsh folksongs that she collected with a phonograph in Flintshire and Ceredigion. Tunes that are as familiar to us today as Gwn Dafydd Ifan [David Evans’ Gun] and Hela Llwynog [Fox Hunting] might well have been lost without this pioneering work.
The influence of folksong can also be seen upon Morfydd’s own composition such as the songs William and To Violets with their modal melodies and recurrent refrains. Other expressions of Welshness in exile include the Welsh-language settings Suo-Gân [Lullaby] and Gweddi y Pechadur [The Sinner’s Prayer] and the Four Welsh Impressions, piano miniatures that evoke favourite Welsh landscapes and close friends: Glantaf, Nant-y-Ffrith, Llanbryn-mair (sometimes called Waiting for Eirlys, a reference to Eirlys Lloyd Williams, an Academy contemporary) and Beti Bwt (Morfydd’s nickname for her best friend Elizabeth Lloyd, with whom she shared a flat in Hampstead, 1914-16).
There are wonderful vignettes of Morfydd in Hampstead: her penchant for riding in motorcycle sidecars and the flamboyant clothes and gargantuan hats that she wore to picnics on the Heath. She and Elizabeth moved in Bohemian circles that included D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound and Prince Felix Yusupov, Rasputin’s assassin. A psychiatry student, Alexis Chodak-Gregory, was reputed also to be a Russian Prince and asked Morfydd to marry him, attending services at Charing Cross to prove his devotion and saying that he would not be kept dangling. Morfydd applied successfully to the University of Wales for a grant of £100 to study in St Petersburg and consider how folk music might influence the musical development of Wales, but the project never materialised because of the Great War, then the Bolshevik Revolution, and her relationship with Alexis also broke up. Instead, she remained at the Academy and began taking singing as well as composition lessons. Morfydd’s songs give a real sense of her voice and performance style - a lyric mezzo with a knack for pianissimo mezza voce – and she gave concerts in Bath and Oxford before making her professional début at the Aeolian Hall in New Bond Street on 10 January 1917.
1917 was also the year in which Morfydd married the Freudian psycho-analyst, Ernest Jones. Their clandestine wedding at Marylebone Register Office on 6 February – barely a month after her Aeolian Hall recital – was attended by none of her family and friends and continues to exert a potent fascination. Jones did not approve of his wife performing in public, so her diary soon dwindled dramatically. Her compositional output was also affected by serving as her husband’s secretary and proof-reader and organising the maids and meals at their West End flat and cottage in Sussex. These changes were particularly ill-timed because Morfydd was just beginning to achieve widespread recognition through publications by Boosey and Chappell and performances by leading soloists such as Robert Radford and Ben Davies at the Promenade Concerts and London Palladium. ‘Oh dear!’ she wrote to Eliot Crawshay-Williams on 22 July 1918: ‘Married life doesn’t seem to me to be quite the easiest thing to adapt oneself to, and has taken up all my time’ (2).
Morfydd’s time was actually about to run out altogether for she died six weeks after posting that letter on 7 September 1918 aged 26. The circumstances of the appendectomy performed at the home of her parents-in-law in Mumbles on the Gower Peninsula continue to raise more questions than they answer. Why was the operation carried out in a house when a major hospital was only moments away? Why was there no post mortem? And why was she buried without a death certificate? Official paperwork was filed a fortnight after the funeral had taken place at Oystermouth Cemetery.
Morfydd’s gravestone also contains errors and riddles, notably the German-language epitaph from Goethe’s Faust: ‘Das Unbeschreibliche / Hier ist’s getan’ [The indescribable / Here it is done]. Ernest Jones explained to Gilbert Tritschler, his wife’s first biographer, that the quotation meant ‘the pain & frightfulness of tearing two devoted people apart was indescribable, literally’ (3). But doesn’t it also hint at parallels with the Faustian narrative and a tragedy more multi-layered than may ever be known?
David Evans described Morfydd Owen as ‘an incalculable loss to Welsh music - in fact, I know of no young British composer who showed such promise’ (4). Frederick Corder recalled her ‘refined and beautiful talent’ (5), while the composer E. T. Davies wrote of ‘a grievous loss to Wales: here was a musician of outstanding genius cut off on the threshold of a career that would have shed lustre on her native country, and that might, quite well, have given a new direction to Welsh musical thought and endeavour’ (6).
Was Morfydd ‘an incalculable loss’? Well, she was certainly the pivotal figure in Welsh music at the turn of the twentieth century and one of the most versatile musicians that Wales has ever produced as a composer, singer, pianist and ethnomusicologist. By the time of her premature death, she had already produced a significant body of high-quality, meticulously-crafted work: some 250 surviving scores for the stage, orchestra, chorus, chamber and solo instruments, songs, hymns, folksong transcriptions and arrangements.
Morfydd’s songs are her most striking and original compositions: minimal settings like A Song of Sorrow and The Weeping Babe; deft patter songs tailored to the commercial market like Patrick’s Your Boy and For Jeannie’s Sake; ballads in the polished Edwardian style of Frank Bridge and Roger Quilter such as God made a lovely garden and In Cradle Land; the swooping melodic lines of Slumber-Song of the Madonna and Suo-Gân, and the dramatic, almost violent vocal outbursts of To Our Lady of Sorrows, La Tristesse and Gweddi y Pechadur. All are true singers’ songs, requiring technique, intellect and artistry to bring them off in performance.
The orchestral music has more sense of work in progress about it with borrowings from Wagner, Sibelius, Elgar, Debussy and Mussorgsky amongst others, but there is a definite flair for instrumentation and the deployment of large forces. And the surviving fragments of incidental music to The Passing of Branwen suggest that Morfydd’s future may have lain in film music and opera, a generation before Grace Williams’ Blue Scar of 1949 and The Parlour of 1961.
Whatever a fuller lifespan might have meant, Morfydd Owen’s perpetuity seems assured by a growing amount of music in repertory. The Threnody for strings and a selection of vocal and piano music has been published by the Welsh Music Information Centre (now Tŷ Cerdd) since 1991, leading to performances in Europe, Asia, Canada and the USA plus a burgeoning discography by artists such as Helen Field, Elin Manahan Thomas and Brian Ellsbury. Significant revivals have included the Nocturne in Dallas in 1986; Pro Patria in Cardiff in 1992; and Morfa Rhuddlan at the Gregynog Festival in 2014, the first public performance in over 70 years. BBC2 and S4C (Channel 4 Wales) commissioned 60-minute television documentaries to mark the centenary of the composer’s birth in 1991, and there have been more recent broadcasts on BBC Radio 3, including performances and features for International Women’s Day, Music Matters and Live in Concert. I wrote Morfydd’s first entry for Grove’s Dictionary in 1994, the same year in which my bilingual ‘life in pictures’ of the composer, Yr Eneth Ddisglair Annwyl / Never So Pure a Sight, was published by Gomer Press. Her life and music have also inspired Welsh-language novels by Marion Eames and Eigra Lewis Roberts and dance theatre productions by Geoff Moore’s Moving Being and Sally Marie’s Sweetshop Revolution.
The centenary of the composer’s death on 7 September 2018 offers fresh opportunities to raise awareness. The Welsh Folk-Song Society has asked me to create an illustrated presentation about Morfydd’s work as an ethnomusicologist when the National Eisteddfod is held at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay during the first week of August. Planning for concerts, talks, exhibitions, radio and television programmes, publications and blue plaques is also well underway. I’m delighted that Morfydd Owen’s Four Welsh Impressions will be performed as part of Illuminate’s first season in Oxford (9 March), Stafford and Birmingham (10 March), Cardiff (11 March) and Brighton (20 April) and am looking forward to giving an introductory talk before the Cardiff concert.
Should you feel inspired to become involved yourselves, Morfydd’s published scores are available from Discover Welsh Music (http://www.tycerddshop.com/products/sheet-music/morfydd-owen) as well as the last remaining copies of Never So Pure a Sight which is now out of print (http://www.tycerddshop.com/product/morfydd-owen-never-so-pure-a-sight-a-life-in-pictures). And there are treasures still to discover among Morfydd’s unpublished manuscripts at Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives. Consult the online catalogue here (https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/special-collections/explore/collection/morfydd-owen) and follow @MorfyddOwen100 on Twitter and Facebook for all the latest updates throughout centenary year!
© Rhian Davies, 2018
(1) Morning Post, 15 July 1914, 11.
(2) Morfydd Owen to Eliot Crawshay-Williams, 22 July 1918 (NLW Eliot Crawshay-Williams MS G28/33).
(3) Ernest Jones to Gilbert Tritschler, 24 April 1957 (NLW MS 18247D).
(4) South Wales Daily News, 9 November 1918, 2.
(5) Frederick Corder, ‘Obituary: Morfydd Owen’, R.A.M. Club Magazine, 54 (September 1918), 14.
(6) E. T. Davies, ’Morfydd Owen’, May 1956 (NLW MS 18247D).
Rhian Davies was awarded her Ph.D. by Bangor University in 1999 for a thesis entitled ‘A refined and beautiful talent: Morfydd Owen (1891-1918)’. She began researching Morfydd in 1982 and has since revealed many lost narratives in the history of Welsh music through publications, broadcasts and performances at the Gregynog Festival where she became Artistic Director in 2006.
Dr Helen Thomas