Skip to content

Cwm Rhondda


I am almost finished with Neal Stephenson’s blockbuster science fiction novel Seveneves, and I will have a review of it soon. Last night, 50 pages from the end of this 866-page novel, I was touched by one of Stephenson’s erudite little details. Some characters sing a hymn, and Stephenson identifies the hymn tune as the Welsh hymn “Cwn Rhondda.” This hymn has somehow managed to survive the calamity that strikes Earth in the first paragraph of the novel.

Every organist knows that “Cwm Rhondda” is one of the great majestic Welsh hymns that often are sung at royal events at Westminster. Stephenson’s mentioning the hymn gave me an irresistible compulsion to hear it sung. I put the book down and went to YouTube to shop for a good performance. There are some terrible ones, to be sure. The good ones, and there aren’t many, are either from Wales or Westminster. This led me to reflect yet again on something I have long known: Americans simply cannot sing. There are American choirs that can sing. But Americans as a whole cannot, or won’t, sing. We even shame people who sing too enthusiastically. When I was a child, regularly dragged to church, there was a woman in the congregation who sang a little louder than everyone else, Cornelia. Everyone made fun of her singing.

The Welsh are different. Not only do they have a living culture of choral singing, they have a living culture. American culture, in so many ways, is dead, and our inability to sing together is a consequence of that. Singing together is of the commons, and we American individualists aren’t much into common things. At the big sporting events, do we stand as one people and skillfully sing our national anthem together? Of course not. Some popular singer sings it solo, and part of the sport is to see what sort of patented personal spin this singer can give to the anthem to try to make it water-cooler talk the next day.

I can remember only once in my life when I have heard a large group of Americans actually sing. That was around Christmas 1996, in San Francisco. There is an annual event in Davies Symphony Hall called “Christmas Pipe Dreams.” The hall is jam packed. Everyone sings Christmas favorites, accompanied by the hall’s enormous organ and perhaps a brass choir. They make games of it. The director may divide the audience by counties — Marin, Alameda, San Francisco — and see who can outsing each other. I am proud to say that I am an American who can sing, and at this event I sang at the very top of my lungs and yet could not hear my own voice because the sound was so enormous. Does this mean that the San Francisco Bay Area, unlike most of America, has a living culture and a respect for the commons? I would say so.

Anyway, here’s a link to a YouTube performance of “Cwm Rhondda” in a church in Cardiff packed with Welsh people. I believe the BBC made the video, though I don’t know what the occasion was. Listen carefully to the Welsh articulation of the vowels and consonants. There is nowhere in the world I’d rather hear English spoken than in Wales. I have visited Welsh friends in Pontypridd several times. “Cwn Rhondda” actually was written for a hymn festival in Pontypridd in 1905, which makes the hymn about 110 years old.

They sing the last few lines of the hymn in Welsh. Part of what we are seeing here is the surviving Celtic spirit. Listen to the recording with a good headset if you have it. The recording quality is excellent. The choir and congregation nail the details. Note the strength of the altos. I’m guessing that most young Welsh women learn early on whether they are better suited to be sopranos or altos and that they learn part-singing.

“Cwm Rhondda” in Cardiff

And to prove that the church in Cardiff is not an anomaly in Wales, here’s a congregation in Swansea similarly nailing it:

“Cwn Rhondda” in Swansea

A musical footnote: The congregation here is singing with the church’s choir. The choir is certainly well trained and well disciplined, but note how the congregation fully participates and how the congregation is paying just as much attention to the director as the choir. You can see this in the full stops at the end of verses (which the director is certainly controlling) and in the director’s ability to control the slowing tempo and fermata before the last line. The organist is probably watching the director on a video link. And by the way, that fermata before the last line is not just a director with good taste. It’s actually written into most arrangements. And, as long as I’m being a musical nerd, note the musical drama that occurs in the next-to-last line. On the words “Feed me till I want no more,” the tenors and second sopranos hammer the same repeating note with an also-repeating trochaic rhythm. While that note is repeating, the basses step down six chromatic steps, with all voices landing firmly on the dominant, with a full measure to move into the dominant seventh, followed, of course, by the last line and the inevitable return to the tonic. It is brilliant choral writing.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *