‘The mission of Tŷ Cerdd – Music Centre Wales is to support, develop and promote the creation, performance and empowering experience of music, both in and of Wales. In so doing, we aspire to reach people in local communities, nationally and internationally, promoting excellence through vision, participation and training … Tŷ Cerdd – Music Centre Wales brings a world of music to Wales and the music of Wales to the world.’
Wales has long prided itself on being a nation of bards and singers, poets and musicians. From full-throated Valleys choirs to finespun yearnings of the triple harp, music, it seems, like a love of language, is in the national soul – and its passionate sharing in chapel and beyond has helped bind communities together through good times and bad for countless generations. You might think, then, that the Land of Song would take care to celebrate its composers and afford them every opportunity to grow, develop and, well, be heard. But no, here as elsewhere, Wales’s ‘classical’ composers (for want of a better term) – especially those writing outside cosy conceptions of Welsh music – often struggle to be taken seriously beyond a small circle of enthusiasts. Few Welsh or Wales-based composers either dead or living are familiar figures within our borders, never mind further afield. Performances are hard to come by, and only a handful of composers get the chance to develop an audience for their own or others’ work.
Generating a profile for Welsh composers of all stylistic stripes is obviously an important key to cultural recognition and there is no reason why being a small nation (relatively speaking) should pose a hindrance on the international stage. Witness the success of the Baltic States and Scandinavia for instance; Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania each have fantastic archive and resource hubs, which work together to promote their nations’ composers under the aegis of the Baltic Music Information Centre – whilst the eagerness of the Finnish Music Information Centre to shower would-be programmers worldwide with scores and recordings is legendary in new music circles.
Here in the UK, we have struggled to set up an equivalent promotional resource. Scotland has arguably been best served to date, but in recent times – especially in an era of massive cuts to public funding – the overall picture has not been pretty. In 2008, Sound and Music was set up as an umbrella organisation, replacing the onetime Society for the Promotion of New Music and re-siting its records arm, the British Music Information Centre, to Huddersfield University Library; a move which promised expert re-organisation of the archive, but which has so far hardly served to improve its general accessibility. An embarrassingly public furore over the running of SAM in 2012 has prompted renewed vigour and purpose, however, and whilst it is too early to tell whether this will lead to a permanent opening of doors for composers or audiences, the signs are promising, with a wide expansion of creative opportunities and an increased engagement with the public regarding different kinds of contemporary music.
In Wales, Tŷ Cerdd has existed for over forty years (joining the newly-formed International Association of Music Information Centres in 1986). It has done much excellent work, particularly in the field of amateur music-making, with some 300 affiliated societies and ensembles nationwide.* But, as far as many Welsh composers are concerned, up until very recently, Tŷ Cerdd too had for some time been in dire need of overhaul. So the appointment of the determined and enterprising Gwyn L. Williams as director and all-round new broom in 2013 prompted a surge of hope for the future. Indeed, since Williams’s appointment, Tŷ Cerdd is already beginning to repay that optimism, with moves at last to establish a serious national centre for Welsh musicians and composers alike from its offices and very well-regarded recording studio based at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff.
Hearteningly, the number of exciting projects and initiatives offered by Tŷ Cerdd for composers as well as performers is growing, with commissions (like that of Mervyn Burtch for a recent Dylan Thomas celebration by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales) and education outreach work being redoubled alongside efforts to organise and make properly available a huge archive of Welsh scores and recordings going back many years, and to which composers living and working in Wales are invited to contribute. Obviously, new digital and online technology is opening vast new possibilities in terms of promotion and dissemination of music and information, and Williams is keen to take advantage on all levels in order to ‘bring the music of Wales to a world audience.’
So far, Williams’ most striking and ambitious project to bear fruit is the creation of a new record label, Tŷ Cerdd Records, which was launched on June 5 at the Wales Millennium Centre. Designed to complement Tŷ Cerdd’s main function as a ‘one-stop shop’ for composers, performers, promoters and so on, the label builds on the ongoing success of Tŷ Cerdd’s recording studio, and will encompass old and new pieces written by Welsh composers or performed by Welsh musicians based in Wales. As well as existing works and new commissions, the label will feature re-mastered works from archival recordings including those held at the Welsh Music Archive at Tŷ Cerdd, with revenue generated from sales to be reinvested in Welsh music.
The debut recording was released on the day of the launch. Bagatelles, by Daniel Jones and Béla Bartók, is performed by the brilliant and much loved international concert pianist Llŷr Williams. It is the first commercial recording of Jones’ affecting and unashamably ‘old-fashioned’ take on this quietly potent form, featured here alongside the spikier, more intense legacy of the elder Hungarian (Bartók’s Bagatelles were composed in 1908. Coincidentally, he also visited Wales – in 1922 to perform in a concert, staying at the then home of the English composer Peter Warlock in Montgomeryshire). Jones wrote three sets of bagatelles, respectively from 1943-5, 1948-53 and in 1955, comprising 24 pieces in all – and this CD includes a further two hitherto unpublished.
The four remaining discs in this initial batch from Tŷ Cerdd will encompass a variety of genres and performers, and are due to be released as follows this year:
Seven Poems of Stillness by Hilary Tann, will be released during the Gregynog Festival (on now until June 29). Performed by cellist Guy Johnston, it will include archive recordings of R.S. Thomas reading his own poetry.
Songs of Wales, performed by the celebrated Welsh tenor Stuart Burrows, will be released at the National Eisteddfod in Llanelli on August 4. The disc comprises previously unheard and important analogue recordings by Burrows, digitally re-mastered at Tŷ Cerdd to ensure their survival and to make them available through the label.
Under Milk Wood: an Opera. John Metcalf’s newly composed operatic adaptation of Dylan Thomas’ radio play will be released on October 27; the exact centenary of the iconic poet’s birth.
Continuing the Dylan Thomas celebrations and more, a disc of William Mathias’ music will include a performance of the composer’s setting of Thomas’s Ceremony After a Fire Raid and his Piano Concerto No. 2, recently recorded live by pianist Llŷr Williams and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Grant Llewellyn. This CD will be released in November when Mathias (who died far too young in 1992) would have turned 80, and to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.
Tŷ Cerdd Records is a laudable and exciting venture, with an impressive spread so far of new and old pieces across a range of genres and more approachable styles. If the twin excellence of Llŷr Williams’ performance and the production quality of this first solo piano disc is anything to go by, listeners are in for a treat – as well as the opportunity to learn more about some unduly neglected Welsh composers past and present.
Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect any ‘new music’ composer to become a household name these days, as so many people labour under the misapprehension that new music is ‘difficult’ or obscure or – worse – elitist. Certainly it can sound unfamiliar – and perhaps the music of the twentieth century even more so. But surely that is something to rejoice in a time of unrelenting, bland celebrity? In any case, new music can hugely repay a curious listen, and speak directly to our lives in all their mystery and mundanity. Not just the general public and the media, however, but the classical music establishment can suffer from certain types of, shall we say, cultural obstinacy. Overcoming parochialism on the one hand and enthrallment to fashion on the other are just two challenges from all sides which lie ahead for Tŷ Cerdd in promoting Welsh composers at home and abroad. It is not an easy task, but I’m sure it can be done, and much is riding on Tŷ Cerdd’s success for the future of music in Wales.
*representing some 22,000 performers and assisting with grants and advice. Tŷ Cerdd also founded and manages the National Youth Jazz and National Youth Wind Orchestras of Wales, the National Youth Brass Band, National Youth Choirs, and runs the Young Composers project. The organisation is a registered charity funded by the Arts Council of Wales, the Welsh Assembly Government and the PRS Foundation.