Ravishing Blind Harmony

Rhian Davies provides a curtain-raiser for this summer’s Gregynog music festival

Comparatively little has been written about Welsh music during the Georgian period, but it has become clear during research to plan this year’s programming for the Gregynog Music Festival that several significant north Wales composers worked at Vauxhall and Ranelagh, London’s great Georgian Pleasure Gardens. John Parry (Parri Ddall, 1710-1782), the ‘Celebrated Blind Harper of Ruabon’ played at Ranelagh’s famous Rotunda in 1746. Later, John Parry (Bardd Alaw, 1776-1851), a Denbigh-born musician and entrepreneur, was associated with the Vauxhall Gardens from 1809 and became “the principal musical caterer for that delightful summer retreat”.

Elizabeth Randles (1800-1829) of Wrexham, ‘the Little Cambrian Prodigy’, created such a sensation when she performed at the Vauxhall at the age of three that members of the Royal Family wished to adopt her!  Miss Randles appears to be the first Welsh woman composer to have made a professional career, and knowledge of her life and achievement adds context to the distinguished line of countrywomen who have followed her, from Megan Watts-Hughes, Morfydd Owen and Grace Williams to Rhian Samuel and Hilary Tann.

Parri Ddall, Bardd Alaw and Elizabeth Randles all benefited by the patronage of the Williams-Wynn family of Wynnstay, Denbighshire. Watkin Williams-Wynn (4th Baronet, 1749-1789) was the most significant Welsh benefactor of the arts prior to Gwendoline and Margaret Davies of Gregynog and championed the music of Corelli, Geminiani, Avison and Handel as a Director of the Concerts of Antient Music which were held in London from 1776. These performances are considered the prototypes for today’s classical music concerts, and an example will be recreated at Gregynog by members of the Academy of Ancient Music, directed by Pavlo Beznosiuk.

To reflect the fact that Parri Ddall was a triple harp virtuoso, Gregynog Festival will also host the cream of today’s triple harpers with a day school and concert at St Mary’s Church, Ruabon, where he is buried. The event day will feature presentations by Oliver Fairclough on Wynnstay’s artistic heritage, Ann Griffiths on Parri Ddall himself, and Miles Wynn Cato on Parry’s artist son William, the subject of his recent book. William Parry studied with Sir Joshua Reynolds and painted several portraits of his father, which now form part of the collection at National Museum Wales, Cardiff.

Parri Ddall overcame the significant disadvantages of a disability and an impoverished upbringing on the Llŷn Peninsula to forge a successful performance career in Dublin, Oxford and Cambridge as well as in London and Denbighshire as harpist to the Williams-Wynns. Handel admired his playing and Parry is known to have performed the composer’s famous B flat Concerto at Hickford’s Great Room in London in 1741 and in Leeds in 1742.  After hearing Parry play in Cambridge in 1757, the poet Thomas Gray was inspired to turn back and complete his famous work The Bard which had lain unfinished for two years. “Mr Parry has been here,” Gray wrote to his friend William Mason, “and scratched out such ravishing blind harmony, such tunes a thousand years old, with names enough to choke you, as have set all the body a-dancing”.

Highlights from the 2010 Gregynog Festival

8 June: Premièr of Gregynog Festival commission, on a Georgian Pleasure Gardens theme, composed by Huw Watkins, with 21-year-old flautist Adam Walker, newly appointed principal of the London Symphony Orchestra.

10 June: Day school on John Parry (Parri Ddall) at St Mary’s Church, Ruabon, and an evening concert at Gregynog with Robin Huw Bowen, Rhes Ganol, Ann Griffiths and Angharad Evans.

11 June: Dame Emma Kirkby performs a sequence of virtuosic arias written for the soprano Cecilia Young to perform at the Vauxhall Gardens.

12 June: Catrin Finch, the leading Welsh harpist of the present generation will peform music by John Parry (Parri Ddall).

13 June: Academy of Ancient Music, directed by Pavlo Beznosiuk.

18 June: The Musicians of the Globe give the world première performance of their new Elizabethan programme, All in a Garden Green.

19 June: International pianist, Noriko Ogawa, combines Romantic piano repertoire with contemporary works from her native Japan.

20 June: Choral concert presented by The Tallis Scholars, comprising glorious settings of the Song of Songs by Renaissance masters including Palestrina, Vivanco and de Rore.

Parry’s publications are rightly regarded as significant early collections of traditional music: Antient British Music (1742), A Collection of Welsh, English and Scotch Airs (1761), and British Harmony (1781). The 1761 volume includes his landmark ‘Four new Lessons for the Harp or Harpsichord’ which are still widely played today. A manuscript compiled in the hand of a pupil, Robert Edwards, and others from 1764 (and which is now deposited in the National Library at Aberystwyth), juxtaposes Parry’s original compositions and variations on familiar airs such as Millionen [sic] and Dafudd Gareg Wen [sic] with music by leading eighteenth-century contemporaries including Handel, Corelli, Johann Adolph Hasse (a favourite composer of Frederick the Great of Prussia) and Thomas Arne (notably his signature tune Rule Britannia).

One of the features of our Ruabon programming will be the opportunity to hear a selection of these ‘classical’ and ‘traditional’ compositions played on the triple harp and to experience the sound world that would have been familiar to Parry and Handel themselves. Sadly, Parry’s own harp by John Richards, Llanrwst, was destroyed in the great fire at Wynnstay in 1858. However, its dimensions were preserved by the Brecon antiquary, Reverend Thomas Price (‘Carnhuanawc’, 1787-1848), meaning that the leading instrument maker Christopher Barlow has been able to build an exact copy. This harp will be heard at Ruabon. It was also heard at the Festival’s media launch in the Wynnstay Gallery of the National Museum in Cardiff in March. At the launch some of Parri Ddall’s music was played by Robin Baggs on an eighteenth-century Snetzler chamber organ which Watkin Williams-Wynn commissioned for his London home, 20 St James’s Square, in 1775. The organ has formed part of the Museum’s collection since it was acquired at auction in 1996.

Our Pleasure Gardens programming is completed by Dame Emma Kirkby who makes her Gregynog début on with a sequence of virtuosic arias written for the soprano Cecilia Young to perform at the Vauxhall Gardens. According to the Shrewsbury-born music historian Charles Burney, Cecilia had “a good natural voice and a fine shake [and] had been so well taught, that her style of singing was infinitely superior to that of any other Englishwoman of her time”.  Handel created several roles for her to perform, including Dalinda in Ariodante, Morgana in Alcina and the title role in Athalia, while Cecilia’s husband Thomas Arne wrote music for her to perform at the Vauxhall Gardens. Dame Emma’s Gregynog programme with the London Handel Players features examples of these many roles, interspersed with instrumental music by other continental composers based in eighteenth-century London, including Johann Christian Bach (the eleventh and youngest son of Johann Sebastian), Carl Friedrich Abel and Felice Giardini.

Rhian Davies is a music historian and broadcaster and Artistic Director of the Gregynog Festival in her native Montgomeryshire. Tickets for Gregynog Festival performances are available online via the Festival website, www.gwylgregynogfestival.org, or by contacting, 01686 207100.

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