The choir popularly known as “Tredegar Orpheus” can trace its origin to the 1880’s when it was known as the Tredegar Male Voice Society. In October 1909 a group of 20 or so men decided to form a glee party to take part in an eisteddfod which was being held on the 6th December 1909 at the Temperance Hall (Workmen's Hall) Tredegar. They elected Mr John D Evans to be their conductor and Mr H E Badmington as their accompanist. Only two choirs entered, the other choir being Tredegar United conducted by Mr D Turner. The Tredegar Male Voice Society went on to win the competition; the test piece being ”In Absence”. By mutual agreement of all concerned the name Orpheus, was adopted, “Orpheus” is the Greek God of music, thus the choir became known as the Tredegar Orpheus Glee Society. Their membership soon increased. By 1919 the name had changed to the Tredegar Orpheus Male Voice Party, but fifty years later in 1970 the choir finally became known as the Tredegar Orpheus Male Voice Choir.
Mr John David Evans became the most successful of all the choir’s conductors. He was also the longest serving having completed almost 25 years service by the time of his resignation in 1934. During his stewardship with the choir, they became one of the foremost choirs in Wales, being unequalled on the various eisteddfod platforms, having gained 70 first prizes and 5 second prizes in competitions.
At the choir's third Annual Concert held at the Temperance Hall on 14 November 1912, the guest artistes charged the choir just half their usual fee to assist the choir in raising funds to attend a prestigious engagement in London the following year.
In 1918 there were at least four male voice choirs in Tredegar, the main choirs being - The Apollo Glee Party, conductor Mr A C Denham; Tredegar United Male Choir, conductor Mr Tudor Jones; Tredegar Town Male Choir, conductor Mr E R Edwards; and the Tredegar Orpheus Glee Society conducted by Mr J D Evans. In 1918 the Orpheus Glee Society gained eight first prizes and three seconds gaining maximum marks from the adjudicators in two of these competitions, a truly remarkable achievement. At a function held at the Mizpah Chapel Schoolroom Tredegar in February 1918, the choir honoured several of its members who were serving in the First World War. The recipients were J W R Thomas; J Hildridge; W Jones; J Williams and Cyril Jenkins. At this time, 29 members of the choir were serving in the Forces and sadly, one member, Frederick Bosley had made the supreme sacrifice. The following is an account of his death:-
On the afternoon of 2nd May 1915, a shell landed among the machine gun section. He was killed instantly. His brother, a corporal, was in the line close by and the following is the letter he wrote to his parents telling of the death of his brother:-
“I do not know how to write this letter, which is to convey such bad news and to give you all such a blow. Poor Fred was killed by a shrapnel bullet at about 4 p.m. on Sunday May 2nd. He died instantly. He and Lieut. Martin were killed by the same shell. They buried them in an open space by a wood and I followed his last remains to the grave where the Colonel read the burial service. I cannot write anymore. He came to me about twelve o'clock. I wish I had kept him with me”.
Frederick Bosley was serving in the 3rd Battalion Monmouthshire Regiment and was 24 years old. His name is inscribed on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres.
In May 1918 a farewell concert was given by the choir at the Olympia to 40 members of the choir who had been called up to serve their King and country.
The choir competed at the Crosskeys Eisteddfod, in April 1919 gaining first prize in what was described by the adjudicator as “a flawless performance”. The test piece was “Spartan Heroes”.
Travelling to Corwen to take part in their first National Eisteddfod in August 1919. The 108 members of the choir departed from Tredegar in readiness for the competition that took place the following day. 18 choirs from Wales and England had entered, 4 of which were previous winners. The Eisteddfod Pavilion was filled to capacity with thousands of people listening outside. The test pieces were”Y Cariad Gollwyd” (The Lost Love) and “Invictus”. The first prize was £50, second £25, third £10. The adjudicators were Dr. David Evans, Dr. Caradoc Roberts, Dr. Christmas Williams and Mr. E. T. Davies. The competition lasted for 4 hours. In their summing up the adjudicators described the Tredegar choir as being “Wales’ Premier Choir” with the winning choir being Nelson from Lancashire. Most of the choir returned home in the early hours of Friday morning, but the conductor departed from the Eisteddfod on Saturday morning. On his arrival at Sirhowy Station, he was greeted by enthusiastic supporters and taken by car to the town clock where hundreds of people were waiting to applaud him.
Another notable choir performance took place in November 1919, when under John David Evans the choir was awarded first prize at the Swansea Semi-National Eisteddfod; again singing “Invictus” and “Y Cariad Gollwyd”.
The choir was engaged by the National Sunday League to give a series of concerts in London at the Palladium, the City Temple, Alhambra, Finsbury Park and the Hammersmith Palace. This was in May 1920. The choir departed from Tredegar early on the Saturday morning arriving at Paddington Station at 1pm. They stayed at the Imperial Hotel, Russell Square, for two nights. Sunday morning, they participated in the Service at the City Temple and in the afternoon gave their first concert at the Palladium to a capacity audience who was thrilled with their singing. In the evening they sung at three concerts, the first was at the Alhambra, which once again was sold out, the choir’s programme being thoroughly enjoyed by all who attended. The next stop was Finsbury Park, where once again they were greeted by an enthusiastic capacity audience who were delighted with the concert. Their final performance of the evening was at the Hammersmith Palace. This again proved to be a huge success with hundreds of people failing to gain admission to the concert. Wonderfully appreciative audiences could not hear enough of this marvellous choir. At the end of the short concert tour, the choir returned to their hotel where they continued to sing, much to the enjoyment of the many hundreds of people who had come along to congratulate the choir and its conductor for their fine singing. By the completion of the final concert the choir had sang a total of 21 choruses at the four venues. They were given rave revues by the London press, all of whom highly praised the quality of the singing. The choir left London on the Monday, triumphant in their success at having established their name as one of the premier choirs in the country. Not surprisingly the choir was given a heroes welcome on their return to Tredegar.
In August 1920, the Orpheus competed at the National Eisteddfod held in Barry. They were considered by many to be one of the favourites to win after their second place at Corwen the previous year. Twelve choirs took part in the competition, the test pieces were ”Ballade” by Sir Granville Bantock, and “The Winds” by E. T. Davies. However the Eisteddfod Committee had changed the rules regarding the numbers allowed in each choir. Tredegar choir had to “stand down” forty members in order to comply with the ruling. This was obviously a major handicap. The choir left Tredegar on the Friday morning in high spirits. On their arrival at Barry they proceeded to Romilly School for a final rehearsal. The competition commenced at 2pm and was watched by 18,000 to 20,000 people. Again this major competition was of 4 hours duration. The result was a bitter disappointment for the Tredegar choir who were placed 3rd with 181 marks; Dowlais and Penywern were joint 2nd place with 183 marks, and the winners Williamstown with an outstanding 188 marks. Many eminent musicians in the audience disagreed with this result and in the opinion of many, Tredegar deserved to win.
There was another notable achievement for the choir, when in December 1920 at Cardiff, the choir competed for a first prize of £100 and a gold cup with a second prize of £50, presented by the Rt. Hon D. Lloyd George, the then Prime Minister. Fourteen choirs took part; the adjudicator was Dr. Walford Davies. The Tredegar and Maesteg choirs tied for first place, the adjudicator deciding to share the first and second prizes awarding each choir £75. For some inexplicable reason the adjudicator decided not to share the award of the gold cup giving the trophy to the Maesteg choir. Both choir and conductor being bitterly disappointed.
The Orpheus made a third attempt to win the National Eisteddfod, this time in August 1921 at Caernarvon. The choir left Tredegar at 1:45am on Friday morning in damp dismal conditions, upon arrival in North Wales, the weather had deteriorated into driving rain. The test pieces were”O Peaceful Night” and “The Phantom Host”; Tredegar was the second choir to sing and although they gave a creditable performance many felt that the performance lacked its usual high quality and sparkle. The results were announced and Tredegar was placed ninth. The choir was bitterly disappointed but knew that they had not performed to their full potential yet again. The English choirs had out sung the Welsh competition with not one choir from South Wales being placed in the top four. The choir left Caerarvon at 11:30pm very depressed and miserable. There could be no doubt that the singing performances of all of the South Wales choirs had suffered due to the long overnight journey prior to the competition.
A fourth attempt was made to win the National by the Orpheus in August 1922. The travel arrangements were a lot easier than the previous year as the competition was held at Ammanford. The test pieces were “Sea Fever” (Cyril Jenkins), and “Jesus of Nazareth” (Dr Joseph Parry), the solo being sang by Mr Stan Fletcher. Thirteen choirs took part and an estimated audience of 25,000 was crammed into the pavilion with the competition lasting almost 6 hours. The more difficult piece “Sea Fever” was the first piece performed by the Orpheus and they were awarded 86 points only 2 points behind the winning choir. In the second piece “Jesus of Nazareth” the choir did not sing to their full potential and this was reflected in their lower mark of 82 points. Tredegar did not come in the top four and was disappointed with their performance knowing they were capable of achieving a much better placing. The winning choir was near neighbours Dowlais.
1923 heralded the beginning of the decline in the coal industry in the area with some collieries closing, others laying the workmen off for long periods of time, with strikes by the workforce occurring over a period of the next 10 years. By contrast, new mines were opened in Wyllie and Oakdale with the migration of miners and their families from Tredegar to these areas; many went further afield to Canada and America. The choir was not immune to this drain in population which resulted in poor attendance at rehearsal and an inevitable reduction in membership. In the annual meeting in October, Mr John D Evans stated that he did not seek to be re-elected, he felt that after 14 years as conductor it was time to appoint a new musical director who would generate fresh enthusiasm and new ideas for music making. After much discussion in which some members advocated that the choir be disbanded, it was decided to adjourn the meeting for four weeks, obviously a self inflicted cooling off period. At the adjourned meeting after a brief discussion Mr Evans agreed to continue as conductor but stressed he would require full support from the members. Subsequent competition successes in 1923 were first prizes at Llanhilleth “King of the World” Blaina “The Crusaders” and Blackwood “Nidaros”.
In January 1924 the choir decided to once again enter the National Eisteddfod Competition which was being held at Pontypool in August. However due to declining numbers, decided later in the year to withdraw. At one point membership had declined to 30, which could result in the possibility of the choir becoming a glee party. The finances of the choir were also suffering and with the combination of these two factors it could well result in the Party failing to exist. This would have been a disaster for both the town and the many charitable organisations which depended upon them for fund raising activities.
An appeal was made to former members to return to the choir, which proved to be successful. By November, the choir membership had increased to 60. There was also some competitive successes during the year - the choir tied for 1st prize at Abergavenny singing Castilla; 1st prizes were also won at Pontllanfraith (Nidaros), at Oakdale in September (Nidaros) and Blackwood in December singing Martyrs of the Arena.
Nevertheless, there was a great deal of dissatisfaction amongst the members who continued to question decisions reached by some of the official adjudicators at competitions. Some members advocated boycotting any competitions where these adjudicators attended. This, as well as the traumatic industrial situation, that prevailed, obviously added to the decline in membership. There was also concern that the music being sung was different to that of 15 or 20 years ago at the time the choir was formed.
At the zenith of this successful period the choir won 1st prize at a competition in Abersychan in January 1925, being awarded 93 out of 100 points singing Nidaros. In April the choir won their fiftieth prize in an eisteddfod held at Beaufort, also singing Nidaros.
In July, a presentation of a gold hunter watch and chain and a wallet containing money was presented to the Choir’s accompanist Mr William Pearce; he had joined the choir as a singing member in 1912 being appointed to the duties of accompanist in 1914.
The August Bank Holiday Monday saw the choir taking part in two competitions - the first in Burry Port, the second in Carmarthen. They competed against some of the premier choirs in Wales and although they were out of the prizes, many people who heard them thought that they were well on their way to achieving the high standards of earlier years.
During November the choir attended an Eisteddfod held at Central Hall, Westminster London. The choir gave a good account of themselves, despite having many new members who had very little experience in the competitive arena, tying with Rhymney choir for 4th place. The membership had increased from 70 at the latter part of 1924 to 114 by September 1925.
1926 proved to be a tumultuous year in the history of the choir. The year started off well enough - In January a 1st prize at the Brynmawr eisteddfod singing “The Tyrol” a successful annual concert at the Olympia Hall singing to a packed audience, then another 1st prize in February at the Pontllanfraith eisteddfod, again singing “The Tyrol”.
However on the 1st May, after many months of bitter dispute with the coal owners, the miners were locked out of work having failed to agree to work more hours for less pay. They had the full support of the T U C and on the 4th May, a general strike was called in support of the miners; but by the 11th May the T U C had capitulated and called off the general strike leaving the miners to carry on the fight alone. This they did until November, when they were virtually starved into submission and forced to give up their fight, eventually returning to work, for more hours and less pay.
The miners’ strike was to have a massive impact on the people of Tredegar with many men out of work for prolonged periods of time. During the strike, free concerts were held most days in the Workmen’s Hall. The church and chapel going congregations made collections to assist in the purchase of food for the kitchens that were set up to provide for the needy, over 10,000 meals a week being served.
Obviously the choir was not immune to these difficulties and the severe hardships being suffered by the population of the town. There had been no competitions or eisteddfodau held during the strike. Rehearsals were also suspended due to the lack of enthusiasm by choir members. However, due to the hard work of the officers and its committee the choir did not disband. By the annual meeting, held at the end of November, practices had recommenced and the members had drifted back. The choir was once again singing and back up to 100 voices.
In, 1927 the choir and the town were still suffering from the after effects of the lengthy coal miner’s strike of the previous year. There was very little activity in the competitive arena with the choir achieving just one victory at the Abertysswg Eisteddfod singing “Martyrs of the Arena”- a symptomatic title after the hardship and outcome of the 1926 strike!
Not surprisingly, there appeared to be total apathy in all the musical organisations of the town, with the Choral Society, Town Band and Orpheus all suffering from a general lack of enthusiasm. However in April, the choir gave a successful annual concert at the Olympia Hall to a packed audience, thereby assuring the public of Tredegar that they had survived the dark days of their immediate past.
In November, the choir decided to enter the Semi National Eisteddfod which was being held at the Central Hall, Westminster, the test piece being “Homeward Bound.” Although they were destined to be unsuccessful, many in the audience thought they gave a very commendable performance.
In March 1928, the choir gave their annual concert at the Olympia Hall, singing a programme of new music which was well received by the appreciative audience. Due to the continued industrial difficulties through-out South Wales very few eisteddfodau were held.
The choir organised an eisteddfod which was held in May at the Workmen’s Hall. This was not as successful as the choir had hoped and, unfortunately, proved to be a financial loss (£17–9s–8d.). However, by this time the choir felt confident enough with their rebuilding and reorganisation so they decided to enter the National Eisteddfod which was being held in Treorchy - their first attempt since competing at Caernarvon in 1921. Although unsuccessful, again it was thought by many to have been a creditable performance.
A presentation was made in September to the Chairman of the choir, Mr Joseph Nicholls, who had held the position for the past 10 years. He was presented with an inscribed gold watch and a wallet of notes.
In the annual meeting held in October, the conductor remarked that even though rehearsals were very well attended, the ongoing difficulties caused by the depressing economic climate meant that many choristers were experiencing great personal problems. He knew that at times it was difficult to sing with so many members being unemployed, but he was sure they would eventually overcome these problems and reach the high standards of earlier years.
By 1929 more competitions were being organised, the situation having improved in the coal trade. Membership and attendance at rehearsals were still being hampered by the effects of the industrial depression with many members remaining unemployed and others moving away from the area in an attempt to seek work.
The twentieth annual concert held in February was a departure from the traditional concerts given by the choir who by now had 96 members. The choir and artistes in the second half combined to give a performance of “The Martyrs” a cantata composed for soloist’s and male choirs. This was extremely well received by the audience with Mr John D Evans conducting both the orchestra and choir.
In the choir’s annual meeting held in November, Mr Evans reported that they had entered several competitions but had been handicapped on a few occasions by the low attendance of the members. They had, however, been successful in winning 1st prizes at Cwmcarn singing “Twilight”, again in October at Abertysswg with “Twilight”, and the following week at Brithdir performing “The Crusaders”.
1930 proved to be the choir’s most successful year since 1920. They gained six 1st prizes; the first at Treharris in March singing “The Crusaders”, April at Pontypridd where they triumphed against eight choirs. Singing “Nidaros” they were awarded a staggering 89 point out of a possible 90. August, September and October they won again singing “Nidaros” at Hollybush, Abertysswg and Blackwood. At the latter, the adjudicator remarked on the “brilliant tone of the choir”; He had fully expected a high standard and was not disappointed.
In April at the Olympia Hall, the choir, who now numbered 98, gave their “Coming of Age” concert to a capacity audience. During the 21 years of its existence it had raised over £8,000 for charitable organisations, and won over £1,000 in prize money.
The choir gave a concert at the Workmen’s Hall in November where they performed, amongst other pieces, “The King of the World”. This was to be the test piece at the Semi National Eisteddfod held in London the following Thursday. The task was made even more difficult as it was to be sung unaccompanied. The choir came 4th in the competition and the adjudicators remarked it was a “highly commendable performance”. At this event they competed against some of the leading choirs of the day from both England and Wales.
At the annual meeting held in October, Mr John D Evans confirmed that he was satisfied with the progress made by the choir over the last six months. The main difficulty during the year was the frequent changes in the membership. But during his 21 years with the choir, he had never before experienced a more loyal influx of new members. Their attendance was a lesson to older members.
The allegation of “Pot Hunting” had been made from certain quarters, but he was adamant that this accusation could not be made against the Orpheus as, during the last twelve months, they had won £67-10s yet the expenditure had been £75 and, therefore, the prize money did not cover their costs.
In April 1931, the choir gave a successful annual concert at the Olympia Hall, and their membership had now increased to 109.
The choir achieved their only success of the year with a win at Blackwood in October singing “The Tyrol”. Also in October they auditioned for the BBC for their suitability to broadcast the following year.
In November the choir gave a concert at the Olympia Hall to raise funds for the competition in London. Though unsuccessful in the Eisteddfod at London, they were said by many to have given a magnificent rendering of the test piece “The Tyrol”.
In the December annual meeting held at the Mizpah Church Schoolroom, Mr Evans remarked that the harmony and enthusiasm existing amongst the members was the best for many years. Membership had increased by 20 during the last 5 months and they were now 120 in number. Sadly, in his experience many of the new members were like “ships that pass in the night” and did not stay loyal for long. This made it difficult to maintain the high standard and continuity required at this level.
The 1932 annual concert held on the 23rd March at the Olympia Hall was a landmark in the history of the choir as part of the concert was broadcast on BBC Radio for the first time. The concert was a great success with congratulations being received from many parts including America and South Africa. The choir now had 116 members.
During the year, there were only two successes in competition; at Abergavenny singing “Jesus of Nazareth” and at Ebbw Vale with “The Tyrol”. The choir also competed at the National Eisteddfod held at Aberavon but was unsuccessful.
A letter from Mr J D Evans who was unable to attend the annual meeting held in October, was read out by the Secretary. It stated that it had been a difficult year with a high standard being achieved at the annual concert, but several disappointments in the results at competitions. He also remarked on the need for members to remain loyal and to avoid any dissension. Mr Joseph Nicholls, the Chairman, said the year had been one of the most unlucky in the history of the choir and they had experienced many misfortunes in the results from the competitive arena. The choir numbers had fluctuated considerably throughout, but it was now up to strength. Due to the poor financial situation of the choir, Mr J H Smallwood (Secretary) and Mr W C Holly (Treasurer) both declined their honoraria.
1933 was a far more successful year in competition with a total of 9 victories, their best year since 1920. They won singing “Homeward Bound” at Blackwood, Beaufort, Llangynidr, Brynmawr, Rhymney and Markham. At the Semi National Eisteddfod held at Pontlottyn they secured maximum points for their rendering of “The Tyrol”. Sir Granville Bantock, the adjudicator remarked:
“We had from this party the proper clang of the bell. The phrases all through were beautifully done, with a splendid flow. It was a most vivid description of the piece all through. They gave us a most lovely and musical resonant tone, particularly the bass sound. They sang as if they enjoyed singing it, and I also enjoyed listening to it. I have no fault to find with their rendering.”
There were also wins at Blaenavon and Pengam singing “Crossing the Plain”. Total prize money for the year was £139. The victory at Pengam was to be the 70th and last under Mr John D Evans.
The annual concert in 1933, held at the Olympia Hall on the 12th April, was completely sold out. The artistes engaged by the choir, Miss Nora Gruhn, Miss Dorothy Helmrich and Mr Arthur Fear were world famous. The first half of the concert was again broadcast by BBC Radio. The choir at this time had a membership of 122.
The annual meeting held in October was presided over for the 17th year by the Chairman Mr Joseph Nicholls. Mr J D Evans stated that he was delighted that the “God of volume” in male voice singing which had been worshipped for so long was being dethroned and replaced by more artistic singing. Sir Walford Davies had written to Mr Evans after the former’s attention was drawn to the article in the local press.
However, 1934 was to prove an extremely eventful year for the Orpheus. A successful annual concert on 21st March was followed by Mr John D Evans tendering his resignation as conductor of the choir on 29 March. For several months, there had been friction between the conductor and the committee over the conductor’s choice of music. A special meeting was convened, 65 out of a possible 118 members attended, and the reasons for Mr. Evans’s resignation were discussed; mainly that he considered the conductor should be solely responsible for all musical matters. It was recommended by the committee to accept the conductor’s resignation; this was put to a vote and the recommendation carried by 46 votes to 19.
Several conductors were considered as a potential successor to Mr John D Evans as conductor of the choir. Representations were made to Mr D Williams of Blackwood, Mr Randall Williams of Beaufort, Mr Ivor Edwards, Mr Tudor Jones and Mr E Lawrence. But after a number of meetings, Mr Abel Jones of Rhymney, who had previously conducted Rhymney Male Voice Choir and was a composer of some repute, having won first prize for his anthem at the Barry National Eisteddfod, was eventually appointed conductor of the choir. The terms agreed with Mr Jones were that his bus fares would be paid, his music would be free and he would also be paid 10% of winnings from eisteddfodau appearances. These terms were endorsed by a full choir meeting and he was appointed on 25th April 1934.
The choir suffered yet another setback at the end of April when one of their accompanist’s Mr Len Pearce, resigned. He was leaving to take up a position with the Red and White Omnibus Company at Cinderford in Gloucestershire. He was presented with a dressing case; the presentation was made by Mr George Jenkins recently elected as the Choir Chairman. Mr A Heaton of Argoed was chosen as the new accompanist to succeed Mr Pearce taking up his position in May.
During the next 8 months, two Tredegar Orpheus Male Voice choirs existed in the town. The original party, and one that was formed by members loyal to John D Evans. The choir under John D Evans rehearsed in a different practice room, continued to give concerts and also entered Eisteddfodau. Meanwhile the original choir under its new conductor Mr Abel Jones of Rhymney, had just one success, at Blaina in July singing “Young Musicians.” Both choirs continued to rehearse, giving concerts and entering Eisteddfodau, they were successful, but the choir under Mr J D Evans was the more successful of the two.
Both choirs went to court in November 1934, to establish who could actually call themselves Tredegar Orpheus Male Voice Choir, and which choir would then be entitled to the £50 held at the Midland Bank in the account of Tredegar Orpheus Male Voice Party. The judge Mr. L. C. Thomas, after hearing both sides, adjourned the hearing until January 1935.
In summing up the case Judge Thomas in the January 1935 hearing stated that Mr John D Evans had offered his resignation to the choir and it had been accepted, and that he had then decided to form a new choir. With regards to the assets of the choir, the money held at the Midland Bank, should be considered to belong to Tredegar Orpheus Male Voice Party, and not the new party established by Mr Evans.
The annual concert that year was held at the Olympia Hall on Wednesday 17th April 1935 to a capacity audience who was treated to a high standard of singing from both the choir and the artistes which, undoubtedly, enhanced the reputations of both. The choir at this time had a membership of 132, of whom 120 were on stage.
In the competitive arena the choir experienced mixed fortunes with wins at Pontlottyn singing “Drontheim” on the 7th September, followed a week later at Aberdare with “Charge of the Light Brigade”, but were unsuccessful at Abertysswg on the 28th September. The choir’s only other victory that year was at Brecon, singing “Cities of the Plain” and “The Pilgrims”. The choir was unplaced at Porthcawl, Glynneath, and Nantyglo. At Treorchy on Whit Tuesday, where they sang “Jesus of Nazareth” they had engaged the services of Mr W J Davies of Rhymney to sing the baritone solo for a fee of three guineas but were again, unfortunately, unplaced. On 21st November they entered the “Semi National” at London. To assist in their preparation they held several rehearsals at the Town Hall Tredegar. They were against 7 other choirs one of which was the Tredegar Male Choir conducted by Mr John D Evans. The Tredegar Male Voice Choir came second and the Orpheus Choir came third a disturbingly ironic result. It is, perhaps, interesting to note that members were often expected to contribute to the expense of entering competitions by either paying their coach or train fares, entrance fees to the eisteddfod, or in some circumstances both.
In the annual meeting which was held on Saturday evening, 19th October, Mr George Jenkins the choir’s new chairman stated that he was extremely pleased with the progress being made by the choir with rehearsals, in general, being very well attended. During the last twelve months they had entered 8 competitions winning on two occasions, (the win at Brecon came after the meeting). The choir had won £35 in prize money during the year; this and the very successful annual concert resulted in the choir having a healthy bank balance of £73-5s-9d.
Many of the large enthusiastic audience who attended the annual concert held on Wednesday 1st April 1936 at the Olympia Hall agreed that it was one of the best concerts heard in Tredegar for many years. The artistes were Miss Laelia Finneberg (Ireland), Mr Francis Russell, Covent Garden Opera and Mr Redvers Llewellyn of Sadlers Wells Opera, who were all making their first appearance in Tredegar giving performances of which they could all be very proud. The choir with almost 120 members on stage also gave an excellent performance, thus showing the people of Tredegar that they were once again a force to be reckoned with in Welsh male voice singing. The choir members, whenever they sang in concerts or eisteddfodau, were normally asked to dress in dark suits where possible, with white shirts, a Lloyd George style collar and black bow ties. At this time there was no thought of the choir providing uniforms for members to wear at engagements.
By April 1936, the choir had won 79 competitive prizes, with total prize money of £1, 274. They entered 10 competitions during the year achieving only limited success. They secured a 1st prize at Newport singing “The Pilgrims”, also a 1st prize at Aberdare singing “The Crusaders”. A notable 2nd prize was achieved in June at Treorchy singing “The Pilgrims. The famous Treorchy Choir took the 1st prize whilst the Orpheus triumphed over several other excellent choirs, one of whom was Morriston Orpheus. November saw the choir once again enter the Semi National in London; only two choirs had entered with Pontypridd winning with 90 points Tredegar being awarded 88 points, the test piece was “Hebrew Captives”. The choir members for this competition had been asked to save 6d per week for 15 weeks which totalled 7s-6d towards the cost of the train fare.
The choir continued to give “charity and benefit” concerts throughout the year. One such concert on 26th April at the Olympia Hall being for the dependants of the late Mr Samuel Higgs of Beaufort Hill, Sirhowy, who had tragically died at Pochin Colliery.
The choir was once again seeking a replacement accompanist when on the 16th September; Mr A. Heaton resigned his position.
In October, the choir organised a competitive musical evening. This was a new venture for them. It was only open to choir members, with no audience present other than the members themselves. Monetary prizes were awarded with 5s to each section winner, 5s to the sight reading winner, 5s to the ear test winner and 10s to the duet and quartet winners. Each section was given a selection of songs from which the competitors had to select one item to perform. The duet entries had to sing the evergreen “Watchman, What of the Night”. The quartets sang “The Long Day Closes”. The adjudicators were Mr Abel Jones conductor, Mr William Pearce accompanist and Mr Alf Clarke, the choir vice chairman.
Mr Len Pearce was once again having returned to live in Tredegar by January 1937, one of the choir’s accompanists.
The annual concert was held on Wednesday 17th March at the Olympia Hall. Once again the choir sang to a near capacity audience thrilling them with their wonderful singing. The choir, who had almost 130 members on stage, sang “Prospice” by Vaughan Thomas - one of the test pieces for the National Eisteddfod which was being held in Machynlleth in August, for which the choir had entered. They were ably supported by three celebrity artistes, Mr Horace Stevens (baritone), Miss Joan Cross (soprano) and Miss Margaret Balfour (contralto) the latter two making their debuts at Tredegar. For more than fifty years, the choir’s annual concert was always held on a Wednesday evening, with the one exception being in 1950 when it was held on a Thursday evening, the first annual concert held on a Saturday evening was in 1978!
The annual concerts of the choir were regarded by many Tredegar people to be the musical highlight of the year, so it is worth mentioning some of the preparation undertaken by the choir to stage these events. A stage would be erected by Mr Rees Edwards, Builders, at the Olympia Hall; also required would be a raised platform on the stage for the choir. If a suitable piano could not be borrowed, then one would be hired; chairs for the choir would be obtained from St James’ Parish Hall and cars hired to transport the artistes and conductor to and from the concert venue. The artistes were engaged many months prior to the concert. Programmes and tickets were printed and buttonholes for the choir purchased. Prior to the nationalisation of the Coal Industry in 1947 and the forming of the National Coal Board, the local coal owner known as the Tredegar Iron And Coal Company was requested to allow any members who would be working the afternoon shift on the day of the concert to change their shift. Accompanists were paid one guinea each for playing at the concert, whereas the Secretary of the choir was also paid for the loss of a day’s wages for the work carried out on the day of the concert.
After an absence of several years, the choir had decided to enter the National Eisteddfod at Machynlleth. It was thought by the conductor and committee that to mount a realistic challenge for honours at “the National”, more choristers were required. Many adjudicators at this time were of the opinion that the emphasis should be more on volume rather than finesse and technical ability. So efforts were made to attract old members back to the choir and new men to join. At Machynlleth they would be competing against choirs with up to 200 members. The attendance committee was asked to monitor each choir member’s attendance and if the member did not have the required attendance he would not be allowed to sing in the competition. Also the door of the practice room would be locked at 7:45pm the rehearsal commenced at 7:30pm and manned by a committee member who would only allow the chorister into practice if there was a legitimate excuse for the late arrival.
There were three test pieces for the chief male voice competition “Ford Lover” (Sir Granville Bantock), “The Winds” (E T Davies) and “Prospice (Vaughan Thomas). A great deal of interest was being shown by the people of Tredegar in this year’s eisteddfod, as the other local rivals Tredegar Male Choir had also entered the second male voice section competition.
On the Saturday of the competition supporters and choir departed Tredegar early in the morning in several coaches; they were breaking their journey at Llanidloes for lunch, then on to Aberystwyth for a few hours break before continuing to Machynlleth. Choristers were provided with a free lunch and entry to the eisteddfod, paid for by the choir, but were required to pay 2s 6d of the 6s 6d coach fare.
Despite being well placed singing two of the three pieces, the Orpheus was ultimately unplaced in the prize list, and although every effort had been made to increase the choirs’ numbers they could only muster 120 on stage. Fortuitously Tredegar Male Choir was also unsuccessful in their quest to win the second male voice competition.
Only one local competition was entered by the choir during the year. This was at Brecon where they were unplaced.
Another competitive evening was arranged in October, following the success of the previous year’s event few changes were made from the previous year. The ear and sight reading tests were dropped and replaced with a pianoforte solo and elocution and instead of the quartet a double quartet was introduced. The double quartet choices of pieces were “In Absence” and “Two Roses”. The musical adjudicators this year were Mr Abel Jones AC, Mr Ivor Edwards and Mr Ernie Lawrence. The elocution competition was adjudicated by Mr David Mills, and the accompanists were Mr William Pearce and Mr Len Pearce.
The choir’s social evenings were held at the St James’ Parish Hall now the Orpheus Music Centre, or sometimes the lower Drill Hall. They were very different to what choristers and guests experience today. The ladies of the choir prepared the food which would be a sit down meal and supplied white tablecloths. Crockery was hired from Woolworths and no alcohol was available or allowed. The entertainment took the form of party games, whist and other card competitions, also dancing. These were organised by members of the choir’s social committee.
Continuing a long sequence of very successful annual concerts, the twenty ninth event was no exception and was equal to its predecessors. The three international artistes, Madame Oda Slabodskaya (soprano), Mr John Fullard (tenor) and Mr William Parsons (baritone), had been engaged by the choir at a total cost of £51-00, and did not disappoint the large audience at the Olympia Hall on Wednesday 6th April 1938; the choir who numbered about 120 fulfilled their part in producing a wonderful concert.
At the annual meeting held at the Mizpah Church Schoolroom at the end of January, the conductor Mr Abel Jones AC thanked the choir for his re-election. He referred to the success of the previous October’s competitive evening; there had been a large number of entries and a very high standard was achieved. Speaking of the choir’s performance at last years National at Machynlleth? He stated he was generally pleased with the singing of the test pieces, and remarked that this should be an incentive to attract new members. The choir also accepted the new standing orders which had been revised by the choir committee.
The choir appear to have only entered two competitions in 1938 - one at Porthcawl, the other being the National Eisteddfod at Cardiff. At the Porthcawl competition held on Easter Monday, 19th April, the Tredegar Orpheus, singing the test piece “Crossing the Bar” by Caradog Roberts, was awarded 88 marks. Unfortunately, they lost heavily to their bitter rivals, Tredegar Male Choir conducted by Mr J D Evans who was awarded 95 marks, with Treorchy in second place with 92.
Preparations for the National Eisteddfod at Cardiff had been hampered by poor attendance at rehearsals throughout the year. There had been a recruitment drive in an effort to strengthen their ranks; attempts made to attract members from the nearby towns of Brynmawr, Ebbw Vale and Rhymney, met with little success.
The test pieces chosen were “Festal Psalm” (Whittaker), “Lucifer in Starlight” (Sir Granville Bantock) and “Heigh Ho” (Hayden Morris). The choir had prepared well for the competition - all of the rehearsals in July were held at the Town Hall, also a public rehearsal was given by the choir at Siloh Church on Sunday 31st July. Representations were made to colliery management to allow choristers to have the Saturday off work to attend the eisteddfod. This was successful.
Travelling arrangements were made to enable the choir and their supporters to travel by train to Cardiff (2s-1d) with a lunch reserved for after the competition; both the train fare and lunch were paid for the choristers.
The Orpheus had been drawn to sing last in the chief male voice competition. They were pitted against some of the finest choirs in Wales, including Treorchy, Pendyrus and Morriston Orpheus. This attempt, like others before, was to end in disappointment with the choir being unplaced but they had, nevertheless, given a creditable performance. Tredegar Male Choir conducted by Mr John D Evans had also entered the second male voice competition. They had been drawn second, but were also unsuccessful. On their return to Tredegar many prominent musicians seriously questioned whether a town the size of Tredegar could or should continue to support two male voice choirs. It was considered to be better for all concerned if a way could be found to put past differences between the choirs behind them and amalgamate.
The following Friday, 12th August, Mr Abel Jones AC resigned as conductor of the choir. He had held the position for four years; this resignation was reluctantly accepted by the choir. A shortlist of four possible candidates was decided upon; Mr William Pearce, Mr Ivor Edwards, Mr B Griffiths (Cardiff) and Mr Meyrick of Ebbw Vale. Deputations were made to each; Mr Edwards and Mr Griffiths both declined, and in a secret ballot on 1st September between Mr W Pearce and Mr Meyrick, the choir voted to accept Mr William Pearce as their new conductor.
William Pearce had first joined the choir in 1912, but by 1914 he had taken on the duties of choir accompanist. He had gained a reputation of being an accompanist who possessed an outstanding natural ability, with many accolades paid to him by the world class artistes he had accompanied over the past twenty four years. For many years he had been organist and choirmaster at Commercial Street Methodist Church. He was also a successful local private music teacher, living in Glyn Terrace Tredegar.
His son, Mr Len Pearce, at 26 years of age was appointed deputy conductor and accompanist. He was first appointed as deputy accompanist to the choir when he was only 15 years of age and had subsequently developed into a brilliant concert pianist. At the Cardiff National Eisteddfod, one of the adjudicators highly praised his playing ability remarking on his outstanding technique; he had been praised by many of the artistes he had accompanied, including Madame Oda Slabodskaya, at the choir’s latest annual concert.
Mrs D W Mills was appointed deputy accompanist on 9th September. For several years she had been the assistant organist at Castle Street Congregational Church and for three years accompanist to the Tredegar Amateur Operatic Society.
A social evening In October at Mr Abel Jones AC was presented with a gold chain by the choir. The presentation was made by Mr Thomas J Watkins one of the choir’s founder members.
Another competitive evening was organised in December, the same format being used as in previous years.
It was decided that the choir would pay half of the cost to install electric lighting in the Mizpah Chapel Schoolroom; this would amount to £1-11s-8d. The recommendation was made at a committee meeting held at Mizpah on 3rd January 1939.
The Mizpah Chapel Schoolroom was the venue for the annual meeting. It was held on Saturday evening, 28th January. By this time membership of the choir had declined to 102. Mr Spencer Price had tendered his resignation as secretary and Mr David Mills was elected his successor. Mr Abel Jones AC, the former conductor, was invited to become an honorary member of the party (which he later accepted). The Choirs’ finances were discussed; a profit of £4-13s was made on the 1938 annual concert and the annual rent for the practice room was £21-8s-2d. The choir had now raised £9,000 for charitable causes, which was something of which they could all be very proud. The treasurer had once again declined to take his honoraria. It was stated by Mr William Pearce that only two competitions had been entered in 1938, the reason being that there were far less eisteddfodau being organised mainly due to the ongoing industrial depression. This had an adverse impact on attendance at rehearsals with falling membership, but he hoped things would improve in the future. The choir was told that the numbers for the chief male voice section at the National Eisteddfod had been changed and would now be between 80 to 120 voices. Morale in the choir remained low and a number of members believed that a victory in a minor eisteddfod would be far more beneficial to the choir than a defeat at a more important competition. It was decided to continue with the music study group which had been organised the previous year.
Ticket sales had not gone particularly well for the 30th annual concert due to a clash of dates with a drama being presented by Tafarnaubach Dramatic Society, but despite this difficulty there was still a well attended audience at the Olympia Hall on Wednesday 29th March. Four rehearsals at the Town Hall were held prior to the concert. This was the first annual concert for Mr William Pearce as conductor and the audience was not disappointed with the excellent quality of the singing. They performed a mixture of old choruses, “Nidaros” and “Jesus of Nazareth” also a number of unaccompanied pieces. By this time the choir numbered 97.
The artistes were Miss Isobel Baillie (Soprano), who in 1933 had become the first British performer to sing at the Hollywood Bowl in California; Mr John Fullard (Tenor), and Mr Redvers Llewellyn (Baritone). Mr Len Pearce was making his debut as a pianoforte soloist and entertained the audience with his keyboard mastery, playing Nocturne in F Sharp (Chopin) together with Andante and Rondo Capriccioso (Mendelssohn), for which he was duly encored.
The town of Tredegar was shocked to hear of the sudden death of Mr John D Evans who tragically passed away on Saturday 15th April. Mr Evans had travelled to Liverpool with the Tredegar Male Choir to take part in an eisteddfod organised by the John Lewis Stores, where they gained the second prize. On leaving the eisteddfod, Mr Evans accompanied by his wife, son, and several members of the choir attended a football match at Goodison Park between Everton and Preston North End. At half time, Mr Evans complained of feeling unwell and suddenly collapsed. He was attended by doctors who were at the ground, then transported to hospital by ambulance but was pronounced dead shortly after his admittance; he was only 56 years of age. He left a widow and one son Mydrim. His mother had died just a few weeks earlier.
Mr Evans had many interests other than male voice singing. He was a district councillor from 1919 to 1921. For twenty years he was secretary of the Brecon, Monmouthshire and East Glamorgan Federation of Co-operative Societies; and had for many years been conductor of Park Place Presbyterian Church Choir. He was frequently in demand to conduct cymanfu ganu and to adjudicate at eisteddfodau. He had also been secretary of the Tredegar Park Cottage Hospital for a number of years and was responsible for organising the first hospital fete which raised £2,000 for the institution. He had been employed by the Tredegar Iron and Coal Company and was head of the Estates Department. A man of many diverse talents.
Mr Evans’ father, the late Mr John Evans AC, was a pioneer of the use of tonic solfa in choral training in the area.
The funeral service was held on Thursday 20th April at Park Place Church. The Tredegar Male Choir took part in the service; at the graveside Tredegar Orpheus and the Tredegar Male Choir combined to pay a moving choral tribute. The Reverend Emlyn Jones officiated. Many floral compliments were received, one of which was from the Tredegar Orpheus.
Only three competitions were entered in 1939. Cardiff on Whitsun Monday and Treorchy on Whitsun Tuesday where the first prize was £40 - the test piece being “Kings of the World”. The choir was unplaced at both events but encouraging comments were given to the choir by the adjudicators. The bus fares were paid by the choir.
The other eisteddfod entered by the choir was the Denbigh National Eisteddfod, the test pieces were “Paty O Toole” (Wood), “Mordaith Cariad” (Hopkin Evans) and “Siege of Kazan” (Towe Jones). Preparations were once again hindered by poor attendance at rehearsals and at a committee meeting on 20th June, several members were of the opinion that the choir should withdraw. This was fully discussed and then put to a vote. The voting to compete was 11 for and 6 against. Travel arrangements were then considered, and after much debate it was decided to travel by train, with lunch being taken on the eisteddfod field. The cost of the train fare was 12s, lunch 2s-6d and the entrance fee 1s-6d. A total of 16s. Contracts would be exchanged with the Railway Company and caterers, and each choir member would be required to pay 5s towards the cost to be paid for by Friday 28th July. The same benefits would be granted to the ladies of the Social Committee. The total cost to the choir would be £61.
Ideas to improve attendances at choir rehearsals were also discussed. It was then agreed that any member who lost two practices out of the next twenty one without good reason, would not be allowed to take part in the competition and would forfeit all financial claims. Choristers would be required to attend rehearsals at the appointed time 7:30pm, any member arriving after 7:50pm would be allowed to enter but would be marked absent, other than in extenuating circumstances. Also, any choir member who was in arrears by more than 1s with his contributions on the 4th August would be penalised the amount above the 1s arrears.
There would be seven rehearsals at the Town Hall prior to the National Eisteddfod, also a public rehearsal would be held at Harcourt Terrace Church on Sunday 6th August, where a silver collection would be taken.
The train journey to Denbigh would take approximately 5hrs and 45mins. The choir would need to depart from Tredegar at 6:30am. Special arrangements had been made with the Tredegar Iron and Coal Company to allow any chorister who was working the night shift on the Friday, to finish his shift at 4:30am. Transport was made available to take him home. Lunch had been booked for 12:30pm for 120 people. The choir was drawn to sing seventh. They would be competing against several previous winners, and some of the best choirs in Wales including Morriston and the Rhondda Valley... Unfortunately, the Orpheus came last in the competition, the winners being Nelson of Lancashire. This was in complete contrast to twenty years previously when the Orpheus reached its pinnacle coming second within 3 points of Nelson in a titanic struggle thought by many eminent musicians to be one of the finest male voice choir competitions ever witnessed at the National Eisteddfod. There would be an absence of over thirty years before the choir next entered the male voice competition at the Annual Welsh National Eisteddfod.
Whilst commenting on the choir’s performance at Denbigh, Mr Pearce was overheard to say that “There was only room for one male voice party in Tredegar”.
September saw the outbreak of the Second World War and on the instruction of the police superintendent, practices were suspended for a short period of time. The attendances were also affected by the outbreak of war with several members taking on the duties of A R P wardens or special constables, older members had problems reaching rehearsals due to the imposition of the “black out”. Conditions where all street and roads were in complete darkness with no lights permitted to emerge from any properties.
Following on from the success of the previous couple of years another competitive evening was organised, this time it was held on 22nd December at Castle Street Congregational Church Schoolroom.
Subsequently “The Orpheus” has appeared in many of the principal concert halls in the UK including the Royal Albert Hall on 4 occasions; the Usher Hall Edinburgh; De Montfort Hall Leicester; Colston Hall Bristol; the Dome Brighton; the Opera House Buxton, and Rugby School. Two of the more unusual venues where the choir has sang was onboard the QE2 at Southampton, entertaining the guests with the band of the Welsh Guards, and at Dartmoor prison also entertaining its less privileged guests.
The longest serving and most successful conductor of the choir was John Davy Evans (1909-1934). During the next 30 years the choir had a sequence of 10 conductors directing the choir, Abel Jones, William J Pearce, Len Pearce, Bill Buncombe John Holmes-Lewis, Herbert Martin, Edgar J Reynolds, Cyril Blake, Archie Bevan, and William Dyte.
By 1964 the membership of the choir had fallen to 13 in number. The appointment of Ieuan Lorraine Davies as musical director, who had joined the choir as a young lad in 1934, turned the fortunes of the choir around in a startling manner. Over the following 19 years Ieuan brought the choir back to its former glory. Under his conductorship many prestigious prizes were gained in competition and Eisteddfodau in both Wales and Europe, gaining a first prize in Nantes France, and Wallau, Germany. During the seventies the choir won several first prizes at Pontrhydfendigaid and Porthcawl. They also came second again at the National Eisteddfod at Ruthin being beaten by local rivals Dowlais, the first prize continuing to elude them. The choir also appeared in the semi-final of the BBC Radio Wales competition. Unfortunately due to ill health, Ieuan was forced to retire in 1983, this was indeed a great loss to the choir.
The choir appointed Geraint Davies as conductor in 1983. For the next 3 years, he continued to take the choir to competitions achieving places in the finals of Choir of the Year in Cardiff (twice), and the B & I sponsored event in Swansea.
The next seven years proved to be a very unsettled period, the choir working with seven musical directors - Hazel Roberts, Barrie Owens, Malcolm Burnell, David Clothier, Graham Davies, Gareth Sims, and Ian Waite, who is the current musical director.
Ian was appointed in August 1993 and due to his enthusiasm and initiative the choir entered the world of stage musicals. In April and November 2000 the choir did two hugely successful “Songs from the Shows” concerts, one at Tredegar Leisure Centre; the other, starring Peter Karrie, was held at Ebbw Vale Leisure Centre to an audience of over 1000. This exciting trend continued with two successful “Last Night of the Proms “ concerts - one at Ebbw Vale in 2001 and another at Tredegar in 2006. During his years in charge, Ian has adapted the choirs’ programme and repertoire to adjust to the decrease in membership being experienced by male voice choirs throughout Wales.
Throughout its history the choir has embarked on many tours both in the UK and overseas. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, two visits were made to Scotland, one to Glasgow the other to North Berwick, these were hugely successful. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, they visited Nantes in France, and Wallau and Trebur in Germany. This was the first of several visits to Germany over the years. In 1990 the choir took part in a massed choir festival in Holland involving 1,000 Welsh and 1,000 Dutch voices. During a visit to Germany in 1992, they had the honour of singing at the European Parliament at Strasburg. In 1995 they made their first visit to Switzerland, then a return visit to Germany where new friendships were made and old ones renewed. 1996 saw the choir make their first visit to Tralee, and Killarney in Southern Ireland. Another visit was made to Basle in Switzerland in 1997. In April/May 2000 the Choir visited Ontario Canada, performing concerts at Waterloo, Milton, and Geulph. More recently they have undertaken tours to Blackpool, Newquay (Cornwall), Sandown (Isle of Wight), Wakefield (Yorkshire) and in October 2009 Penzance (Cornwall).
Throughout its existence the choir has rehearsed in several premises in Tredegar, mainly, the New County Club, The Mizpah Chapel Schoolroom, the Nut and Bolt Factory canteen, Earl Street School, Siloh Chapel and Saron Chapel. In 1974 with the aid of financial assistance from the then Tredegar Urban District Council, the choir purchased, the Parish Hall from St. James’s Church. After much hard work by its members, the hall was brought up to the required standard and was officially opened on 26 June 1982 and is now known to everyone in the locality as “The Orpheus Music Centre”.
During the choir’s centenary year in 2009 there was much excitement and anticipation, with 3 major concerts, a reunion of past members on 23 January, and a centenary dinner on 7 March. The first concert on 18 April was with Ms Sian Cothi, the actual centenary concert took place on the 12 September with the guest artiste being West End star, Mr Simon Bowman, the final concert “Last Night of the Proms” was held on 28 October. One of the pieces sang by the choir was “In Absence”, the first song ever performed by the choir, almost one hundred years to the day. It was indeed a night to remember with past members joining forces with the choir to produce a memorable end to a wonderful series of concerts. A presentation dinner was then held at the Orpheus Music Centre on 19 December where choir members were presented with an individual commemorative plaque
The choir has continued to survive throughout two World Wars and several crippling industrial strikes but continues to raise thousands of pounds for charity. It is warmly received where ever it sings, giving pleasure to many people. Long may it continue to do so?!!
The context of the above "A History of Tredegar Orpheus Male Voice Choir" is under copyright by Alan James (Secretary).