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The Music of Wales and my Favorite Hymn

The choir stalls of a church in Tenby

In Chapter One of my first Sister Agatha book, Shadow of Death, I start off with a scene where one of the characters is singing "Cwm Rhondda," also known as "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah." It's a beautiful, old Welsh hymn, and it really shows what I love most about Wales: the choir singing. There's something special about Welsh choirs. I remember being blown away a few years back when I heard "Men of Harlech" sung by a Welsh choir. But if I had to pick a favorite, it would be "Cwm Rhondda." The melody is powerful and the words just get to me.

William Williams Pantycelyn, a key figure in the Welsh Methodist revival and sometimes referred to as the Welsh Charles Wesley, wrote the music. Born in Cefn-coed, Williams Pantycelyn, near Llandovery, he initially studied medicine but later turned towards theology. He was deeply influenced by the Methodist revival and became an itinerant preacher, traveling across Wales to spread his message.

Williams Pantycelyn's most enduring legacy though is his hymn writing. His contribution to Welsh religious music is immense, with "Cwm Rhondda" standing out as one of his most enduring works. The hymn's lyrics, originally written in Welsh, reflect a deep spiritual longing and reliance on divine guidance and provision. The imagery used by Williams Pantycelyn is evocative of the Israelites' journey through the wilderness, seeking the promised land, a theme that resonates with many on a personal and spiritual level.

The tune, which has become synonymous with the hymn's words, was composed much later, in 1907, by John Hughes. Hughes, a Welsh composer, created this melody at Capel Rhondda, a chapel in the Rhondda Valley. His composition added a new layer of emotional depth and resonance to the hymn, making it not only a song of spiritual longing but also one of triumphant faith and hope.

The combination of Williams Pantycelyn's poignant words and Hughes' stirring melody resulted in a hymn that has transcended its religious roots to become a symbol of Welsh identity and pride. The hymn's popularity surged, especially in the context of Welsh choir singing, known for its powerful harmonies and emotional depth. "Cwm Rhondda" is often sung at important national events, including rugby matches, where it unites crowds in a shared expression of cultural and national identity.

In Welsh choir culture, "Cwm Rhondda" holds a special place. It exemplifies the traditional Welsh choral sound – a sound characterized by robust harmonies, a deep connection to the Welsh landscape and soul, and an ability to convey both the spiritual and the communal aspects of Welsh life.

Here are the first verse and chorus of "Cwm Rhondda" in Welsh, followed by their English translation:

Welsh Lyrics:

Arglwydd, arwain trwy’r anialwch,

Fi bererin gwael ei wedd,

Nad oes ynof nerth na bywyd

Fel yn gorwedd yn y bedd:

Hollalluog, Hollalluog,

Ydyw’r Un a’m cwyd i’r lan,

Ydyw’r Un a’m cwyd i’r lan.

English Translation:

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,

Pilgrim through this barren land;

I am weak, but Thou art mighty,

Hold me with Thy powerful hand:

Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven,

Feed me till I want no more,

Feed me till I want no more.

The hymn's popularity and its position in Welsh culture and music make it a beautiful example of the rich hymnody of Wales. But the best way to enjoy this hymn is to hear it and sing along. Click and enjoy!

Happy Reading, Joyful Writing.


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