I will put my hand up right away and say that realistically, I bit off more than I could chew with this blog, mostly because I am an entry level Welsh learner, and these sound files, owing somewhat to their complexity and distortion from the digitisation process, require a more fluent speaker.
However, the process of listening to the sound files, which formed part of the adjudication process of the awdl [ode] competition at the 1949 National Eisteddfod in Dolgellau, was a good exercise for my brain. I also found listening to Sir Thomas Herbert Parry-Williams’ voice mesmerising; the words which I did understand painted a picture of his lack of enthusiasm with most of the candidates.
According to historian, Jan Morris, one of the most important events at the Eisteddfod is the ‘chairing of the bard’ – this honour is bestowed on the person who has written the best awdl, in strict meter, based on a theme set by the judges. In 1949, the theme was Y Graig [the rock]; the winning entry, according to the adjudication notes held at the National Library of Wales archives, was titled Coed y Gell which forms the basis for the second sound file in this collection.
‘TH Parry-Williams, number 11/41 from the National Library collection by Julian Sheppard’
Parry-Williams’ disappointment is reflected in his written introduction:
O’r ugain cynnig a ddebynwyd eleni nid oes ond rhyw hanner dwsin “o fewn terfynau gobaith”. Y mae gweddill yr ymgeiswyr i gyd ond un (sef Herbert sydd heb lunio awdl) wedi cynganeddu eu deunydd yn ddygn, ond nid oes ar eu gwaith raen digon gorffenedig i obeithio llwyddo mewn cystadleuaeth fel hon. (Parry-Williams, 1949, p.63)
Parry-Williams opinion that of the twenty entries received in 1949, only six had any redeemable merit “within the bounds of hope”. When the entrants became angry with his judgement, he maintained that their work was not of sufficient standard to succeed in a competition like the Eisteddfod. In fact, he wrote that his complaint is an old complaint – the competitors “mess up” so much that it’s hard to say anything useful about the entries.
In both sound files, Parry-Williams has a measured oration style which switches between his opinion and his recitation of parts of the entries. At the beginning of file one, he announces an entrant – Mr Pwyl, with presumably his address. I feel like an archaeologist, floundering to make sense of a language, knowing that I run the risk of misinterpretation and much of the first sound file for me, is obscure.
With the help of the printed adjudication notes, I muddle through. Early on, there is a reference to an ode title: Glan yr Afon [Riverside] – which points me to a section in the notes where Parry-Williams includes it in a party of five candidates, seen to be at the bottom of the top ten! He deems this poem elegant, but somewhat monotonous; having written the ode on the basis of Crist yn Graig [Christ is a rock], Parry-Williams opines that it is difficult to bring new life to an old theme, and criticises the poet for preaching from the Gospels, and waffling on the way to making a point. However, Parry-Williams appreciates the performer’s pleasantly clear, sweet singing style and encourages them to raise their tone up more before “mynd dow-dow yn dawel i’r diwedd”. (Parry-Williams, 1949, p.67)
At the end of sound file one, to the backdrop of whistling from the Dolgellau train, Parry-Williams mentions Y Graig Gibraltar [Rock of Gibraltar]. This is the subject of the ode titled Uwch y Lli, sung in three parts: Gwyryfdod [Virginity], Gwae [Woe], and Gobaith [Hope]. The singer is apparently a bit cumbersome and jerky, but not without the ability to draw a sense of place. In the notes, Parry-Williams illustrates this by including two verses; unfortunately, he does not read them in the recording, so we cannot listen to them here.
Sound file one seems to finish on a happier note, or at least Parry-Williams pauses, and the tone of his voice becomes lighter, less lecturer, more encouraging.
There is a false start to sound file two, but Parry-Williams recites a verse from the winning poem Coed y Gell in a beautiful singsong style and these match a transcription in his notes:
Druan o’r haf a’i feddal betalau
Rhyw ias ddiaros yw hedd ei oriau.
Dihuno gwig a mynd a wna’i gogau;
Gwywa, a bidd doreithiog y beddau.
Towards the end of this file, Parry-Williams changes tone of voice again and the word ‘foundation’ (sylfaen) occurs several times. He makes the audience chuckle a bit and ends his speech to thunderous applause.
It is a shame that the adjudication notes held in the archives do not match the sound files exactly, rather they appear to have been written as an essay after the fact. Apart from making my life easier in terms of transcribing the files (which I was unable to do), it might have made more sense of my assumption that the competitors’ interpretations of Y Graig include such geographical references as Gilbraltar, Ayers Rock, Clogwyn (near Caernarfon), Derwydd (near Ammanford), as well as a confusing discussion about whether various rocks, including Carreg y Drewi, are linked to Newport.
‘Sir T.H. Parry Williams plaque on North Road, Aberystwyth’
Sir Thomas Parry-Williams was a famous poet and scholar himself. He died in Aberystwth in 1975, at his home on North Road, after living a very full but slightly introverted life. He published Ugain o Gerddi [20 Poems] the same year he adjudicated the awdl competition. Some of his poems are about his own “transcendental view of life, especially in relation to the landscape of Snowdonia”. (Price, 2014) Perhaps this is why he was so parsimonious with his praise at the 1949 Dolgellau Eisteddfod.
Rasma Berts, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage volunteer