Ancient Princes and Modern Poets: The Music Manuscripts of David Harries

Collections - Posted 11-01-2021

David Harries, one of the foremost Welsh composers of the 20th century, produced a varied and unique catalogue of works throughout his long career. Harries’ inspirations came mainly from his Welsh roots, and this is reflected in his compositions, which include aspects of Welsh poetry and folk melodies as well as referencing wider influences such as Greek mythology.

Harries was born in 1933, brought up in Pembrokeshire and studied music at the University College Wales, Aberystwyth, from which he graduated in 1954. He would later go on to teach at the Welsh College of Music of Drama where he became its Head of Composition in 1985, and he continued to write compositions into the 1990s. As early as the 1950s his chamber and instrumental work showcased a variety of musical influences, including his Opus 1, ‘Introduction (Quasi Notturno) and Allegro Scherzoso for String Quintet’ (1952) which incorporated the traditional Welsh folk melodies Hun Gwenllian and Hela’r ‘Sgyfarnog. His interest in history and mythology is also apparent in these earlier compositions, with his Opus 3, ‘Incidental Music to Antigone’ (1953) being based on the 1944 play Antigone by Jean Anouilh, an adaptation of the work of Sophocles.

As well as instrumental scores, Harries also wrote a number of works for voice and piano, many of which were composed as interpretations of poems. In particular, 20th-century Anglo-Welsh poets feature in his work. His Opus 10, ‘Canticle for Voice and Piano: Words by Twentieth Century Anglo-Welsh Poets’ (1956-1961) includes melodies based on words from, among others, Dylan Thomas’ ‘Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed’ and R. S. Thomas’ ‘When I was a Child’. This poetic interest appears to have endured throughout Harries’ career, but he did not only use the words of Welsh poets. The works of the late 19th/early 20th-century Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore were used in his Opus 65, ‘Gitanjali Song Offerings: Six Poems of Rabindranath Tagore for Soprano & Chamber Orchestra’ (1993).

But possibly the most engaging of Harries’ works are those that bring medieval elements to life. The collection contains many pieces composed for a full orchestra, but the most prominent of them is his epic orchestral score Opus 48, ‘Princes of Gwynedd: Symphonic Impressions’, commissioned for the National Eisteddfod of Wales, Caernarfon in 1979. A note included with the collection explains that the work is arranged in four movements to convey a musical impression of four medieval princes of Gwynedd: Maelgwn Gwynedd (d. 547); Cadwaladr Fendigaid (d. 664); Owain Gwynedd (d. 1170); and Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (d. 1282). As inspiration, Harries used quotations from near-contemporary medieval writers and poets to construct each piece, including works by Gildas, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gwalchmai ap Meilyr, and Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch. This imaginative use of medieval texts brings these ancient princes to life in a unique and creative way.



Creativity runs throughout the pages of Harries’ compositions, not least due to his writing style. His drafts of scores are dotted with scribbles, notes, and doodles which often illustrate a musical point – one of the manuscripts for Opus 48 (David Harries Music Manuscripts, 5/3), for example, is decorated with a sketch of a howling wolf, signaling the end of the piece.

The music manuscripts of David Harries show creativity and breadth of composition across five decades. Perhaps above all, the collection shows how influences and inspirations from Welsh literature can be used to create musical pieces of art.

The full catalogue can be viewed in the Library’s Archives and Manuscripts catalogue.


Lucie Hobson
Trainee Archivist

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