John Parry (Parri Dall) was the famous blind harpist of Wynnstay, whose playing so delighted Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, the Fourth Baronet (1749-1789). Not many people are aware that Parry had a successor, albeit much less well-known. The Library has acquired a splendid portrait of Benjamin Cunnah, organist of Ruabon church, composer of New Welch Music and harpist to Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, the Fifth Baronet (1772-1840). The painting, possibly by William Roos, depicts Cunnah soberly dressed, accompanied by the instruments of his trade: his gold harp, quill pen and sheet music.
Small parts of the musician’s life can be pieced together from various archival holdings. The Leeswood papers at Flintshire Archives record that Benjamin Cunnah had applied for a position at Mold in 1812. He wrote to Miss Griffiths of Rual for her support as he was being opposed by Mr Birch, despite Mr Eyton’s kindness, and he claimed to have been unfairly treated by being interrupted when playing the organ on trial (Ref. D-LE/C/7/6 and D-LE/C/7/15).
He seems to have obtained his position with Sir Watkin Williams Wynn around 1815, which demonstrates a late continuation of the harpist tradition among the great gentry families of Wales. The Wynnstay account books produce no evidence of Cunnah’s employment but they do record the installation, in 1770, of the fine Snetzler organ in Ruabon church, on which he must have played.
Here in The National Library of Wales. there is a manuscript music book in the hand of Elizabeth Giffard of Nercwys Hall, Flintshire, containing lessons, songs, dances and airs for the harp. It includes several pieces by Benjamin Cunnah, such as the ‘Nerquis March’ (NLW MS 24006A). These tunes were published as New Welch Music : consisting of three Sonatas, Chase, Minuets, Siciliano, Rondos, Marches, Airs with Variations for the Harp or Piano Forte / composed & humbly dedicated by permission to Sir Watkin Wms. Wynn, Bart. by B. Cunnah of Rhuabon. (Printed for the author by Goulding & Co.of New Bond Street.)
The names of the subscribers would suggest a publication date of between 1815 and 1823. It was unusual then for a Welsh composer to publish his own music during his lifetime.
Robert Griffith, in his Llyfr Cerdd Dannau : ymchwiliad i hanes hen gerddoriaeth a’r dulliau hynaf o ganu (Caernarfon 1913), refers to articles in the Cambro-Briton, describing the Eisteddfodau at Wrexham, 1820, and Caernarfon, 1821, in which Benjamin Cunnah competed. Although not a prize-winner, he was very highly commended. He was judged a ‘scientific player’ who ‘produced the best tone’ and who received ‘considerable praise… for the taste and execution of his performance’. He was advised to concentrate less on playing his own compositions and to learn the traditional Welsh melodies that he could play to the natives! Cunnah was sufficiently esteemed to be selected as an adjudicator of the harp competition at Mold Eisteddfod in 1823.
A little is known of Benjamin Cunnah’s private life. He married Mary Rogers at Wrexham in 1800 (NLW marriage bonds St. Asaph A 137/7). They had numerous children, ten of whom were named as beneficiaries in his will dated 12 April 1832, proved 6 May 1840 (SA1840-198). He bequeathed his ‘musical instruments if any one of my children who plays may have a wish, to be given to them at a fair valuation by some well disposed person…and my music books likewise to be valued and given to them according and agreeable to their wish’. He disinherited his son Edward, not through acrimony but explaining ‘I have already given him more than what would be the rest of his proportion with the rest of my children…’
Thus have several disparate strands of interest, the artistic, the musical and the archival, become woven together in the story of Benjamin Cunnah, the ‘other’ harpist of Wynnstay.
Acknowledgement: Thanks are due to Denbighshire Archives for assistance with the research.
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