It was with regret that the committee organising the National Eisteddfod for 2021 had to make the decision to postpone the competition for a second year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The full title of the sound clip highlighted in this blog is “Why Should We Not Sing in War?”
We are currently waging war with the virus through vaccines, social distancing, and lockdowns; there have been many casualties of this war and the Eisteddfod is one of many organisations to have been affected by it adversely as well.
The festival, with a history tracing back to 1176, is a celebration of Welsh language and culture, which has been held during the first week of August since 1861, apart from 1914, when the outbreak of World War 1 caused it to be postponed for a year.
In 1916, the new Secretary of State for the War, David Lloyd George made an impassioned reply to a letter published in the Times, criticising the decision to hold the Eisteddfod during wartime. He made his speech at the opening of the Aberystwyth National Eisteddfod that August, and even though the festival cannot take place this year, we can take his words as a reminder that while adversity strikes again, as it has done many times over the course of Welsh history, its people will carry on singing.
Although the speech was made in 1916, the sound file held by the National Library of Wales was made in the BBC studios on 15 February 1934, when Lloyd George was President of the London Welsh Trust. It was digitised by the Unlocking our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project.
By this point in his life, Lloyd George had been marginalised from British Politics, but his original oration was given just months before he was invited to form a government in December 1916, holding office until 1922, as the first and only Welshman to become Prime Minister of Great Britain.
Lloyd George was born in Manchester but was raised at his mother’s family home in Llanystumdwy, near Cricieth. He maintained lifelong ties to this area, being made Earl of Dwyfor in 1944, the year before his death at age 82. He is buried on the banks of Afon Dwyfor in Llanystumdwy.
He was a passionate advocate for Welsh politics and rights, and an eloquent speaker, which is obvious through this sound file. Beginning with the hiss and crackle of the 78rpm recording, Lloyd George leads with a question to his critics: “Why should we not sing during the war… why especially should we not sing at this stage of the war?” He explains that Britain is greater than ever, so although war means suffering and sorrow, the country should be like the nightingale, giving its song in the darkness and so triumphing over pain.
This reference to Hans Christian Andersen’s fable of the Chinese emperor and a nightingale whose song so moves Death that the emperor’s life is spared, was (as a musical side note) the subject of a 1914 opera by Igor Stravinsky, “La Rossignol”. Perhaps Lloyd George was familiar with the opera or perhaps he had liked reading fairy tales to his children, but in his estimation, although nightingales are not known on the Welsh side of the Severn, “…we can provide better. There is a bird in our villages that can beat the best of them. He’s called Y Cymro.”
Like the nightingale that sings in the night, the Welsh sing in the night and during the day, in joy and sorrow, at work and at play, in prosperity and through adversity, in sunshine and storm, during times of peace – and so why should they not sing during the war?
A transcription of the audio file can be found at the end of the blog.
Lloyd George continues, referencing the turbulent history of Wales and its ability to maintain cultural identity throughout: “Hundreds of wars have swept over these hills, but the heart of Wales has never been silenced by one of them.”
In this day and age, the Eisteddfod cannot be completely silenced, even by a virus. Modern technology allows for the Eisteddfod AmGen to take place on various online platforms and social media with a strong competitive element. This freedom is like the end of the legend of the nightingale, in which a strong future is negotiated to ensure that the bird lives in its true environment so that it can continue to thrive and be heard.
At the heart of Lloyd George’s speech is a surety that we will make it through this present adversity and together we can stay in tune.
By Rasma Bertz, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Volunteer
Transcription: Why should we not sing?
He sings in joy he sings also in sorrow.
He sings in prosperity he sings also in adversity.
He sings at play he sings also at work.
He sings in the sunshine he sings in the storm.
He sings in the day time he sings also in the night.
He sings in peace; why should he not sing in war?