A SPECIAL ANNIVERSARY, 2013
John Thomas (1826-1913) Pencerdd Gwalia
(Harpist to Queen Victoria)
My interest in john Thomas goes right back to childhood when I listened to some beautiful arrangements of Welsh Airs by John Thomas. The interest later grew into a desire to find out much more about the man and his music. So began lengthy research, which resulted in interviewing (I still have on reel to reel tape!) some of John Thomas’ last students at the Royal Academy of Music, many articles, radio programmes, and an LP
Harp Music by John Thomas Meridian E4577066 [awarded a bursary from The Arts Council Advanced Training Scheme for research into this material].
I hope that soon the original LP will become a CD, as many people still ask for this recording, and it is frequently used on radio stations all over the world.
This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the great man’s death, and this has certainly focused my mind on working towards a presentation in words and music, photos and a small exhibition of items which have connections (including an original letter from John Thomas, a print of a photo, and rare signed copies of music). This may not be until 2014, as I am sadly so busy this year….
This weekend there is a wonderful event in The Netherlands, and I have been invited as a guest, and what a pleasure that will be! How wonderful that two amazing harpists Edward Witsenburg and Rachel Ann Morgan, have collated an entire day of performances of John Thomas’ music by Dutch harpists, talks about the great man, and an exhibition. This will all be a commemoration the centenary of this death. I shall be taking some of my own items to display, and there will be a Dutch radio programme about him also. Please check out
Here is a short article I wrote recently for an American publication.
JOHN THOMAS ‘PENCERDD GWALIA’
‘HARPIST TO THE QUEEN’
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the death of John Thomas, (London, 19th March 1913) let’s remind ourselves of the life and the music of this outstanding Welshman.
John Thomas was born on March 1st 1826 (St. David’s Day) the eldest of seven children. He excelled in playing the triple harp from a young age, and at only twelve years old, at the Abergavenny Cymreigyddion Eisteddfod, judged by John Parry (Bardd Alaw 1776-1851), John won a triple harp made by Bassett Jones of Cardiff. Sir Charles Morgan, the President of this Eisteddfod wished to aid the father’s desire to send his son to the Royal Academy of Music and instructed him to bring his family to London. On arrival, John Thomas played for Lady Lovelace the daughter of Byron, who offered to pay three quarters of his study costs if his family could raise the remainder; to enable this, Lady Lovelace’s husband gave John’s father a job in St Paul’s churchyard, where the family stayed for some 20 years.
When he entered the Academy in September 1840 John immediately had to transfer from the triple to the pedal harp and from the left to the right shoulder. Much later the blind King of Hanover noticed how perfectly balanced was the sound from John Thomas’s hands compared to that of the other harpists and Thomas credited it to his own early triple harp playing. He was taught harp by John Balsir Chatterton (1805-71) piano by C J Read, and composition by Cipriani Potter and Charles Lucas.
During his six years at the Academy, John Thomas’ first composition was his harp concerto in B flat. Later he wrote two operas, two overtures and a symphony (and it would seem that he was the first Welshman to write one). Throughout his life Thomas continued his close links with the Academy and since he also became professor at The Royal College and the Guildhall School of Music, his teaching influenced a generation of British harpists.
In 1850, Thomas was given the position of Harpist of the Royal Italian Opera and he was able to combine this with overseas tours during the winter months, beginning September 1851 for 10 years. During this time he gained a worldwide reputation as a virtuoso harpist, made the acquaintance of Rossini and Meyerbeer, and Berlioz commented in the ‘Journal de Debats’ 1854. ‘As to Mr Thomas, I appreciated ..the rare and poetic qualities of his talent; Mr Thomas is truly master of his noble instrument ; his ‘tours de force’ have real charm; his style of playing is nervous, impassioned, feverish as it were, but his expression is never exaggerated ….. The pieces composed by Mr Thomas are, besides, of remarkable elevation of style; He charmed, fascinated, magnetised me!’
In 1852 he gave the first performance of his second concertino for harp in E flat, commissioned by the Philharmonic Society. This decade also saw the start of the publishing of his own compositions and his editions of other composers’ music, including that of Parish-Alvars, Mendelssohn, and Handel (the harp concerto in B flat Op. 4 No. 6); he even edited a printed copy of Mozart’s flute and harp concerto (some 100 years after it was written) and it was an unknown work when he performed it in a Philharmonic Society concert in May 1877.
Thomas inevitably encouraged ‘progress’ via the pedal harp but also saw that the triple harp had its place in Welsh music. His contribution to the Eisteddfod, to Wales and to his own art was recognised when he was made ‘Pencerdd Gwalia’ Chief Bard of Wales, at the Aberdare Eisteddfod in 1861. On St. David’s Day 1862 John Thomas published the first two volumes of his collection of Welsh melodies with accompaniments, a third volume followed in 1870 and a fourth volume in 1874. Also in 1862, Thomas presented a major concert of Welsh music in St James’s Hall, Piccadilly, with four hundred voices and 20 harps with such success that it was repeated at Crystal Palace. These were the first major concerts of Welsh National music to be held in London, and they continued as an annual event for 42 years.
The following year saw his dramatic cantata Llywelyn performed at the Swansea Eisteddfod, and his other Cantata The Bride of Neath Valley, was first performed at the Chester Eisteddfod of 1866. Here he was presented with a purse of 450 guineas; raised by public donations including one from the Prince of Wales in recognition of Thomas’ service to Welsh music. On April 9th 1871, Thomas’ teacher Chatterton died and his post of Harpist to the Queen passed to Thomas himself. He held this honorary post throughout the life of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII. In 1871 he founded the London Welsh Choral Union and launched an appeal in 1877 for one thousand guineas to create a ‘permanent musical scholarship for Wales’ at the Academy. In 1883 the John Thomas (Welsh) scholarship was launched and continues to this day for Welsh students (in fact the author of this article received it some 36 years ago!)
John Thomas contributed articles to the early editions of the Grove, and published a ‘history of the harp’ in 1908. In addition to previously mentioned positions, he was a member of the Incorporated Society of Musicians,(and gave a talk on Welsh Music at their 1897 Cardiff conference), the Royal Society of Musicians; Honorary member of the Academia di Santa Cecilia and Academia Filarmonica Rome, and of the Societa Filamonica, Florence, and was on the council of the Cymmrodorion Society, on its revival in 1873. He died on March 19, 1913 and was buried at West Hampstead Cemetery, London.
I have enjoyed getting to know the man and his music for about 40 years; his life and his works have fascinated me and given me (and hopefully my audiences!) great enjoyment. I urge harpists to look deeper into the varied repertoire now re-printed thanks to modern editions (mainly Adlais and Alaw, Wales). I also hope there becomes a fresh awareness of the array of pieces available, and that John Thomas’ works will once again be performed worldwide by discerning players.