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Welsh hymns given modern make-over

Posted on: August 17, 2016 10:12 AM
The Revd Paul Bigmore hopes his new hymnbook, Songs Of Praise The Valleys Sing, will preserve the treasure of traditional Welsh hymns and the culture of hymn singing in the country.
Photo Credit: Church in Wales
Related Categories: Abp Morgan, Abp Williams, Music, Wales

[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] Wales is a country known for its love of music, from Welsh Male Voice Choirs to the likes of Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones; and it has also produced more than its fair share of well-known hymns. Now a vicar from the former coal-mining valley town of Rhondda in the South Wales is trying to preserve the treasure of traditional Welsh hymns and the culture of hymn singing by giving their words a modern twist.

The Revd Paul Bigmore says that the “stirring” hymns he learned in his childhood are now rarely sung because of their old-fashioned words and the decline of the non-conformist chapels in Wales.

Father Bigmore is vicar of Ynyshir, in the Rhondda Valley, which was once internationally famous for its hymn singing. The area gave its name to one of the most popular Welsh hymn tunes, Cwm Rhondda, which was traditionally used as the setting for the William Williams’ hymn, Guide me, O thou great Jehovah.

A book containing 50 of the once very well-known Welsh hymns, re-written in simpler language by Father Bigmore, will be launched by the Archbishop of Wales next month. The book, Songs Of Praise The Valleys Sing, includes the likes of Blaenwern – the traditional setting of Love Divine, All Loves Excelling; Berwyn – the setting for Light of the World, Forever, Ever Shining; the rugby fans’ favourite Rachie – the setting for I Bob Un Sydd Ffyddlon (To Everyone Who is Faithful); and Ar Hyd Y Nos – which has been used for a range of hymns, including All Through The Night, For The Beauty Of creation, and God, That Madest Earth And Heaven.

“Singing is part of our Welsh tradition and culture, particularly in the Rhondda,” Father Bigmore said. “We have a rich heritage of tunes that needs to be nurtured. Welsh hymns raise the spirits, gives impetus of hope and joy – and we saw that very recently at the Euro2016 [football] games when the terraces of France resounded with Cwm Rhondda and Calon Lân as thousands of Welsh fans turned to our best known hymns to urge the team on – with considerable success too!

“While the fans know the tunes, though, not many of them know all the words or are even aware of our other great hymns. This is partly because they are in Welsh but also because the language is not understood – words like ‘co-eternal’, ‘consubstantial’, ‘ineffably sublime’ are a bit of a mouthful to today’s youngsters – they don’t know what they mean.

“My aim is to give these tunes a new lease of life by giving them words that people will understand and remember. I also want to rekindle our culture of hymn singing. We live in a world where there is great need. Loneliness, rejection, isolation and poverty affect many people within our communities. I hope that by bringing people together of all ages to sing these hymns – in one voice – the above concerns may alleviate in some way for the good of all.”

Father Bigmore says he was inspired to prepare the book after a conversation he had with the former Archbishop of Canterbury and of Wales, Rowan Williams. “He was saying how sad it was that all those lovely hymn tunes and melodies we were brought up with were dying out fast. I decided there and then to do something about it.”

Lord Williams, a past president of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, wrote the foreword for the book, describing it as “a welcome resource.”

He wrote: “It is a tragedy when the heritage of theology and devotion expressed in song fades away. Fr Paul – another visionary where choral music is concerned – has observed with concern the decline in the great musical tradition of Welsh Christianity and has worked tirelessly and imaginatively for many years to counter that decline and to promote the best of this tradition, creating new opportunities for young people to learn and enjoy.”

The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, will launch and dedicate the new hymn book at the Church of St John the Baptist in Cardiff on 17 September. He will be joined by BBC Wales presenter Roy Noble, the Llandaff Cathedral Girls’ Choir; and a children’s choir from the Rhondda, Cor y Cwm.

“Music and hymnody can help us to express our deepest feelings and desires as few other things can,” Dr Morgan said. “Through both, we can speak to God and God can touch our hearts. This is precisely what this book of new hymns to familiar tunes does and Paul Bigmore has put us all in his debt.”