Welsh history and its sources
Welsh history and its sources

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Welsh history and its sources

4.3 The celebrated Cyfarthfa band

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Merthyr Tydfil was the world's greatest supplier of iron and the largest town in Wales. It was dominated by Cyfarthfa Castle, the huge and ostentatious home of the greatest of the iron barons, Robert Thompson Crawshay.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Crawshay established a band: a brass band that was to become one of the greatest musical ensembles of the Victorian period.

This programme, from the Open University course AA302 From composition to performance: musicians at work, shows how the musical and cultural identity of this band was reconstructed from a range of sources.

Professor Trevor Herbert, who first identified the sources for this story, was interested in addressing three key questions:

  • When did this band come into being and how was it run?

  • What did the band sound like?

  • Why was such a band formed in a place like Merthyr Tydfil?

Download this video clip.Video player: The celebrated Cyfarthfa band
Skip transcript: The celebrated Cyfarthfa band

Transcript: The celebrated Cyfarthfa band

[MUSIC PLAYING]
CONDUCTOR:
Number one, with lots of silence at the end.
[MUSIC PLAYING]
NARRATOR:
This is a sound which was lost for a hundred years, dance music written for the first and greatest Victorian private band.
These leading professional players are recording it for a CD on instruments of the period. The reconstruction of the band and its repertoire is the culmination of 10 years of musical and historical research.
The Cyfarthfa Band was formed in Merthyr Tydfil in the early years of Queen Victoria's reign. Merthyr was the largest town in Wales and one of the world's most important centres of iron production. The biggest iron works in the town was the great Cyfarthfa Works, owned by the Crawshay family.
[IRONWORKS SOUNDS]
By the 1820s, when these watercolours were painted, the Crawshays were massively wealthy. They built a castle on the hill overlooking the Works, at a cost of 30,000 pounds. Here, they lived a life of luxury and entertained the rich and influential. With its spacious grounds and opulent fittings, Cyfarthfa Castle was a cultural oasis from the desolate town below.
WILLIAM KAY (VOICEOVER):
Street after street of low, confined tenements with roads unformed, without footpaths, undrained, presenting a mass of mud and filth, and destitute of the slightest provision for carrying off the refuse of a teeming population.
NARRATOR:
It was in these circumstances that a brass band was formed by Robert Thompson Crawshay, who took over as Iron Master of Cyfarthfa in the 1830s. A portrait of his band master, George Livsey still hangs in the castle, which is now a museum.
Little was known about Crawshay's band. History books always described it as being formed in 1844, about the time when amateur working class bands were being set up all over Britain. The assumption was that this was just another works band, like any other.
But then, in 1986, the curator of the castle phoned Trevor Herbert at the Open University and asked him to come and look at some musical items he'd found in an attic. They included a most unusual collection of brass instruments. On the rim of the bells was engraved the name of the owner of the Cyfarthfa Ironworks. These were some of the lost instruments of the Cyfarthfa Band. And as Trevor Herbert examined them, he realised that the widely held assumptions about the band must be wrong.
TREVOR HERBERT:
Until well into the 19th century, the players in this band were playing on keyed instruments, like this one. Even when they changed to more modern instruments, they bought foreign imports, mainly from Vienna, with rotary valves. Now, this runs directly contrary to the pattern that was occurring throughout the rest of the country.
Brass bands were being set up. And they tended to play, exclusively, instruments with piston valves, just like this. This, I think, is very interesting, because it suggests that the Cyfarthfa Band was different. It was not just any brass band. It was not a part of the great amateur working class brass band movement.
NARRATOR:
Piston valves were widely available in Britain from the mid 1840s. The instruments were cheap and easy to play. So they encouraged the spread of brass bands in working class communities. Trevor Herbert's suspicion that the Cyfarthfa Band was different was supported by receipt which he found in the Crawshay Archives. It lists older instruments, such as ophicliedes and keyed bugles.
Robert Crawshay bought three 8-keyed bugles with tuning slides in 1840. This means that he had an established band before the spread of piston valves. This is confirmed by Crawshay's obituary in a Merthyr newspaper. It gives a date for the founding of the band, 1838.
[MUSIC - ARTHUR SULLIVAN, "THE LOST CHORD"]
Robert Crawshay's personal taste was a crucial element in the makeup of his band. As late as the 1860s, he was still using the old keyed instruments, together with the newer valve instruments, as they came in. Trevor Herbert had already worked on several projects with the virtuoso trumpeter John Wallace. And they decided to reconstruct the sound of the band around 1860, because of its unique mix of sonorities.
JOHN WALLACE (VOICEOVER):
I think it's the most interesting period of the band's history. But with all most interesting periods, you have the most problems. Although some of the instruments were in the museum, finding 20 mid-19th century instruments in working order, I thought, would be beyond us. But in the end, the [INAUDIBLE] process took between three and four years.
[MUSIC PLAYING]
NARRATOR:
One of the problems was to choose a pitch which would suit all the instruments.
JOHN WALLACE (VOICEOVER):
All of the keyed instruments, at the time, were built much closer to modern pitch, whereas as the new valve instruments coming in were built at a sort of military band pitch, much, much higher. And so they must have come to some compromise.
The valved instruments played with lots of crooks, had long tuning slides, and they had the capacity to pull out, to flatten them. So it was a compromise in the end. But I feel fairly sure it's a historically accurate compromise, because the state of pitch was in flux at that point in the 1850s, in the brass world.
CONDUCTOR:
D flats and F naturals and [SINGING], yeah. That. It's just through the first, so we can try and get the F's together. Just that fourth bar, please.
[BRASS PLAYING]
Can we get the D natural higher? Yeah. Yeah. Again. Yeah. That's it. Bar five again, please.
Yeah. That's better.
NARRATOR:
Just how good were Crawshay's players? A variety of documentary sources helped to build up a picture of the band in the mid-19th century.
TREVOR HERBERT:
For most of the 19th century, Merthyr was the largest Welsh town. So it was well-served by newspapers. And many of these newspapers contained references to the band. This copy of the Merthyr Express contains a letter from Dan Godfrey, the famous conductor of the Grenadier Guards Band.
DAN GODFREY (VOICEOVER):
"I can say that their performance on that occasion was in every respect excellent and quite equal to that of former years."
NARRATOR:
Crawshay's obituary refers to the introduction of foreigners into the band.
DAN GODFREY (VOICEOVER):
"Mr. Crawshay picked up first class men, wherever he found them, and, in this way, perfected his corp."
NARRATOR:
All this points to something much more than an amateur works band. But the most conclusive evidence was the band parts, which were rediscovered at Cyfarthfa Castle at the same time as the instruments. They contain a large and sophisticated repertoire, more than 350 pieces of handwritten music. One of Trevor Herbert's biggest tasks was to catalogue them all.
TREVOR HERBERT:
Now, band books, particularly when they're [INAUDIBLE] parts, are very, very important, because they give us a very clear indication of how well the players could play. This music was written especially for individual players. They were bespoke arrangements. Therefore, they give us an idea of the outer limitations of the player's ability. It is clear from these books that the players were virtuoso.
[MUSIC PLAYING]
CHARLES DICKENS (VOICEOVER):
"I had the pleasure of hearing them play and was astonished at their proficiency. The band master had them under excellent control. He everywhere took the time well. And the instruments preserved it, each taking up his lead with spirit and accuracy. In short, I have seldom heard a regimental band more perfect than this handful of workmen located in the mountains of Wales."
NARRATOR:
Clearly, the Cyfarthfa Band was far more than a handful of workmen. As Robert Crawshay brought in professional players, it became, in effect, the first private virtuoso brass band in Britain.
JOHN WALLACE:
Like the original band, we used fully professional players in our modern reconstruction of the band. Now, the thing about contemporary British players is that they have an extremely steep learning curve. They learn phenomenally quickly.
So before the filmed rehearsal, we only had one rehearsal before that, when they'd already had the instruments for private practise for some time. But rehearsal, a few days before the filmed rehearsal, was the moment of truth for a lot of players, when they realised how much work they had to do.
[MUSIC PLAYING]
NARRATOR:
There were no conductor scores. And the individual parts often needed correcting.
JOHN WALLACE (VOICEOVER):
There were still a lot of mistakes in the parts and bars missing, quite an amazing amount, really, when you think from the evidence of the parts how dog-eared a lot of them are how often they were played.
[MUSIC - GC BAWDEN, "CYFARTHFA QUADRILLES"]
CONDUCTOR:
[SINGING] B flat. A natural.
[MUSIC PLAYING]
[SINGING].
NARRATOR:
This is the first opportunity for the players to hear how this unique combination of instruments is sounding. So it's an anxious moment.
[INTERPOSING VOICES]
CONDUCTOR:
We think we can hear everything.
[INTERPOSING VOICES]
ADRIAN FARMER:
Thing is I got replies from baritones were missing were in long sustained notes. I can hear it when they're together with the cornets and bugles again. [SINGING], or whatever. But there is some marvellous caudal writing in the middle.
CONDUCTOR:
Yeah, probably my fault. Cause where I am, I hear an awful lot of them.
ADRIAN FARMER:
Really?
CONDUCTOR:
I mean, I don't get a balance like you're getting in here, cause I'm so close to them. So I'm saying shush, shush, shush. And in fact, I don't need to.
JOHN WALLACE:
We're just worried a little bit about the definition on the bass end, on the tubas. They say it sounds gloopy.
ADRIAN FARMER:
Gloopy?
JOHN WALLACE:
Gloopy.
ADRIAN FARMER:
That will be a technical term.
[MUSIC PLAYING]
NARRATOR:
There's a large collection of dance music in the band books. They played for grand balls, which the Crawshays held in the waggon shed of the works.
This photograph is taken in 1871, at the marriage of Robert Crawshay's daughter. The importance of the band in the household is shown by their inclusion in the photograph. At this picnic at Tenby, you can just make out the band standing in their customary square Formation.
On the band masters' music stand is a page of Beethoven's "First Symphony." The band books contain a very wide repertoire of 19th century art music, including several complete symphonies and excerpts from the latest Italian operas.
The "Tydfil Overture" was composed especially for the band. Joseph Perry was born in Merthyr and became the first professor of music at the University of Wales. This is probably the earliest work written for brass band by a composer of this stature.
By the 1870s, when this music was written, the fortunes of the Crawshay family, and their ironworks, were in decline. Robert Crawshay had been deaf since a stroke in 1859. But he continued to support the band and to run the ironworks. In 1866, his father wrote to him about his management of the works.
WILLIAM CRAWSHAY (VOICEOVER):
"You have made the damnedest mess of them that ever man made of a good consour. Not one farthing profit did you make last year. Your deafness unfits you for anything but fishing. But you will not see this or your utter want of success. Your affectionate father, William Crawshay."
NARRATOR:
In fact, the odds had been stacked against the Cyfarthfa Ironworks for some years. There was strong competition from the other works in the area and from abroad. And the demand for iron was in decline. In 1874, prices slumped. There was a strike over wage cuts. And the works were closed. In 1877, the workers gathered outside the Castle, hoping to persuade Robert Crawshay to change his mind, but in vain. He told him that the Cyfarthfa Works would never open again in his lifetime. His beloved band was there in the crowd.
Two years later, Robert Thompson Crawshay, known as the last of the Iron Kings, died. He was taken from the Castle to a church in the hills, which Crawshay himself had built.
MAN (VOICEOVER):
Every window had its blind down and all the shops were closed. The schoolchildren, drawn up in rows on each side, awaited the cortege, having had the permission of the family to do so, and through bunches of flowers, under the break.
The burial ground was kept pretty well clear, but there was a deep belt of people crowding the boundary walls all around. The sun shone brilliantly and tempered by his genial rays, the inclement north wind, which blew with quite wintery severity.
TREVOR HERBERT:
Crawshay was buried in a coffin made from wood that he had supervised the cutting of. He was buried in a grave exactly 14 feet deep. He left instructions that no one should ever share his grave and that it be covered by a single stone of no less than five tonnes in weight.
NARRATOR:
The significance of the inscription is obscure. Some said that Crawshay was a tyrannical employer. Perhaps he carried guilt for the failure of the Ironworks. What is now established is that he created a unique musical institution, which he developed according to his own taste and sustained with passion to the very end of his life, despite his deafness. In accordance with his instructions, the waggon which took him to his grave carried only one passenger, George Livsey, conductor of the celebrated Cyfarthfa Band.
[SOLEMN MUSIC]
CONDUCTOR:
Thank you very much indeed. Back at 2:30. 2:30. Back at 2:30. Thank you very much indeed. 2:30. 2:30.
End transcript: The celebrated Cyfarthfa band
The celebrated Cyfarthfa band
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