"A Thousand Fathers" - The Origins of the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod: Professor Chris Adams, April 2006

The first International Musical Eisteddfod was held in Llangollen in 1947. In the 60 years since then it has become one of the world’s great music festivals. This account of its origins draws only on verifiable contemporary records. We owe to Harold Tudor, from Coedpoeth near Wrexham, the creation of the concept of an international music competition to be held in Wales as a device for healing the wounds of the Second World War. The origins of the idea go back as far as 1943, and the visit of members of governments-in-exile to the Welsh National Eisteddfod in Bangor; a visit organised by Tudor, then working as an officer of the British Council.

Juraj Slavik, the Minister for the Interior in the Czechoslovak Government in Exile, and a noted writer and poet, wrote to Tudor extolling the virtues of an international musical experience. In 1944 the Llandybie National Eisteddfod featured an international concert, and at roughly the same time the British Council was also involved in the first discussions leading to the 1947 Edinburgh Festival. The International Eisteddfod was definitely an idea whose time had come.

By late 1945 Tudor had crystallised and polished his concept enough to suggest that an international choral festival could be an adjunct to the 1947 Welsh National Eisteddfod. But the Council of the National Eisteddfod, deeply enmeshed in rebuilding their own organisation after the war, felt they could not do justice to the idea. Tudor, now seeking support for an independent festival, turned elsewhere and eventually found fertile ground in Llangollen, and two articulate allies: W. S. Gwynn Williams, a noted Welsh composer and music publisher; and George Northing, a teacher from Dinas Brân County School and chairman of the local council. Both pressed for the Eisteddfod to be in their town.

There was strong and enthusiastic support from the local professional classes at two public meetings held in May 1946, but many concerns were also expressed. Would any choirs come? The British Council undertook to help find European choral groups who would come to Llangollen. Where would the event be held? W.S Gwynn Williams had spotted a marsuquee capable of seating over 6,000 people at the Anglesey Eisteddfod, and quickly arranged with its Chester owners that it could be booked for Llangollen in June 1947. How would it be financed? The town declined an offer of financial support from the British Council. Instead a public subscription quickly raised over £1100 - about £35,000 in 2006 money - on the understanding that any surplus would be used to fund a second International Eisteddfod in 1948.

In true Welsh style, committees were formed: finance, tickets, grounds, hospitality, and publicity survive to this day. George Northing was Chairman of the executive board, Gwynn Williams Music Director, Harold Tudor Director of Publicity. W. Clayton Russon, a successful local businessman and High Sheriff of Merionethshire, became President, a good choice: his quiet work and steadying influence behind the scenes of the first festival has not always been adequately appreciated.

The intervening year went very very quickly. All sorts of arrangements had to be made. The layout of the school field had to be planned, everything from catering to changing rooms and latrines. Billets for the competitors were found, the overseas visitors in houses in the town, domestic competitors mainly on campbeds in church and school halls. Emergency ration coupons had to be prised out of the Ministry of Food. Translators were also needed - 60 years ago English was not yet everyone’s second language - and were sourced from local industry, and from the County School staff and pupils.

Tickets, programmes, posters had to be printed at a time when paper was in very short supply, and bus and train companies alerted to the need for extra transport. The arrangements of the test pieces had to be finalised and copies sent to competitors. The minutes of the various committees resonate with decisions still visible today: competitors would wear national costume on stage and as much as practical at other times; each choir would have a host or hostess to look after them.

Suddenly it was June, and there was a railway strike in France. Could any of competitors really arrive in Llangollen? Yes they could - 40 choirs from 14 countries. The first competitors’ bus drove down Castle Street to the accompaniment of an audible sigh of relief. It brought the ladies’ choir Grupo Musical Feminino, from Oporto in Portugal, whose travel expenses totalled £1200. They won first prize in their competition, worth £50. In the male voice competition all honours went to the Hungarian workers’ choir, who had hitchhiked across France from Basle when their trains were cancelled. The adjudicator John Morgan Lloyd praised the “velvet profundity of the basses” and their “genuine diapasic tone”, and cautioned them to take care lest any of their members be kidnapped by Welsh choirmasters on their journey home.

A Spanish dance troupe, on a tour of Britain sponsored by the Esperanto Society, also turned up, and their performances so delighted the audience that folk dance competitions have featured in every subsequent Llangollen Eisteddfod; and Geoff Charles, photographer with Y Cymro, created an instant cliché by cramming the Spanish beauties into a canal boat to have their photographs taken. The Sunday concert featured the Hallé orchestra and Sir John Barbirolli. The surplus was £1432.

By all possible measures, cultural, humanitarian, and financial, the 1947 International Eisteddfod was an unqualified success. Plaudits rang down on the organisers, the founders, and all the competitors.

And they lived happily ever after… well, not quite…

Even before the first Eisteddfod finished, there had begun a leadership crisis that lasted nearly a year, and whose echoes have intermittently haunted the Eisteddfod ever since. Harold Tudor, without consulting the Llangollen organisers, publicly floated the idea that the next International Eisteddfod should be held in a different Welsh town, possibly even in a different country. The response from his colleagues can be imagined. Tudor finally resigned as Director of Publicity in November 1947, citing the reorganisation of the British Council as making it difficult to continue working with the Llangollen organisation. The British Council Manchester office, writing in response to a plea from the Eisteddfod for continuing involvement by Tudor, made it clear that for them no such difficulties existed.

The first Chairman, George Northing, also left in unhappy circumstances; personal problems took his mind off Eisteddfod business during the winter of 1947-48 and he resigned in the Spring at the request of the Executive Committee. The Executive baton passed to Jack Rhys Roberts, Head of Science in the County School, Vice Chairman in 1947. Together with W S Gwynn Williams, he led the Eisteddfod through its golden age. The next few years saw numerous countries represented for the first time, such as: Argentina and China in 1948; USA and, notably, Germany in 1949; Brazil, Sri Lanka and Turkey in 1950; India and Indonesia in 1951. By 1953, musicians from 50 countries had competed in Llangollen. A truly international festival had been created.

In 1953, the new Queen, Elizabeth II, visited the Eisteddfod as part of her post-coronation tour of Wales. By then the Eisteddfod had won numerous accolades, formal and informal. It was one of four Welsh festivals selected to be part of the Festival of Britain. The BBC coverage of each year’s festival compared with what they put on for test matches. The British Council sited one of its residential summer schools for foreign students in Llangollen in Eisteddfod week. UNESCO recorded the 1952 Eisteddfod, and issued a double 12” LP.

What is it about Llangollen that has captured so many hearts, and keeps people coming back? We believe it is the experience of a week when the shared enthusiasm for music and dance becomes the most important factor in life. Like the ancient Saturnalia, the normal rules are stood on their head: fears about war, religious strife, ancient and recent atrocities, all recede before the tidal wave of harmony and counterpoint. The continuity of the beautiful setting in the Dee Valley helps enormously.

Each year in July we celebrate all the people whose voluntary and paid efforts set up the festival, and sustained it through 60 years. As John Fitzgerald Kennedy said after the Bay of Pigs, “Success has a thousand fathers, failure is an orphan”. The Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod is by no means an orphan. Further InformationFor further information about the story of the International Eisteddfod, we recommend the book “Fifty Glorious Weeks”, compiled by Mr R. B. Attenburrow, Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, 1996. ISBN 0 9528296 0 6. Copies may be ordered from the Eisteddfod Office, price £4.00 including postage and packing.

Further Information

For further information about the story of the International Eisteddfod, we recommend the book “Fifty Glorious Weeks”, compiled by Mr R. B. Attenburrow, Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, 1996. ISBN 0 9528296 0 6. Copies may be ordered from the Eisteddfod Office, price £4.00 including postage and packing.

To see newsreels of the first Eisteddfod, visit http://www.movietone.com. After registering, follow the links to the archive, and search for “Llangollen”.

Other Sources of Relevant Material

  • Clwyd Archives (Llangollen International Eisteddfod, and Harold Tudor papers)
  • British Council Records (held in the National Archive in Kew)
  • National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA
  • Welsh National Eisteddfod Records, Cardiff
  • Llangollen Museum