A Requiem to reflect and remember the lost soldiers of the Great War

29 July 2017

The third page of the Llangollen Advertiser, Denbighshire, Meirionethshire and North Wales Journal of 14 September 1917 reported the sad news already known to many of its readers following the recent National Eisteddfod in Birkenhead.

The report stated, “Dyfed called on ‘Fleur de Lys’ to declare himself, but “There was no voice or any that answered.”  Then from the back of the platform a gentleman appeared and made a communication to Dyfed, who, coming gravely forward, announced that the victor had fallen in battle and lay in a silent grave in a foreign land since last July.”

The fallen soldier-poet was Ellis Humphrey Evans, Hedd Wyn, a 29 year old from Trawsfynydd, killed exactly a hundred years ago on 31 July, the first day of the bloody battle of Passchendaele.  A century later, Hedd Wyn’s name lives on, the young man representing the nation’s loss, and epitomising the thousands of young men killed during the Great War.

On Friday evening, 4 August, the National Eisteddfod will remember the sacrifice of Hedd Wyn and the fallen generation of Welsh young men during its opening performance, A Oes Heddwch? (Is There Peace?). 

The musical project, led by two brothers, well known in the Welsh music scene, Aled and Dafydd Hughes, members of Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog, brings together a wide range of styles and genres, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales working with the National Eisteddfod’s own 240-strong choir, which has been rehearsing throughout the winter months.

A haunting Requiem – Gorffwysgan - created by celebrated composer, Paul Mealor, whose family roots are on Anglesey, and poet, Grahame Davies, forms the centrepiece of the performance, commissioned specifically for the evening.

“Growing up in Wales, one is surrounded by the legend of Hedd Wyn. I am humbled and honoured to be able to contribute something, through the medium of music, to honour him and his work,” says Paul Mealor.

“In our requiem setting, we wanted to convey a sense of deep peace, of timelessness, of how all great things, whether they are the written art (as in the wonderful poetry of Hedd Wyn) or the truest human sentiment, cannot be destroyed by war or darkness but, over time, become stronger and even more urgent and beautiful.

“Hedd Wyn's life was short, but his poetry has lasted for a hundred years and more. The requiem section is intended to help us remember that and to give the briefest of reposes as we remember Hedd Wyn and all of the young men who lost their lives in that terrible war. Let the rolling bells, in chant and uplifting voices of the children wash over you and... remember...”

Grahame Davies, whose poignant verses accompany Mealor’s music, added, “Hedd Wyn’s story is an integral part of our experience as Welsh people.  It’s one of the most poignant stories of the First World War, and a symbol of losing a generation of young boys. 

“In Gorffwysgan, we have sought to emphasise some of the universal aspects of Hedd Wyn’s story, in the knowledge that the experience of exile, suffering, and loss is sadly still too common today.  Within the structure of elements of the traditional Mass, we have tried to give expression to the desire for justice, for relief from affliction, and a yearning for peace. 

“The words of the Sanctus seek to question some traditional assumptions and suggest power can be combined with humanity and that apparent weakness can have a hidden power.”

Divided into five sections, the performance not only depicts the horror of war but also life at home back here in Wales, as well as the fateful afternoon at the Birkenhead Eisteddfod, when a black shroud was draped over the majestic Eisteddfod Chair as a mark of respect for the fallen winner. 

The words to Aled and Dafydd Hughes’ music are composed by Guto Dafydd, with both the brothers and Guto creatively inspired by a series of community workshops in Anglesey and Gwynedd.  The performance is directed by Siwan Llynor.

The project is a partnership between the National Eisteddfod of Wales, Snowdonia National Park Authority, Arts Council of Wales, Gwynedd County Council, Anglesey County Council and BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Limited tickets are still available for the performance.  These can be ordered through the Eisteddfod website, www.eisteddfod.wales or by ringing the Ticketline on 0845 4090 800.