The Writing Of Cwm Rhondda.
It was during the early part of September 1907 that John Hughes was approached by D.W.Thomas, the secretary, precentor, organist and leader of Capel Rhondda Welsh Baptist Chapel in Hopkinstown, Pontypridd. He invited the young musician and fellow organist with whom he enjoyed a close association, to compose a new hymn tune for a forthcoming Annual Cymanfa Ganu, or music festival, at Capel Rhondda. The event, which was due to be held on November 1st, 1907 would also coincide with the installation of a new pipe organ at the chapel.
According to a rare handwritten letter by his wife, he came home late from work and told her of his meeting with D.W.Thomas. She explained, “My husband had to wait for inspiration before composing. Some weeks had passed when he went to service on a Sunday morning and when he came home he said, ‘I think I have it’.” He spent the remainder of the day composing the piece on his upright piano at home, unusually missing the chapel services for the rest of that day and by bedtime it was completed. On the following day he visited Capel Rhondda and sought D.W. Thomas’s approval for his new work with Mr Thomas’s son playing the piece on the piano in the chapel.
The work had its first public performance as planned in Capel Rhondda on the Ist November, 1907 with Hughes himself taking the seat at the new organ. For this first performance Hughes’ melody was accompanied by words from ‘Wele’n Sefyll Rhwng y Myrtwydd’ by Ann Griffiths.
Griffiths (1776-1805) of Llanfihangel-yng-Ngwynfa, Montgomeryshire was a well known eighteenth century hymn writer and mystic. Like many of her generation, she experienced a spiritual awakening under the influence of the Methodist Revival. She went on to write some of the most important hymns in the Welsh language, works that are regarded by many as masterpieces of European religious verse. Later Hughes would use a different hymn to accompany his score, Peter Williams Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah, a translation of William Williams Arglwydd, Arwain Trwy'r Anialwch, first published in 1745. From this point on Hughes’s rousing score set to Williams hymn became as one. It was this version of the hymn that made Cwm Rhondda an international success.
William Williams (Pantycelyn) (1717- 1791) was Wales’s greatest and one of its most prolific hymn writer with nearly 1000 hymns written in both English and Welsh. A farmer’s son from Cefn-y-Coed near Llandovery, he intended to be a doctor until hearing the charismatic preacher Howell Harris and later became recognised as one of the most important Methodist leaders of the century. He is commonly known as Pantycelyn, after where he lived. Today of all Pantycelyn’s works only Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer in the form of Cwm Rhondda, is still in common use.
Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah tells the biblical story from the Book of Exodus of the flight from Egypt. After escaping from 430 years of slavery in Egypt Moses leads the Israelites through the desert towards the ‘Promised Land’. Its tale of release from slavery struck a cord both with the mining communities of South Wales but also further afield in Africa and America, where amongst the Afro-American communities people saw parallels to their own lives in the story.
Originally John Hughes’s hymn was entitled Rhondda in honour of the chapel where it was first performed. However, within a year the eminent choral conductor Harry Evans (1873-1914) is believed to have renamed it. Mr Evans, also born in Dowlais in the same year as John Hughes, was probably the most famous Welsh conductor and composer of his time and had suggested using the tune in a Cymanfa Ganu in Liverpool in the early part of 1908. However whilst being a supporter of Hughes’s work he was of the opinion it could be confused with another hymn of the same name written by Moses Owen Jones (1842-1908) of Caernarfon, who moved to the Rhondda in 1862 as precentor of Carmel Chapel and the founder conductor of the Treherbert Male Voice Choir. He also formed the Carmel Mixed Choir and they gave the first performance in the Rhondda of Handel’s Messiah in September 1876. According to reports Mr Evans changed the name himself to Cwm Rhondda for the Liverpool Festival and wrote to John Hughes some days later to advise him that it was “for the best”. Other reports suggest that he advised the composer to rename it, with John Hughes deciding on Cwm Rhondda following the valley that began literally on the doorstep of Hopkinstown itself.
Whatever the method of renaming it was, John Hughes was quick to acknowledge the advice and although the original version of Rhondda was printed in tonic-solfa copies, it was renamed in 1908 to its present title of Cwm Rhondda.