Category Archives: Music

The Devil’s Violin performing “Stolen” at Neuadd Dyfi

Tonight I went to see Stolen at the Neuadd Dyfi by The Devil’s Violin.  I booked myself in with a very open mind but with no clear idea of what it would be all about.  Here’s the description that was given on the Neuadd Dyfi website:

The Devil’s Violin return with an enchanting blend of words and music. Brimming with dreamlike images that will haunt you long after the performance ends, The Devil’s Violin will take you on an epic journey to The Land Of No Return.  The essence of all cinema, theatre and literature is a gripping tale well told. Using live music and the spoken word, The Devil’s Violin return us to that essence.  Nothing is as detailed and rich as the world we can create with our own minds… Daniel Morden transports you to the Land of No Return, his story telling enhanced by the hypnotic string accompaniment of Sarah Moody and Oliver Wilson-Dickson.  The ensemble take you on an epic journey through a dream like land where you will encounter a King turned to stone, an old woman living in the claw of a giant cockerel and a glass man filled with wasps. www.thedevilsviolin.co.uk

Stolen somewhat defies adequate description.  As the picture above shows, The Devil’s violin consists of three performers, a narrator (Daniel Morden), a violinist (Oliver Wilson-Dickson) and a cellist (Sarah Moody).  The narrator tells the story of the youngest and least courageous of three princes who goes on quest to retrieve the stolen Bird of Hope to restore the eyesight of his father, the king.  Along the way he finds similarly troubled people, all of whom have also been victims of the Pale King, who resides in the Land of No Return.   The young prince promises to search for help for these tragic beings in the Land of No Return.  Along the way he hears many stories, tells one of his own and he becomes a story in his own right.

Daniel Morden takes on all the parts in the narrative, be it a bird, a prince, an old woman or a princess, and there is a lot of humour threaded throughout, with lots of laughs from the audience.  The story is interwoven with music, sometimes the marvellous tunes being left to tell their own parts of the tangled tale, sometimes wild and joyous, often melancholy, sometimes doom-laden, but always phenomenally beautiful.  Pieces of it reminded me of Tartini’s Devil’s Sonata, but there were also layers of Irish fiddle music.  The interplay of the violin and the cello was simply superb, and the finesse of both the individual performances and the precision of their synergy was remarkable.

Just before the interval the audience was asked to make a decision about how the dilemma in the story that the prince tells in the Land of No Return should be resolved.  At the beginning of the second part, the lights were left up and members of the audience shouted out their preferred solution to the dilemma.  It was great fun to hear some of the more outrageous suggestions, and as Daniel Morden pointed out, there was a real gender division in the proposed outcomes!  There is a poetic ending, and the story comes to a satisfying close.  Overall, it was a mosaic of fable, parable, allegory, myth, yarn and poetry, delivered with humour, skill and real style and flair.

I had only been to the Neuadd Dyfi once to join the older people’s exercise spot on a Monday afternoon, which is in the large, light-filled back room, so I was by no means sure what to expect of the theatre venue.   My thanks to Aberdovey resident David Inman, who recommended the performances at the Neauadd to me, and he was spot on – it was a delight.  Comfortable chairs in well spaced rows were laid out in a crescent formation to face the stage, which was beautifully lit.  The acoustics are good and the atmosphere friendly and charged with anticipation. Everyone seems to know everyone else!  A swift glance around suggested that was a wide age mix, mainly of the over-40s, more generally the over-50s, but there was a smattering of younger people and even children there too.  Nice to have the mix.  There was a bar selling hot and cold drinks, including wine and beer, and the dress was generally smart-casual, relaxed.  I sat next to Gwenda, who is off to Bala tomorrow on the 57th anniversary of her wedding day to see the chapel where she was married.  What a super idea.

My thanks to The Devil’s Violin for a great evening, and to the Neuadd Dyfi’s Des George and his team for organizing it.   It was a splendid evening.  You can find out more about The Devil’s Violin, including their upcoming schedule, on their website.

I enjoyed the whole experience enormously and have already bought my ticket for The Mid Wales Opera’s SmallStages performance of A Spanish Hour:  Ravel’s L’heure espagnole, first performed in 1911.  See more about the performance on their website here, and you can book via the Neuadd Dyfi website here.

The legend of Cantre’r Gawelod and the bells of Aberdovey

The bells of Aberdovey are the most famous actors in a number a number of local legends.  The legends are captured in poems and songs, and will be very familiar to any regular visitors to Aberdovey.  They concern a piece of very fertile low land that was said to be several miles out from the shoreline of Cardigan Bay, and was swallowed by the sea.

The most common of the legends, the one favoured today, tells the story of the bells that belonged to wealthy towns that stood in rich, fertile land that was protected by sea walls but was eventually drowned by the sea.  In the tradition, the land, called Maes Gwyddno (Maes, meaning land or plain; Gwyddno, meaning of Gwyddno), was part of the kingdom of Meirionydd and ruled by Gwyddno Garanhir (Garanhir, meaning long limbs or Longshanks).  Meirionnydd was a kingdom and then cantref, the southern part of what is now Gwynedd, between the Mawddach river at Borth in the north and the Dfyi at Aberdovey in the south.

Meirionnydd in mid west Wales (Source: Map of cantrefi of Wales by XrysD CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Aberdovey is supposed to the be the nearest place on dry land to the former location of Maes Gwyddno.  The legend refers to Maes Gwyddno as Cantre’r Gawelod, which translates as The Bottom Hundred, or Lowland Hundred. The translation “hundred” comes from the word cantref itself, which was a way of dividing up the land for administrative purposes, like counties.  Cantref is a concatenation of two words, cant (meaning hundred) and tref (meaning town).  A hundred in English is also an administrative area.  The term is first recorded in the 10th Century, but the etymology of the word is unclear and the Oxford English Dictionary sits firmly on the fence in this matter.

The best known story is that the low land of Maes Gwyddno, or Cantre’r Gawelod,  with its 16 wealthy towns or villages, the most prestigious of which was Manua, was protected by dykes or sea walls.  The land was drained at low tide by opening sluice gates.  The sluice gates were closed as the tide began to rise, a task overseen by a watchman.  One night the spring tide was whipped into a frenzy by a bad storm and beat against the sea walls.  Instead of tending the open sluice gate the appointed watchman, the King’s knight Seithennin/Seithenyn, was attending revels in the King’s palace, also protected by the sea wall.  This dereliction of duty doomed the land.  As the sea rushed in, the King escaped with some of the revellers along the Sarn Cynfelyn causeway, which remains today (sarnau, meaning stones, are remnants of glacial moraines, now only visible at low tide), and the farmers and villagers were driven away from their rich lands into the far poorer fields and hills behind Cardigan Bay.

A page from the Black Book of Carmarthen (Source: National Library of Wales)

Another version, captured in the poem Boddi Maes Gwyddno (The Drowning of the Land of Gwyddno) is captured in the 13th Century Black Book of Carmarthen, which is the earliest known collection of Welsh verse, bringing together many earlier poems and legends, agrees that Seithennin was at the King’s palace at the time of the storm, but that it was a girl named Mererid who was in charge of the sluice gates.  Seithennin seduced Mererid who failed to close the sluice gates, causing the lands to be submerged beneath the sea.

A different legend says that a fairy well was located near the land, tended to by a priestess.  For reasons unknown, she decided to allow the well to overflow, with the same consequences.

Finally, another tradition has it that a giant called Idris Gawr, whose throne was Cadair Idris (cadair meaning chair) roamed the hills around Aberdovey carrying a massive bell.  Like most of us, he liked to paddle and he sometimes left his mountain eyrie to stride in the waters of the River Dyfi.  One day he was surprised by a great storm and drowned, but his bell continues to ring to this day.

All versions of the legend agree that if you listen carefully, particularly on a quiet night, a Sunday morning or in times of danger, the bells of Cantre’r Gawelod can still be heard from Aberdovey and Ynys-las ringing under the sea.

The English version of Boddi Maes Gwyddno (The Drowning of the Land of Gwyddno) poem is reproduced here, copied from the Cantre’r Gwaelog website, where it is also printed in original and modern Welsh.  I don’t read or speak Welsh but I found the English version incredibly powerful:

Seithennin, stand forth
And behold the seething ocean:
It has covered Gwyddno’s lands.

Cursed be the maiden
Who let it loose after the feast,
The cup-bearer of the mighty sea.

Cursed be the girl
Who let it loose after battle,
The cup-bearer of the desolate ocean.

Mererid’s cry from the city’s heights
Reaches even God.
After pride comes a long ending.

Mererid’s cry from the city’s heights today,
Implores God.
After pride comes remorse.

Mererid’s cry overcomes me tonight,
And I cannot prosper.
After pride comes a fall.

Mererid’s cry from strong wines;
Bountiful God has made this.
After excess comes poverty.

Mererid’s cry drives me
From my chamber.
After pride comes devastation.

The grave of high-minded Seithennin,
Between Caer Genedr and the sea:
Such a great leader was he.

The poem Clychau Cantre’r Gwaelod (The Bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod) shown here is taken from the the Glaemscrafu website, where the following details are given: “Clychau Cantre’r Gwaelod (The Bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod) is a poem of John James Williams (1869-1954), J. J. by his bardic name. A pastor and a poet, he composed secular poems, many hymns and two scriptural plays. He competed in the poetry contest of the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru (National Eisteddfod of Wales), the most important of the yearly festivals of Welsh culture, and won the chair awarded to the best bard in 1906 and 1908.”  Interesting that the story was interpreted by The Guardian as one of a series of 21 poems that speak to issues of climate change.

The poem Cantre’r Gwaelod shown here is taken from the the Glaemscrafu website at https://www.jrrvf.com/glaemscrafu/english/cantrergwaelod.html

The probably better known love song The Bells of Aberdyfi (Clychau Aberdyfi), beginning “If to me you can be true, Just as true as I to you, It’s one, two, three, four, five and six Sing the Bells of Aberdovey” is often cited as a Welsh poem, but its origins lie in the 18th Century English theatre.  In the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, folk music expert Frank Kidson wrote: ” Charles Dibdin, who, writing a song for it in broken Welsh, used it in his opera Liberty Hall (1786). Miss [Jane] Williams, hearing it traditionally, published a version of it in her collection of 1844, and from that time onward it has been accepted as genuine Welsh. There is certainly no evidence to show that Dibdin used an existing tune (it was quite opposed to his practice), and no copy can be found except Dibdin’s of a date prior to 1844.”  The lyrics are available in both English and Welsh on the Musica International website, and the song can be heard on YouTube, a beautifully sung gentle and lyrical version in Welsh by Cass Meurig and Nial Cain at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2knRU0–dQ.  Here are the English lyrics:

If to me you can be true,
Just as true as I to you,
It’s one, two, three, four, five and six
Sing the Bells of Aberdovey.
One, two, three, four, five and six
It’s one, two, three, four, five and six
Sing the bells of Aberdovey.
Boys do love to be in love,
And girls do love to marry.
But my love’s for only one,
For Bess of Aberdovey.
If your love is just as true
As this love I have for you,
It’s one, two, three, four, five and six,
From the bells of Aberdovey.

Bold with love I’m back once more
Just to camp against your door.
It’s one, two, three, four, five and six
Sing the Bells of Aberdovey.
One, two, three, four, five and six
It’s one, two, three, four, five and six
Sing the bells of Aberdovey.
Here’s and end to all faint hearts,
Till truth it is you’re pleading.
If you just meet be half way,
It wil be all I’m needing.
If your love is half as true
As this love I have for you,
It’s one, two, three, four, five and six,
From the bells of Aberdovey.

The legends of the bells of Aberdovey have become part of the literary and folk music landscapes of Wales, and a fine tradition it is too.