When heaven and nature sing, Wales joins the chorus

A Welsh Christmas! The phrase makes you think of Dylan Thomas's ``A Child's Christmas in Wales'': the warm little house full of sisters and mothers who ``scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens''; and uncles everywhere; and Auntie Hannah standing ``in the middle of the snowbound backyard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush''; and three small boys - their voices ``high and seemingly distant in the snow-felted darkness'' - singing ``Good King Wenceslas'' outside the dark door of a big strange house, only to run home in terror when a ``small, dry voice'' inside joined in. Then, as the Welsh poet wrote, there was singing around the piano: ``Always on Christmas night there was music.''

Wales - the ``Land of Song'' - is full of singers and singing, choirs and choristers, good, bad, but never indifferent. They're busy all year round, and Christmas is certainly no exception. Performances of ``Messiah'' abound. Local and school carol concerts are on every hand. Choirs give charity concerts. And the sound is uniquely, indelibly Welsh.

Wales is particularly famous for its male choirs. They are as likely to let fling at a rugby match as in a concert hall.

``Probably every village and town in Wales has a male voice choir,'' says Richard Williams, a musician who for many years has run three choirs here in the valley town of Tonyrefail. ``I think the last census put it at 220.''

The men's choirs, to outsiders, are still linked with images of singing coal miners. But the Welsh coal mining industry is not what it once was. Although 70 collieries were still running in the nearby Rhondda Valley in the late 1940s, the last mines there shut down after the collapse of the 1984-85 miners' strike.

Yet the diminution of Welsh coal mining has not killed off the choral tradition. Nor has the diminishing interest in chapel-based religion, which fostered Welsh choral singing in the 19th century, spelled the demise of the Welsh chorus.

Alun John, a music producer with BBC Wales, does bemoan the fact that schools in Wales have a growing ``tendency to teach orchestral music rather than singing.'' But nobody can say that the Welsh choir tradition is anywhere near dead and gone, and nobody disputes the unique sound of Welsh singing.

``Most male voice choirs are 80 to 100 in numbers,'' says choirmaster Williams, ``and everyone likes the big sound of male voice choirs.'' He laughs. ``They don't worry much about the quality sometimes, as long as the volume's there!''

Some of the male choirs are vast. One, ``The South Wales Male Voice Choir'' (``Cor Meibion de Cymru''), combines about 20 choirs, ``some 350 voices at full strength,'' Williams says.

Williams runs a choir for women and one for children, as well as the men's choir. His own women's choir, the Richard Williams Singers, was scheduled to do a Christmas concert with the 20-choir-strong barrage of masculine vocality.

He had no doubts, however, that the voices of his 25 women could easily soar above the men. They are so good that their reputation frightens off some would-be members. In fact, the male choir members have been heard to comment on the women: ``Ah, but they're professionals!''

But they aren't. The Richard Williams singers are secretaries, nurses, homemakers, students, a hairdresser, and tax office employees. Many of them started in the children's choir and have shown an astonishing dedication to their singing and to their conductor for more than 20 years.

Their conductor very clearly has a special affection for his ``girls' choir,'' as he - and the women - call it. Their repertoire ranges from Mozart to Cole Porter, from madrigals to specially commissioned modern works. They seem as much at home with the profound as they are with the trivial - but they don't sing trivially, ever. Williams arranges many of their songs, making often subtle use of their talents.

``The best time to catch a choir,'' says Jan Morris in her book ``The Matter of Wales,'' ``is at practice, when it has not been stiffened up with clean shirts and clasped hands for the concert.''

And that's how this reporter found the women's group, rehearsing for one of its four Christmas concerts. The rehearsal room is a converted shop adjoining Williams's house; it's as unpretentious as it is crowded.

The young women filled the room with a stirring combination of strong, clear song, mellowed with a kind of romantic longing: An assured rendering of Schubert's ``Ave Maria'' and a startlingly vigorous Czech song called ``Kravarky'' were followed by dreamy versions of ``O Holy Night'' and ``Sleep, Little Prince.''

Williams is a benevolent tyrant. He scowls with morosely as things go awry in one part of ``O Holy Night.'' He puts the sopranos through their paces. He groans and mutters and clicks his fingers. He winces as a note is not quite true. He tells one girl, ``If you tried to push your tongue through your teeth now, you couldn't! Open your mouth! Open it! Look, like this!''

But Williams becomes almost ecstatic in gesture as he lifts his singers into the rhythmic heights of Andrew Lloyd Webber's ``Hosanna! Hey-sanna!''

Later, Williams drove me through the black, silhouetted hills to Cardiff to catch the late-night train. As we passed lines of terraced cottages once lived in by miners, the singing still echoed like happiness in my ears.

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