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Gareth Glyn: Anglesey Composer – A first exploration of some of his music


Gareth Glyn was born in 1951 in the town of Machynlleth in mid-Wales. After secondary schooling he graduated from Merton College Oxford although he apparently began composing whilst still at school and received his first broadcast performance when at University. Later he earned a Composer Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music. Glyn has been composing for nearly 40 years and has addressed a wide variety of musical genres and instrumental combinations. A brief look at his opus list reveals works ranging from a Symphony through to simple songs specially aimed at schools. He has experimented with ‘pop’ music as well as more traditional classical pieces. He has written works for both the concert hall and for the television screen.

Gareth tells me that he works largely to commissions and is usually on a tight deadline. His webpage notes that a number of ‘big name’ stars have premiered his music including "the world-renowned baritone Bryn Terfel, the international superstar Charlotte Church, the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Ulster Orchestra, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the organist Jane Watts and many others - including Jonathan Pryce, the villain in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, who performed a work for narrator and orchestra."

The composer presently lives on Anglesey with his wife Eleri Cwyfan; they have two grown-up sons.

Technology is important to Gareth Glyn. I have not seen any of his scores, but I understand that he uses software to set down the notes. This can then be turned into a musical file that can be played back and finally posted on the Internet. All the instruments will take their proper cues and the piece will sound very much like what it would be if played live. Obviously there are limitations – for example for choral and vocal works. And I guess that the ‘computer’ realisation will lack much spontaneity. However, it is a great way to introduce potential listeners and concert promoters to his musical style.

Glyn writes in an eclectic style. It would be wrong to describe him as a ‘light’ music composer – even although three of his works appear on a ‘light music’ CD label. Yet it would appear that melody and listener enjoyment are critical to his musical philosophy.

The one problem in approaching Gareth Glyn’s music is the language barrier. A brief glance at the catalogue on his webpage reveals that nearly two-thirds have Welsh titles which are typically a closed book to non-Welsh speakers. Now this may not be an issue when his music is programmed in Wales, but outside the Principality it could be a barrier to the progress of his works. Of course, I imagine that the composer will happily provide a translation of any title and no doubt concert programme notes would file an explanation and description, but at first glance I would like to see bi-lingual titles in his web page.

A number of works have caught my eye in the list. These include Gwylmabsant (A Festival for the name-day of a local saint) which is written for organ and orchestra. There is also a ‘serious’ overture ‘Fresco’ which seems to be an ideal candidate for recording. A number of interesting chamber works includes a Sonata for Classical Guitar and an exploration of the Mabinogi by a chamber ensemble. It is possible to hear 30 second extracts of these works on his webpage; yet I do not believe it is possible to write critically about these compositions in this introductory article. However listeners are fortunate in having three important and enjoyable works on CD.

One of the longest of Gareth Glyn’s compositions currently available is his ‘Legend of the Lake.’ This work is a spin-off from a film called ‘Madam Wen’ which was produced by the Welsh Film Council. The derived work is a Suite which, of course, stands in its own right. Yet the layout of the work and the titles of the movements suggest that the plot of the film is never too far away. The ‘Madam Wen’ of the title was apparently an aristocratic lady who lived a double life: when not socialising she was the head of a criminal gang. There is little about this notorious lady written in English – but she may well have been a ‘real’ person and her crime was likely to have been smuggling. The plot of the film suggests that after much treachery she is tempted to leaves her criminal ways by falling in love with a magistrate!

The suite is written in five movements –

1. Prologue

2. Night Flight

3. Remembrance

4. Manhunt

5. Spirit of the Lake.

The Prologue is a trumpet solo with no other instruments in support. This music epitomises Madam Wen’s enduring spirit and provides the work with a haunting quality. This theme acts as a kind of leitmotiv throughout the suite. But soon the mood changes – Night Flight was originally an attractive description of a ‘joyous gallop’ made by Madam Wen and her lover. The orchestration reflects this by using pairs of instruments to define phrases: it is in fact an effective scherzo.

Remembrance is the heart of the work. Gareth Glyn writes that this music portrays the longing of the lovers to be together – in spite of their awkward circumstances and incompatible trades. A new theme, not used in the film is added to this music to increase the pathos. It is a lovely interlude which is perfectly poised and finely scored. I am almost tempted to suggest that this movement could stand alone.

Yet the reflective longing is swept away by the relentless percussion and brass of ‘Manhunt.’ This was the moment in the film when the smugglers were pursued by their erstwhile allies. They are cornered and finally end up in a quicksand where they die long, slow agonising deaths as befits their crimes. As the movement builds up to its conclusion, the ‘Wen’ theme is heard once again.

The final movement is the Spirit of the Lake. Does Madam still haunt this remote Llyn? Does she still gallop with her lover over the moors on a night with the full moon? Are the smugglers still seen shipping the ‘Brandy for the Parson,’ and the ‘Baccy for the Clerk.’ Who knows?

This suite is well written and has many attractive moments. Perhaps the nature of the original film music has meant that there is a little imbalance between the movements, but typically this is a good and enjoyable work. My only concern is with the name Madam Wen – to English speakers a ‘wen’ is a growth on the side of the nose – not exactly the stuff that fine romances are made of…but perhaps it translates as Mrs White?

Perhaps the most satisfying of Gareth Glyn’s works currently on record are the Anglesey Sketches. The composer told me that this work was misnamed on the CD cover! In fact they were originally the Anglesey Seascapes! The error was corrected when the work was re-issued on the Halcyon Days compilation. Personally I find ‘sketches’ more appropriate to this piece – but obviously bow to the composer’s intent! He tells me that it was "very deliberately conceived as five views of the sea from the Anglesey coastline, and not various snapshots of parts of the island itself."

The liner notes suggest that the Sketches are "infused …with the Celtic spirit- lyricism, expressiveness and extremes of temperament." Each of the movements of this work is named after locations on the islands beautiful and complex coast.

The first is an ‘elegy.’ It is called ‘Llanddwyn’ which is a magical place associated with St. Dwynwen who is the patron saint of lovers. A lovely romantic melody is supported by pizzicato strings opens and closes the proceedings. I think the second movement is just amazing. It is entitled ‘Malltraeth’ and supposedly depicts a brisk walk beside the sea. It is typically a happy, jaunty and breezy movement, with perhaps just a tinge of melancholy. The intermezzo has nautical overtones; from the priory at ‘Penmon,’ overlooking the Menai Straits, yachts can be seen during Regatta week. The ‘scherzo’ evokes happy days by the sea-side. This music is not so much Welsh as just fun and a bit mischievous. At ‘Cemaes’ Bay in the very north of the island there are donkey rides, children’s games, rock pools, sandy beaches for paddling. This movement acts as a foil to the sad, but memorable ‘Moelfre’ which reflects on the dangerous but very beautiful coast which has claimed so many lives and has caused so much grief and sadness. The first four movements are good music – the last is great.

The last piece that is currently available is the Snowdon Overture. It is an exiting work that perhaps does not present the listener with the expected ‘tone poem’ image of a three thousand foot mountain in the depths of a National Park.

The Overture was originally part of a larger tone poem which was written for what is now the Gwynedd and Anglesey Youth Orchestra. The original work was called ‘Eryri’ which is Welsh for Snowdonia. Glyn was commissioned to produce a shorter version of this tone poem for a subsequent concert.

The current piece presents a picture of Snowdon as a holiday destination: the music is full of bustle and excitement. I guess that when I first listened to this work I expected a deep meditation on the ‘spiritual’ or the ‘sublime’ aspects of this mountain: I imagined the ‘Celtic’ connection. What Glyn has done is to look at the landscape ‘in the round.’ He has not ignored the obvious characteristics of the region – but has synthesised this with a more popular view of the mountain. Let’s be honest – there are three groups of people who are likely to visit Snowdon – the day tripper – sight seeing. Then there are the mountaineers and walkers who see the hill as a challenge and lastly the poets, who come here for reflection and to be moved. Who is to say what the most valid approach is?

The Overture opens with a big gesture, followed by a jaunty theme. The brass is well to the fore and the scoring lends an air of anticipation. The charabancs have arrived and the passengers are taking in the views. There is a fine big tune which nods to more serious matters – the general impression is of tunes- like visitors- arriving from all directions. However, a third of the way through the piece, the mood changes. This is the reflective part of the overture. It is hard to tell if we have moved from summer tourism to winter solitude –but there is certainly a frosty feel to some of this music. A lovely long woodwind melody opens this section. Another fine tune emerges before some sharp edged chords interrupt the proceedings. The big tune emerges again, giving something of the majesty of the mountain. The last section of the work begins with a stroke of the bass drum followed by good brass writing. For a few bars we are back to the day trippers. Perhaps they are now getting back into their coaches and are thinking about the long trip back to Eccles, Warrington and Stockport. Yet Snowdon is not phased by these visitors: it retains its dignity and mystery. A hymn-like tune is heard supported by brass chords. The overture builds up to a great finale – revealing the power and the glory and the majesty of the mountain. A dashing coda leads to a rhythmic last few bars.

This work may not be a tone poem that can compete with a work by Arnold Bax or Jean Sibelius. Yet there are elements of this overture that deserve appreciation. For example the scoring is superb. The balance of ‘everyday matters’ with the deeper, spiritual aspect of the landscape is an important development that perhaps goes beyond the offerings of the two above named composers. And that is what gives the work its value. It is easily appreciated and enjoyed, without being in any way trite or sentimental.

The composer has promised to send me a recording of his Symphony. I decided not to comment on this work here, as it is not commercially available. Yet I look forward to hearing a modern Welsh Symphony by a composer that shows great competence as a melodist, an orchestrator and as a subtle painter of musical pictures. I shall duly give a report of the work in these pages!


Anglesey Seascapes - on British String Miniatures 2 (ASV White Line WHL 2136)

A Snowdon Overture - on British Light Overtures 2 (ASV White Line WHL 2137)

Legend of the Lakeon British Light Music Discoveries Vol. 6 (ASV White Line WHL 2149)

John France

February 2008

Gareth Glyn: A Composer in Wales.

At the end of October I asked the composer to give me an update of what he was doing, musically. Bearing in mind that he lives on the Anglesey, which is a wonderful place, but which has suffered a worse than average summer, he remains remarkably upbeat! In fact on the day that he replied to me, he told me that there had been ‘apocalyptic rainfall…’

Nevertheless, this is as it should be. A lot is happening in his musical life that is positive and encouraging. There is a forthcoming CD that will feature a piece of music in which the main protagonists are Dominic Seldis (star of Maestro recently on BBC) and Jonathan Pryce (Bond villain and star of such films as Pirates of the Caribbean, Rise of Cobra and Evita) with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, in Glyn’s Welsh Incident. This is pending future release on the Dutton label.

More immediately important is the fact that the Gwynn publishing company of Penygroes in North Wales have embarked on a major programme of publishing Glyn's choral works. This will put into the public domain a number of interesting and singable pieces. They have recently published Fy Ngwlad (My Country), Cymru (Wales), Y Gymraeg (The Welsh Language) and Gwinllan a Roddwyd (A Vineyard was Given), all for SATB and piano and separately published under the umbrella title of Four Patriotic Songs. In the coming months Machynlleth Fair, Feet, Fluff and Sixth Birthday (the set Four Playful Songs), and 'Never was Dawn so Bright' (all for SATB) and Psalm 150 and The Harp (both for male voices and piano or orchestra) are due for publication.

Recently, there have been a number of important performances of Gareth Glyn’s works. His chamber suite Mabinogi received several performances in Ensemble Cymru’s tour of North Wales in October. In the same month, in London, Eleanor Turner played his suite for harp Child’s Play at the Wigmore Hall.

Seldis has also recorded as soloist, Glyn’s superb Microncerto for double bass and orchestra, which is a great treat for all music enthusiasts. It certainly beats Dragonetti's and Dittersdorf's! Much of this work is an inspired use of jazz, yet somehow it is not a jazz concerto as such. However, the double bass so often associated with jazz (Charlie Mingus et al) that it must be hard to avoid such a label. What does impress me is the singing tone of the more reflective moments. It has a personality far removed from the inevitable pizzicato. My only complaint and it is a big one, is that at just under 5 minutes- it is way too short…!

Finally, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, recorded his Cariad for orchestra .The title of this work means 'love’. This is an orchestral work which is composed in a Friday Night is Music Night style. It presents several Welsh folksongs on the theme of love in one span of about eight minutes.  Glyn pointed out to me that "they aren't all, strictly speaking, love-songs as the Welsh folk tradition is full of songs about unrequited and spurned affection, but there aren't that many expressing true and reciprocated love."

Glyn is presently working on a Trumpet Concerto, which has been commissioned for Philippe Schartz and the National Youth Wind Orchestra of Wales It will be given its first performance on their tour in Luxembourg and Germany. Finally, he is working on an as yet unnamed piece which has been commissioned by the city of New Bern in North Carolina to mark the 300th anniversary of its foundation.

A few months ago I heard a recording of Gareth Glyn’s Symphony. It is one of the finest new works in that genre I have heard in many years. It was largely recorded at a live event. However the ‘scherzo’ was played by ‘Sibelius’ from the digital musical score. It is certainly a piece that deserves to be recorded. There is not doubt that Glyn comes from the same ‘symphonic’ stock as Daniel Jones, Alun Hoddinott, Grace Williams and William Mathias and surely deserves to be recognised as such.

John France November 2008




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