Gareth Glyn's Anglesey Sketches – Revisited
by John France

Several years ago, I wrote a short blog post/review about the Welsh composer Gareth Glyn’s evocative Anglesey Sketches for string orchestra. After a recent trip to the Island, I decided to revisit this work and to include a little ‘reception history’.

The Sketches, which were completed in 2001, are conceived in five movements, each bearing the title of a location on the beautiful and mysterious island of Anglesey. The mood is ‘light’ rather than profound – except for the last movement which explores deeper matters. They were specifically composed for the original CD release (British String Miniatures Volume 2, CD WHL 2136).

The composer told me that the Anglesey Sketches have been misnamed on the CD cover! In fact, they were originally called the Anglesey Seascapes.  They were ‘very deliberately conceived as five views of the sea from the Anglesey coastline, and not various snapshots of parts of the island itself.’ The error was corrected when the work was partially re-issued on the Halcyon Days compilation (CD WLS 501). Personally, I find ‘sketches’ more appropriate, but obviously bow to the composer’s original intent. However, , the composer’s website gives​ both titles and the only full recording the work is cited as Anglesey Sketches. As such, I will use that title in this essay.

The first live performance was during the FEVA (Festival of Entertainment and Visual Arts) in Knaresborough, West Riding, Yorkshire on 17 August 2003. It was performed by the Knaresborough Pro Musica. The Sketches have subsequently been given by the Ensemble Cymru Chamber Orchestra in Pwllheli (28 January 2005), Bangor (29 January 2005), the Llandudno Festival Strings at the Llandudno Festival (9 July 2005) and by I Musici de Montréal (10 May 2007) in the Pollack Concert Hall, Montréal.

The composer has told me that there have been other concert performances resulting from hearing the CD or one of the numerous radio broadcasts. The work seems particularly popular in Australia, New Zealand and the USA.

Anglesey Sketches has not been published, but Gareth Glyn will supply the full score and parts to anyone who wishes to perform it. Other versions of the work exist: string nonet, string quartet and symphonic wind band.  Glyn told me that this last incarnation was a bit unexpected, but leading USA wind band conductor and arranger Paul Noble – having heard a radio broadcast of the Sketches – decided to make a version for wind band. It is available for hire from JW Pepper.

The liner notes (CD WHL 2136) suggest that the Anglesey Sketches are ‘infused…with the Celtic spirit - lyricism, expressiveness and extremes of temperament.’

The first movement is a ‘reverie.’ It is subtitled ‘Llanddwyn’ which is a magical and secretive place associated with St Dwynwen. ‘Llanddwyn’ translates as ‘The Church of St Dwynwen’, who is the Welsh equivalent of St Valentine - the patron saint of lovers. His festival is celebrated on 25 January. Topographically, Llanddwyn is a small tidal island, located on the west coast of Anglesey, near the village of Newborough. There is a lighthouse and ruins of a church dedicated to the saint. The score is dominated by a romantic melody supported by pizzicato strings which opens and closes the proceedings. The middle section is a little variation on this theme. It is an extremely beautiful, but never sentimental, piece of music.

The second Sketch, ‘Malltraeth’ is much more expansive, with its depiction of a brisk stroll along The Cob beside the sands and the sea. It is typically a happy, jaunty, breezy movement with just a touch of wistfulness. ‘Malltraeth’, which translates as ‘desolate beach’, is a small community on the south coast of Anglesey. It lies at the head of a long and narrow bay which makes deep inroads into the island.

The third movement is an ‘intermezzo’, entitled ‘Penmon’. This is located on the south-east coast of the island, a few miles from the impressive Georgian town of Beaumaris with its World Heritage Site castle built by Edward I. At Penmon there is an ancient priory dating from the 6th century and containing traces of Saxon work. There is also a well-known wishing well, which was originally used by St Seiriol to baptise converts to the Christian faith. From the abbey, a track leads down to Penmon Point off which lies Puffin Island, also known as Ynys Seiriol or St Seiriol’s Island. There is an iconic lighthouse, Trwyn Du, complete with tolling fog bell, sounding every 30 seconds, to warn sailors of the dangerous reefs. From this vantage can be seen a vast sweep of North Wales, including the Great and Little Orme and parts of Snowdonia.  Gareth Glyn’s score is reflective, with just a hint of ‘broad canvas’ as the yachts tack at the entrance to the Menai Straits. It is sad music that seems to embrace the wide-ranging history of Penmon.

The mood is lightened with the ‘scherzo’ which is a representation of the wonderful sea-side resort of Cemaes Bay on the northern coast of the island. We sense the mood of happy holiday-makers, watching the boats moored in the quaint harbour, shrimping in the rock pools or paddling in the sea from one of the delightful beaches. This movement acts as a foil for the finale, the sad but memorable ‘Moelfre’, which translates as ‘barren hill.’ The music, which is deeply felt, reflects on this dangerous but very beautiful coast which has claimed many lives and has caused so much grief and sadness. The piece features a haunting cello solo which contributes to the elegiac mood of the finale. The first four movements are good music – the last is great.

Two reviews appeared in the Fanfare magazine. The first (September 2003) suggested that ‘an unassuming set of Anglesey Sketches…[are] unaggressively tonal, [with] a couple of neat and sweet cadences.’ Gareth Glyn is a man who ‘knows how to end a piece.’ Two months later, (November 2003) Fanfare reported that the Anglesey Sketches were ‘somewhat muted’ and ‘lacked the energising scope and spirit’ of the composer’s earlier Snowdon Overture.

Andrew Lamb, reviewing British String Miniatures Volume 2 for Gramophone (August 2003), noted the approachability of the music and the ‘contrasted portraits of coastal points of the island.’ He was particularly impressed with the ‘scherzo’ which he thought depicted ‘donkey rides’ on the beach at Cemaes Bay. Equally satisfying was the ‘moving final elegy in memory of the many lives lost in the shipwrecks near Moelfre.’ The cello part of this movement offered ‘eloquent and rewarding material.

The same CD was reviewed on MusicWeb International (3 July 2003) by Jonathan Woolf. He wrote that the ‘opener is open-spaced and lyric, one that rises and falls over pizzicati underpinning in a gently effortless way.’  Woolf considered that the pastorale ‘Malltraeth’ ‘is by contrast jaunty and blustery and just mildly capricious too but with some gorgeous melodies embedded into it.’ After an ‘evocative’ ‘Intermezzo’ the composer contrives the ‘frolicsome naughtiness’ of the ‘Scherzo’ before ‘a keening solo cello adds even more plangency to 'Moelfre', the final movement, one that alludes to the treacherous stretch of coast of the same name that has cost so many lives.’

British String Miniatures Volume 2 White Line CD WHL 2136 includes works by Purcell, Warlock, Delius, Curtis, Elgar and Lane (now deleted) (2003)

Halcyon Days: A Treasury of British Light Music [‘Malltreath’ and ‘Cemaes’ only] White Line CD WLS 501, 5 CDS (2004) (now deleted, but available as download)

With thanks to the composer for providing additional information.