‘If Wales is the land of song Merthyr is the capital of that happy land.’ So said the Merthyr Express in August 1901. Max Boyce famously created the myth of a factory deep in the South Wales Valleys which produced rugby outside-halves. He could equally have cliamed that there was a production line of musical talent in Merthyr Tydfil, especially during the second half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth.
That period saw a steady flow of musicians who contributed not only to the flourishing musical scene in Merthyr itself, but also much further afield. As Professor Gareth Williams rightly says in his book, Valleys of Song (1998): ‘[By 1900 Merthyr] had produced composers, conductors, choristers and bandsmen whose fame extended from Dowlais to Danville, and from Pentre-bach to Pennsylvania Avenue … It was its musicians that defined Merthyr and its people to the world from 1850 down to and beyond the First World War.’
One of theose musicians was E.T. Davies. Evan Thomas Davies was born at 41 Pontmorlais on 10 April 1878. He was raised in Dowlais, but moved back to the Pontmorlais area in 1906, where he would remain until he moved to Bangor in January 1921. Both his parents were very musical. His father led the singing at Pontmorlais Welsh Calvinistic Methodist chapel for a period during the 1870s and 1880s. E.T. Davies showed a gift for music as a young boy. By the age of 20 he was such an accomplished accompanist that he was invited to go on an American tour in 1898 with a party of Welsh singers. Whilst there, he was asked on several occasions to remain in the USA as a professional accompanist, but ET chose instead to return to Merthyr, and was soon in great demand as an organist, conductor, teacher and adjudicator, both in the Merthyr area and in many other places throughout the country. From 1903 to 1917 he was organist of the chapel in Pontmorlais where his father had been precentor.
E.T. Davies received much of his musical training from the renowned conductor, Harry Evans (1873-1914). Harry’s home, ‘Cartrefle’ (on Penydarren Road, near Merthyr General Hospital), complete with its three-manual pipe organ, was regarded as ‘Merthyr’s musical academy’, and after Harry Evans left Merthyr in 1906, E.T. Davies succeeded him at ‘Cartrefle’. In October 1920 ET was appointed the first full-time director of Music at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, a post which he held until his retirement in 1943. In that post he made a significant contribution to the development of music as an academic subject in Wales, not least through his promotion of Welsh folk-songs. In 1916 E.T. Davies married Mary Llewelyn Jones from Aberdare, and following his retirement he moved to Aberdare where he died, aged 91, on Christmas Day 1969.
In addition to being a performer and conductor of music, E.T. Davies also composed a wide range of works, both vocal and instrumental. He first came to prominence as a composer at the London National Eisteddfod in 1909. In that Eisteddfod he won a prize for writing accompaniments to some of the Welsh folk-songs collected by Maria Jane Williams (from Aberpergwm in the Vale of Neath) and published in her pioneering volume, Ancient National Airs of Gwent and Morganwg (1844). In that Eisteddfod he also won first prize for what would become his most popular work, the haunting song, Ynys y Plant (The Children’s Isle). He wrote well-known hymn tunes such as Pontmorlais and Via Crucis, and seven of his tunes were included in the interdenominational hymnal, Caneuon Fydd (Songs of Faith), in 2001. ET continued to compose far into retirement, publishing almost 40 arrangements of traditional Welsh songs in the volume, The National Songs of Wales (1959), when he was over 80 years of age.
Given his long and distinguished contribution to the musical life of Wales, it is most fitting that a memorial plaque should be unveiled to E.T. Davies in Pontmorlais, his birthplace and the scne of much of his musical activity.
E. Wyn James