Sunday, October 05, 2008

Hwyl and Hiraeth

I've had this blog going since 2005 or so, and never once have I reported anything about the annual Pittsburgh St. David's Welsh Society Gymanfa Ganu. But this year I shall.

What, you may ask, is the gymanfa ganu? How do you even pronounce it?

It's pronounced "Guh-MAN-vuh GAH-nee," and it literally means a singing assembly, ganu being the mutated form of canu, which you Latinists will recognize as a form of cantare, to sing. It's a custom that got started in the Noncomformist chapels of Wales in the 19th century, partly to give people a social and religious outlet now that heading down to the pub for a pint was frowned upon, but much more it was an expression of the emotion and singing spirit of the Welsh which outsiders had remarked upon since the Middle Ages.

In the old days, the people-- not a separate choir, but all of them-- would stay after Sunday Chapel or maybe reconvene after Sunday lunch to sing hymns a capella in four parts strictly for the joy and hwyl of it. But sometimes their sessions had a more deliberate purpose, for the song leader, or arweinyddion y gan, would be rehearsing them to meet in one place to join in sacred song with the members of other capelau in the region. And when that cymanfa took place, the fervour and hwyl would rise enough to float several full-sized battleships.

Contemporary Welsh-Americans do not meet for cymanfoedd ganu as regularly as our ancestors did in the Old Land. But everywhere there is a Welsh St. David's Society of any size (Welsh societies are always dedicated to St. David, the patron saint of Wales), they will arrange to meet once a year to sing in four parts the old hymns, raising the roof of the church with heart-swelling emotion and praise.

This year the Pittsburgh gymanfa was held at the Community Methodist Church in Whitehall, Philip Aley of the church at the organ and Tim Slater, our conductor of several years, our song leader.

Traditionally the arweinyddion y gan has the prerogative not only to choose the hymns to be sung and which verses, but also how fast, how slow, how loud, how soft, whether specific verses shall be taken by the men or the women, low voices or high, whether a verse was sung well enough or needed to be done over, and how many times the chorus was to be repeated. And unlike contemporary-music worship services where this is all strictly planned out, rehearsed, and noted on the PowerPoint slides well ahead of time, at a cymanfa ganu the song leader decides much of this according to the hwyl he or she feels going in the place, leading the singing people as the Spirit leads him. If a chorus is repeated several times ( a repeat being signified by rotating the right the index finger in the air), it's because the power of the occasion demands it, not because the overhead projector slide says "(4x)" on it.

Tim was no different, and the sound he got out of that congregation was so vastly different and better than what I experienced in church this morning as to nearly make me weep. It had nothing to do with greater numbers; it had everything to do with the choral heritage of the Welsh.

We sang "Calon Lan" ("A Pure Heart; Calon Lan), "Jesus Calls Us" (Hyfrydol); "Come, Gracious Lord" (Llef), "Dring i Fyny" ("Hear Him Calling"; Dring i Fyny), "I Bob Un Sydd Ffyddlon" ("Onward, Christian Soldiers": Rachie), "Lead On, O King Eternal" (to both Lancashire and Llangloffan), "How Firm a Foundation (Joanna/St. Denio), "Mae d'Eisiau Di Bob Awr" ("I Need Thee Every Hour"; Need), "Jesus, I Live to Thee" (Penpark), "Men of Harlech" (just for fun), and "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" (Cwm Rhondda).

Tim did something a little different this year, having Phil the organist play soft transitions between the numbers. Very effective. And he programmed several hymns which we in America sing to other tunes, to expose us to how our cousins in Wales sing them even today. It was a clever way to organize it. My only complaint about this was that, unlike many others, I grew up singing "Lead On, O King Eternal" to Llangloffan, but the hymnals have changed and I rarely can anymore. I was glad to see in the program that we'd be singing three verses of it today, but after two verses sung to that tune Tim on a whim reverted to the more common and less interesting (and non-Welsh!) Lancashire!

Tim's Pittsburgh Welsh Choir, which started in 2003, has improved under his direction prodigiously the past five years, particularly in the a capella work. They did a setting of "This Is My Father's World" that was stupendous. He's also got a strong contingent of men who could be positively brilliant if he'd work them on their legatos. If they don't watch it, the PWC or some part of it are liable to find themselves entered in the eisteddfod (music and poetry competition) when the National Festival of Wales is held in Pittsburgh, Labor Day weekend of 2009.

Our tenor soloist was the reliable and sweet-singing Ken Davis, who again this year was joined for a duet by soprano Bronwen Reed Catalano.

The hwyl was high in the Methodist church in Whitehall today, and if there was any hiraeth (unsatisfied, heartfelt longing), it was probably mostly in me. Hiraeth because we never can sing long enough or enough verses at a cymanfa. Hiraeth because as years go by, fewer and fewer people bring their red and green Welsh hymnals and sing in parts from the music, depending instead on words printed in the program or projected on a screen, so that the glorious tradition-- and effect-- of part singing is dying out. Hiraeth because due, I guess, to bad sightlines with the organ, Phil rarely picked up on the chorus repeats Tim signed for, and due to the fact that the church needed us out early in the evening to make way for another group, he didn't push it. And hiraeth because here in Pittsburgh we never, ever sing enough Welsh.

Good grief, I can sing "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" in English in any church almost any Sunday of the year! I can program "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" in English in any church whose pulpit I happen to be supplying almost any Sunday of the year! So Tim, Tim, why do you persist at cymanfa after cymanfa at putting it in with no Welsh? Aaaaaghh! I am naughty-- I sing it all in Welsh anyway-- but it's not the same as when everyone else is doing it, too, whether they've got all the pronunciation right or not.

And hiraeth mingled with hwyl at singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in company at the opening of the assembly and the Welsh National anthem, "Mae Hen Wlad fy Nhadau" ("Land of My Fathers") at its end. "Mae Hen Wlad" in Welsh, always in Welsh; the day we sing it in English is the day we turn in our red dragons and yellow daffs and go home and degrade ourselves with MTV. I'm glad and grateful to be an American, and my ancestry is a mixture of all kinds of peoples, Hessian, Prussian, Bohemian, Dutch, Irish, even-- gadzooks! --English. But the Welsh part of my elder heritage is what I identify with and am moved by the most, and to plant my feet and sing from memory the anthem of old Cymru somehow roots me in something both enduring and strong and also achingly sad and far away.

And isn't that unfulfillable homesickness the essense of hiraeth, and doesn't getting together to sing the old hymns fill one with hwyl!

Da iawn, Cymry, da iawn.

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