“… the same unseen beauty”: Music Returns to Gregynog Hall

Members of the Mid Wales Opera performing at Gregynog, July 2021

Like much of the heritage of Wales, and indeed the world, the interior of Gregynog Hall was off limits during the pandemic (ongoing at the time of this writing), even though its extensive grounds continued to provide a welcome retreat for local visitors in the days of social distancing.  Gregynog – pronounced as you would a portmanteau word for an alcoholic yuletide treat named after a Pope getting chummy, with an “un” wedged between the man and the intoxicant – was known for keeping the two apart for the purported benefit of the former.  During its heyday – between the two World Wars – the Hall was owned by the teetotalling and public-spirited Davies sisters, Gwendoline and Margaret, and the recommended stimulant to be taken in there was produced on location during Gregynog’s renowned Festivals of Music and Poetry.

I shan’t rehearse what, in Wales at least, is well-known, as much has been written elsewhere about Gregynog and Davies sisters, who bought the mock-Tudor Hall in 1920 and, even though they did not initially intend doing so, lived there from 1924 until their respective deaths some three to four decades later.  Suffice it to say that, during their residence, the Hall was not only a home filled with art or for the arts.  It was a place devoted to cultural, spiritual and social uplift through the arts, as the sisters – encouraged by their friend and advisor Dr Thomas Jones (TJ) – understood it.  

The performing arts are returning, and so are the crowds.  On a warm and sunny afternoon in July 2021, the grounds of the estate once again resounded with classical music, as young members of the Mid Wales Opera – sopranos Meinir Wyn Roberts and Llio Evans and tenor Huw Ynyr, accompanied by pianist and Music Director Charlotte Forrest – came to give a crowd-pleasing concert of arias from works as diverse as Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Puccini’s La Bohème and Il tabarro, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (“Glitter and Be Gay”), with Jonathan Dove’s The Enchanted Pig and Disney’s Snow White (Frank Churchill’s “Some Day My Prince Will Come”) thrown into the mix, and appropriately so, considering that, these days, Gregynog is a popular venue for weddings. 

Equipped with a lawn chair, a bottle of champagne and a husband, I was glad to attend that charmed picnic concert, having spent some time behind the scenes in the months and weeks prior to the event to volunteer – despite a lack of practical skills but owing to the decidedly practical prince I wed anno 2014 – in getting the Hall ready to welcome back visitors.

When not lugging books or furnishings, I was ensconced in the library at Gregynog Hall, where I had a browse through the Festival programs and other documents still waiting to be drawn upon for a social history of the place.  

The program for the first Festival of Music and Poetry in 1933 reminded me of the mission of the sisters to put the family wealth to good use:

In these days of unprecedented difficulty and disillusionment, when the very fabric of our civilisation is rent and torn, we are compelled to return again to the unfailing sources of inspiration and delight.  Music and poetry are no longer the luxury of the few but the necessity of the many.

Thousands upon thousands of our fellow beings are dragging out a dark and desolate existence; exhausted and in despair they stand at the corners of the streets, for no man hath need of them.  A bewildered Government doles out to them the pittance which keeps them alive, but their minds and spirit are starved, for man doth not live by bread alone.  They are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, their powers and potentialities are the same as ours, the same unseen beauty is theirs, could we but show it to them.

Held during the depression, that first festival was designed to raise money for Coleg Harlech, a Training Centre for Unemployed, contributions towards which, as the program stated, were “gratefully accepted during the Interval each evening.”  Thomas Jones would later become President of the Coleg.

Many who stayed as guests at Gregynog enjoyed the music and appreciated the spirit in which it was offered – but some found the sober atmosphere less than inspiriting.  “We all went to Gregynog to stay with the Davies sisters,” actress Joyce Grenfell reminisced in her autobiography.  Grenfell, who visited Gregynog as a friend of Thomas Jones, noted how important music was in the lives of the sisters.  “[W]hen new staff were needed for the house, garden or farm,” Grenfell was told,

the sisters advertised for a contralto-housemaid, a bass-undergardener or a tenor-cowman to take part in the Gregynog choir.  All through the winter months the choir, under a professional master, worked on programmes for the summer festival, when musicians like Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Walford came, with their wives, to lead the music.

According to the visitor book, Grenfell attended the final two of the original Gregynog festivals in 1937 and ’38; she also returned at Easter 1939, when, as she recalled, “Elsie Suddaby, Mary Jarred and Keith Falkner sang Bach’s St Matthew Passion in the big white music-room hung with a series of Monet’s water-lily paintings.” When there was “religious music,” Grenfell noted, a “great EI Greco was put on a stand to conceal the choir and the conductor.” Grenfell was unconvinced; not only did it “do more than hide a few of the performers,” the artful cover-up struck her as “more of a disturbance than an inspiration.”

“Staying at Gregynog was a mixed blessing,” Grenfell summed up.  “The music was unalloyed pleasure but the atmosphere in the house was cool, correct and daunting.”

The mood and tone on that July 2021 afternoon was decidedly more relaxed.  After months of home front battle and its concomitant fatigue, the small crowd assembled on the lawn facing the entrance to the Hall felt reassured, no doubt, that “beauty” need no longer go “unseen,” or, for that matter, unheard.  And while those in attendance, unlike Grenfell, were not subjected to the scrutiny of “two maiden ladies” – owing to whom it was “not possible to forget one’s ps and qs” – there also was nothing of the “missionary zeal” Grenfell observed in Thomas Jones and Gregynog as a project.

I am of two minds about such zeal.  It is a worthy cause to make art something other than “the luxury of the few.”  All the same, it is worth questioning just what constitutes – and who determines – “the necessity of the many.” That “necessity” needs to be felt like a yearning rather than being imposed, defined and determined by those presumably best equipped to judge what is proper art in the best possible taste.  

Instead of demanding the “same unseen beauty,” we need to recognise that much remains “unseen” because it is not yet deemed to be art.  Clearly, that is why I am teaching “Gothic Imagination” again this autumn, why I encourage students to engage with “inconvenient objects” in our galleries (more about that in the next post), and why I write about canonically neglected radio plays (more about that in the previous entry).  I don’t wait for the prince, thank you.  I’ll do the crowning, or tiara-ing, using whatever materials are at hand …

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