Progress and tradition: listening to the singing of the Welsh c.1870 to c.1920

Barlow, Helen (2019). Progress and tradition: listening to the singing of the Welsh c.1870 to c.1920. In: Barlow, Helen and Rowland, David eds. The experience of listening to music: methodologies, identities, histories. The Open University.



Wales in the period c.1870-c.1920 was home to massive heavy industry, accompanied by a huge upsurge of population and the growth of large and thriving towns. Many Welsh people saw it as a time of unparalleled national progress. It was also a period of ascendancy for the Liberal Party, in Britain generally, but nowhere more so than in Wales, where the Welsh Liberals articulated a vision of the potential of Wales as a progressive, modern nation. Welsh music and the supposed musicality of the Welsh became part of a discourse about progress, cultural achievement and the promise of future greatness. Choral and congregational singing, which flourished in the buoyant chapel culture of the expanding towns and villages, was often cited as evidence not just of innate Welsh musicality but also of cultural development. But most intriguing is the apparently contradictory belief, articulated particularly by the newly-founded Welsh Folk Song Society, that Welsh traditional song could be harnessed to the cause of progress. How did Welsh people understand Welsh singing in this period? What did it mean to them? What did listeners think they were hearing – the voice of progress, or the voice of tradition?

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