visual culture wales

Articles by Huw David Jones

A Bridge between two Small Nations: The Bards of Wales

The tragic tale of Edward I’s massacre of the Welsh bards has long inspired artists and poets.  Thomas Gray popularised the legend with his romantic poem The Bard (1768), and in 1774, Thomas Jones painted a spectacular scene of the dramatic moment when, rather than submit to King Edward’s invading English army, the last Welsh bard takes his own life.

But it’s not only Welsh artists who have been inspired by this tragic episode.  In 1857, Hungarian poet János Arany (1817-82) was asked to write a poem in praise of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, but instead used the Bards of Wales as a metaphor for the tyrannic Hapsburg rule over Hungary since the 1848 Hungarian Revolution.

When Hungary won its independence after the First World War, Arany’s Bards of Wales (Hungarian: ‘A walesi bárdok’) found its place onto the school curriculum.  Apparently, the story has become so ingrained into the cultural psyche that adults and children can recite it on demand.

Gower-born composer Karl Jenkins has now rekindled Welsh interest in the Bards of Wales with a new cantata based on Arany’s text. It recieved its Welsh premier at the National Eisteddfod in the Vale of Glamorgan on Saturday 4 August.

Jenkins is a great popularizer of classical music – many of his compositions have been used on TV adverts – and his latest work didn’t disappoint (although I am perhaps biased, since my father was singing in the chorus). Pounding drums, blaring trumpets and a fulsome string section all convey the imperial might of the English King Edward I over his vanquished Welsh subjects.  The words were sung in Welsh using a translation of Arany’s simple text by poet Twm Morys.

Arany’s Bards of Wales is considered to be a manifesto of the passive resistance which led to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867.  Jenkins’s new cantata has a different goal in mind: to strengthen links between two small but deeply cultured nations.

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