(Merseyside Welsh Heritage Society,
November 12th 2011-10-13
Professor Huw Rees, President, Liverpool Welsh Choral Union
I consider it a great honour to give this lecture on Harry Evans,
one who made an enormous impression and contribution to musical life
in Britain during his short life.
I would like to acknowledge my debt to several sources relating to
Harry Evans’ life, three in particular:
1. Miss Nansi Pugh’s impressive history of The Liverpool Welsh
Choral Union-The First 100 Years published in 2007. I wish to
dedicate this lecture as a tribute to her tremendous achievement.
2. Dr William McNaught’s obituary to Harry Evans first published in
The Musical Times and later reproduced in the Choir’s memorial
concert programme in December 1914.
3. Rhidian Griffiths’ essay in the series Cyfres y Cymoedd published
I have translated some of the quotations but trust that I have
retained their meaning.
Finally, my sincere thanks to Mrs Rhiannon Liddell, former Chair of
the Choir, for bringing several useful sources to my attention; also
to my friend Dr Arthur Thomas for translating this lecture.
HARRY EVANS was born on May
1st 1873 at 13 Russell Street, Dowlais, Glamorganshire, a town
famous for its iron works.
From the beginning Harry Evans was immersed in music since Dowlais
was famous for its choirs, soloists and conductors. According to
Harry Evans, Dowlais was renowned during the 1870s for its choirs
and conductors who were greatly feared by other entrants in
eisteddfod competitions. This was the atmosphere in which Harry
Evans grew up.
One of the most well known of these conductors was Harry Evans’
father, John Evans (Eos Myrddin). John Evans was orphaned when five
years old and brought up by his aunt and uncle. When only nine years
old he went down the pit to help his uncle. He had little formal
education. He developed into an accomplished bass soloist and won
many prizes. He played the flute and cello.
John Evans spent thirty busy years in Dowlais conducting and
training choirs in his spare time. He put a great deal of energy
into his music and conducted the first performance of The Messiah in
Dowlais. With his choir from Bethesda chapel he entered 21
competitions winning 18 first prizes, two seconds, and losing only
once—a remarkable record. Interestingly the ‘altos’ were all boys.
Most of the choir members could not read music. John Evans taught
groups of six or seven of them in his home. They learned quickly be
A piano was not used at the time, everything was unaccompanied, but
they never lost a beat.
John Evans was fully conversant with staff notation but oddly he had
no familiarity with the tonic sol-fa. He had a remarkable energy and
enthusiasm for his music making. When on the night shift at the iron
works he would hasten to the chapel vestry during his supper break
in his working clothes to practice with the choir and then return to
Often, John Evans would take the choir to a competition, win a
prize, return home, change into his working clothes and then work
through the night. No doubt most of the choir did the same.
So, that was the musical atmosphere in which Harry Evans grew up.
Harry Evans was the fifth child of John and Sarah Evans’ ten
children. He learnt the sol-fa from his eldest sister. When five
years old, he could play hymn tunes using the tonic sol-fa on the
harmonium. His father taught him staff notation. He first appeared
as a soloist on the harmonium in a local competition (Penny
Readings) when seven years old. While the instrument was quite
small, he had some difficulty reaching the pedals. Despite this, the
audience was very pleased with his performance and collected five
shillings for him. He said later, “This was my first payment, in
pennies, which I proudly gave to my mother”.
In 1883, when ten years old, Harry Evans was appointed as organist
at Gwernllwyn Independent Chapel. Apparently, this was a large
harmonium and due to Harry Evans’ youth it was arranged for a helper
to work the bellows at the rear of the instrument. Rather than give
him payment, the congregation agreed to pay for him to have piano
For two years he became a pupil of Edward Lawrence in Merthyr.
Lawrence had been a pupil of Moscheles, pianist and composer, who
succeeded Mendelssohn as head of the
Leipzig Conservatoire. Lawrence was particularly kind to Harry Evans
and took great interest in his progress. He gave him a good
classical foundation especially in the works of Bach, Beethoven and
Mendelssohn. This tuition from one well versed in the great European
musical tradition was the foundation of Harry Evans’s musical
development. He became familiar with many of Beethoven’s sonatas.
These were the only formal lessons in music which he received.
During the entire time he had lessons with Edward Lawrence, he had
no piano at home on which to practice. A few nights a week he
practiced on the piano of a chapel member. Remarkable determination.
Concerned about his musical welfare, the chapel members felt he
should have his own piano. With the proceeds of a special concert,
they bought him a small piano which he greatly valued. He was in
great demand as a soloist and accompanist since such gifts were
scarce in South Wales at the time. Harry Evans was viewed as a rare
talent. His friends were anxious that he should go to London and
pursue a musical career. But his father, with an eye to the future,
counselled that he should look first to his general education.
Later, Harry Evans was grateful for this. At the end of his time in
the primary school he had to sit the scholarship to
enter the secondary school. He succeeded and remained at this school
until he was fourteen. Although his great passion was music, his
father decided that he should become a teacher which would ensure a
future livelihood. His father said, “After that you can do as you
please about following a musical career”. Naturally this was a great
disappointment for Harry Evans and he rebelled against it for a
time. When his father issued an ultimatum that the alternative to
becoming a pupil teacher was to go to the iron works, he relented.
With a heavy heart one Monday morning he made his way to Abermorlais
School, Merthyr, to start his academic career as a fourteen year old
In 1887, when he started as a pupil-teacher, he competed
successfully to become organist at Bethania Independent Chapel,
Dowlais, where his father led the singing. He remained in that post
for nineteen years until 1906. Harry Evans was one of the first to
give organ recitals in that area. Meanwhile he worked hard at his
studies and passed his examinations in mathematics, science and art
with honours. It was a hard life. He would leave the house at 7.30
in the morning for the two mile journey to the school, arriving by
8.00 o’clock. The school started at 9.00am. He would spend the lunch
hour studying while the evening classes would last until 8.30pm.
Then, often, he would rush back to Dowlais to accompany the choir
for an hour or so. Later he wondered how he did it all. He was
greatly helped by an understanding headmaster who gave him time-off
to go as an accompanist to concerts and eisteddfodau. Saturday was a
free day but only from school work, since he gave piano and organ
lessons from morning till night.
At the end of his time as a pupil-teacher he sat the examination for
a Queens Scholarship and entry to a teachers’ training college.
Despite sharing his time between music and academic work he came top
of the results in the area and was first on the list for entrants to
Bangor Normal College.
Then came the turning point in his life. He decided to follow a
friend’s advice, abandon the idea of going to Bangor and pursue a
musical career. But the way ahead was not clear. With the
Scholarship, he could stay as a teacher on a salary of £40 a year,
(present day £3,600), compared with the £20 he obtained previously.
The extra £20 would make a big difference since he spent all his
earnings on music, travelling around the country and buying works
for the organ and piano. With no further formal instruction, he
studied diligently and after a year travelled to London in July 1893
to sit the examination for an Associate of The Royal College of
Organists (ARCO). To the surprise of some in Dowlais, he passed with
honours. He then resigned from his school
position in Merthyr and set about increasing his activity as teacher
and choir accompanist. He was much in demand to give organ recitals.
In 1893, the Dowlais Philharmonic Society was formed with some 200
singers and Harry Evans as conductor. They soon performed Handel’s
oratorio Samson with a full orchestra and before a large and
enthusiastic audience. This was followed by a short opera,
Acis and Galatea. By this time many were curious as to what Harry
Evans could do in the eisteddfodic world. For several years after
this, apart from performing a few oratorios, he spent most of his
time engaged in choral competitions. Very often his choir won first
or second prize. After winning a prize of £100 in Tonypandy in 1897
he decided to give up choral competitions. In the same year, he
graduated as a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists (FRCO). He
was among the first Welshmen to attain this honour.
For the next few years, Harry Evans limited his involvement to a few
choirs. For example in 1898 he formed the Merthyr Ladies Choir, and
in 1900 this joined with his male voice choir to perform Samuel
Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha’s Feast. He had formed the male voice
choir in 1899 with the intention of competing in the Liverpool
National Eisteddfod in 1900. During Easter 1901 this male voice
choir gave six very successful concerts in London.
At the Merthyr National Eisteddfod in 1901 Harry Evans led the
eisteddfod choir of some 500 voices in a performance of Handel’s
Israel in Egypt, which was described as masterly. Interestingly, the
choir and orchestra had been led in a performance of Elijah by one
Dan Davies (Merthyr), regarded as one of Wales’ leading conductors
from 1880 onwards. However, the performance attracted sharp
criticism for his failure to give adequate
direction to the choir and orchestra. After this he disappeared from
the competitive platform. At the Merthyr eisteddfod, Harry Evans
conducted the orchestra in performances of the overture Tannhauser
and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C minor.
In the following year his choir won £200 at the Llanelli National
Eisteddfod. Due to the increasing demand for him to act as an
adjudicator, he decided to stop competing. However, he kept his
choir going for some time, performing oratorios by Mendelssohn
(Elijah and St Paul), Stanford (The Revenge), Elgar (King Olaf) and
his own work Victory of St Garmon. The choir made three trips to
London where they performed at the Queens Hall and other venues.
In April 1899 Harry Evans married Edith Gwendoline Rees in Dowlais.
Her father, Richard Posthumous Rees was Mayor of Merthyr Tydfil in
Meanwhile in Liverpool, a choir of some 400 voices was formed under
the direction of Mr D.O. Parry in readiness for the 1900 National
Eisteddfod. They performed oratorios by Haydn, The Creation and
Judas Maccabeus by Handel. At one concert, the choir was conducted
by the eminent Welsh musician, Joseph Parry in the first performance
of his cantata Ceridwen, which had been commissioned by the
Eisteddfod. The Choir also took part in two variety concerts as well
as making other contributions. It received considerable praise from
audiences and critics for the standard of its performances.
On the Friday of the Eisteddfod, Harry Evans’ well-prepared Dowlais
Male Voice Choir took to the stage. In a competition of eleven
choirs, it came first, beating such recognised choirs as the
Manchester Orpheus Choir, which went on to greater fame.
The adjudicators not only praised the choir’s performance but noted
the young age of its conductor. This was the only competition in the
Eisteddfod won by a choir from Wales. Harry Evans’ choir returned to
Dowlais well pleased.
Given its success, members of the Eisteddfod choir were reluctant to
see it disbanded. A smaller choir continued to practice and give a
few performances before deciding in September 1902 to form a choir
under the title Liverpool Welsh Choral Union. A conductor was now
needed. Since the Choral Union was familiar with Harry Evans’
reputation, not only at the Liverpool National Eisteddfod but also
in South Wales and beyond, they invited him to become their
conductor, which he duly accepted.
While Harry Evans was aware that some 100,000 people of Welsh
descent lived in the Liverpool area, and that the Eisteddfod Choir
had been excellent, he still felt that the new venture was something
of an experiment. Later, he reflected that at the time he had no
idea that the Choir would become so important or that it would
entice him away from the valleys of South Wales. At the beginning,
Harry Evans stayed in Dowlais and continued to conduct his own
choir. It won easily at the Llanelli National Eisteddfod in 1903,
and in the following year it performed at the Queens Hall in London,
praised by both audience and critics alike.
Harry Evans started work with the Welsh Choral Union in September
1902 with a choir of 182 selected voices. Although only 29 years old
he was very experienced and with the added advantage of a fine tenor
voice. With the Choir, he concentrated on voice production and
intonation. In practices with the choir, which started in November
preferred to dispense with piano accompaniment which helped to
He said that he developed his technique by going around the country
listening to music. His musical education was based on experience
and by coming into contact with singers, composers and conductors.
He spent his savings travelling around the country, going to London,
especially to Covent Garden, symphony concerts in the Queens Hall,
and oratorios in the Albert Hall and in Leeds, Birmingham and at the
Three Choirs Festival in the
Cathedrals of Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford. He always came
away from these performances having learned something new. He would
travel to hear new works, whatever the cost. He believed that this
had been invaluable in his musical development. He was entirely self
taught and to a very high standard.
Within four months, the Choir was ready to give its first
performance, Handel’s oratorio, Samson, at the Philharmonic Hall. It
was a tremendous success with lavish praise from the press. Sometime
afterwards, Harry Evans expressed the view that there might be
dangers in confining membership to people of Welsh descent, but
since the choir had not suffered in any way, he was happy with the
approach. Soon the membership approached 300.
I mentioned earlier that Harry Evans travelled every week from
Dowlais for the practices in Liverpool. Also during those first
years, until he became too busy, he enjoyed performing as a soloist
from time to time with other organisations, since his fine tenor
voice was much appreciated. By 1906, his work with the Choral Union
had become more
demanding and he moved to Liverpool to live in 26 Princess Avenue.
By this time, he had also taken up the position of organist and
choirmaster at Great George Street Chapel (near the large Chinese
gate). However, he soon found that mounting commitments, especially
away from Liverpool, led him to give up the post.
At the start Harry Evans concentrated on performing familiar works
and doing so more than once over the years. For example, The Messiah
was performed six times, Elijah four times and Samson twice. Before
Harry Evans’ time the works of Bach were seldom performed in
Liverpool, being considered too difficult for most choirs. However,
in 1907 the Choral Union performed St Matthew’s Passion for the
first time in the City, and again in 1912. A few months before his
death, the Choir also performed Brahms’ Requiem. During Harry Evans’
time, the choir consistently received much appreciation from the
audiences and praise from the critics. The first performance by the
Choir of Samson was described as “polished and most pleasant under
Harry Evans’ masterly direction”. That performance was followed by
The Messiah when hundreds failed to gain admission to the
Philharmonic Hall. Again, the praise was fulsome, the Choir having
been taught to appreciate and give musical expression to every
The Choir’s performance of St Matthew’s Passion in 1907 was again
masterly and the Philharmonic Hall was sold out weeks before. The
praise could not have been greater, comparisons being made with the
performances of London’s Bach Choir, the only other choir in Britain
to venture to do the work.
In 1904 and 1905 some of Harry Evans’ own compositions were
performed; Hymn of Praise, The Golden Legend and the cantata, The
Victory of St Garmon, which had earlier been performed at the
Cardiff Musical Festival to much praise. The words were written by
the poet and hymn writer Elfed. Harry Evans composed another
successful cantata, Dafydd ap Gwilym, for the Llangollen National
Eisteddfod of 1908. The Welsh Choral Union also performed the work
He also wrote a number of anthems, for example, Oleuni Mwyn,(Lead
kindly light) O perfect love, and Yr Arglwydd yw fy mugail (The Lord
is my shepherd-which he dedicated to the memory of his father),
several hymn tunes, as well as arranging folk songs for choirs,
including Ar Hyd y Nos and Men of Harlech.
Shortly before his death he was chosen as one of the three editors
of Y Caniedydd Cynulleidfaol. One of his great ambitions was to
establish a music college in Wales. Unfortunately he did not see
this. Such a college, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama was
not set up until 1949.
It is not clear when Harry Evans and Elgar became acquainted.
However, the Choir performed The Dream of Gerontius in 1906. The
Philharmonic Hall was packed for the performance of the work in
Liverpool. In 1908 they gave a second performance of the work
followed by one of The Apostles, both to great acclaim.
It appears that Harry Evans was often absent for the next rehearsal
of the Choir following a public performance, but he always sent a
letter of appreciation to the Choir. Little wonder that the choir
members worshipped him.
Not only was Harry Evans friendly with Elgar but also with other
leading composers of the day, such as Sir Granville Bantock, who
succeeded Elgar as Professor of Music at Birmingham University (1908
to 1934), SirWalford Davies the composer, who was born in Oswestry
and who taught at the Royal College of Music in London as well as in
the Music Department at Aberystwyth, and Sir Hugh Allen, the
conductor, who was at one time organist at St Asaph Cathedral and
principal of the Royal College of Music in London. At the Musical
League Festival in Liverpool in 1909, the Welsh Choral Union was
entrusted with performing the choral works. They performed new
works, indicating that Harry Evans was very keen to keep abreast of
all new developments. During the festival, Elgar took advantage of
occasion to praise the Choir for its “splendid work and its
excellent conductor”. As well as working with Elgar Harry Evans
worked closely with Granville Bantock, who became leader of the New
Brighton Orchestra. In 1909, the Choir performed Bantock’s new
oratorio, Omar Khayyam Part 1, a very demanding work since the
chorus was divided into 20 parts, fourteen for men’s voices! The
performance attracted great praise, especially from Bantock himself.
Another difficult work, parts of Hiawatha by Coleridge-Taylor, was
performed in 1911 and received considerable praise. Later, with the
Manchester Orpheus Male Voice Choir and the Birkenhead Ladies Choir,
the Choir performed the experimental choral symphony Atlanta in
Calydon. In a letter of thanks to the choirs Harry Evans said they
should congratulate themselves on being able to perform a work
considered to be well nigh impossible. The correspondent of the
Musical Times was most enthusiastic, stating, “The combination and
their trainers can pride themselves on having accomplished a record
– a virtuoso performance of the most difficult a capella choral work
ever written”. According to the Musical News “To Mr Harry Evans’s
magnetic personality and unsparing labours the magnificent results
It was evident that Harry Evans was confident that he could ask the
Choir to perform difficult modern works: he had great faith in the
Choir’s capability. He was extremely proud of being the conductor of
such a Choir.
In 1914, the Choir gave the premiere of Granville Bantock’s last
work. Again, Bantock took an experimental approach. His Choral
Symphony, Vanity of Vanities, was based on verses from Ecclesiastes,
and it was dedicated to Harry Evans and the choir. The work obtained
considerable critical acclaim. Granville Bantock described the
performance as one of the best he had heard of any new work.
After all the hard work, the final concert of the season, a
performance of Brahms’ Requiem, was held in March 1914. This work
required careful preparation and experience. Since it was apparent
that Harry Evans’ health was causing concern, it was feared he would
not be able to conduct the concert. However, his indomitable spirit
produced an inspired performance. Poignantly, this was to be the
last time he would conduct the Liverpool Welsh Choral Union. It was
regarded as one of the Choir’s best performances.
Two days later, on March 30th, he conducted a memorable Welsh hymn
singing festival (Gymanfa Ganu) at Sun Hall, a fitting finale to his
connection with the Welsh community in Liverpool.
He was to conduct one more oratorio in Liverpool, Elijah, with the
Philharmonic Society. Following this on May 8th he conducted
combined choirs in the Gloria from Bach’s Mass in B Minor at the
Morecambe Festival. A worthy ending to a glittering conducting
career, cruelly cut short.
For some months his health had been causing concern, and many felt
that he was overburdened having taken on far too many commitments
after coming to Liverpool.
He was Music Organiser to the University College of North Wales,
Bangor, and conductor of the Llandudno Autumn Concert Series. He was
also conductor of the Liverpool University Choral Society and chorus
master of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society. In 1909 he had
conducted the Festival of the Musical League of Great Britain which
took place in Liverpool. In 1911 he conducted a Welsh National Choir
at the Festival of the Empire at the Crystal Palace in London, a
5000 strong choir drawn from all over Wales and Liverpool. He had
also accepted the position of conductor of the North Staffordshire
Choral Society for 1914-15. In addition he was a frequent
adjudicator at eisteddfodau in all parts of Wales and
was much in demand to conduct Welsh singing festivals. Throughout,
he kept his musical links with Liverpool’s many Welsh chapels. His
work and devotion to the Liverpool Welsh Choral Union never
diminished. Despite concern about his health, he was looking forward
to taking the Welsh Choral Union to Germany to perform Elgar’s Dream
of Gerontius, specifically at Elgar’s invitation. But it was not to
For the ailing Harry Evans, rest and treatment were ordered. Sadly
his condition worsened and an investigation revealed that he had a
brain tumour. He died on July 23nd 1914 at the zenith of his career
aged 41, leaving a widow and two young sons. He was buried on July
27th in Smithdown Road Cemetery. Thousands came to pay their last
tributes. After a
short service at his home, a service was held at Grove Street
Congregational Chapel and later at the Cemetery where members of the
Welsh Choral Union formed an avenue for the cortège.
At the graveside, the Rev. Dr. Owen Evans stressed in his eulogy
that what matters is the intensity of life and not its length.
Later, members of the Choral Union subscribed towards erecting a
striking memorial to Harry Evans.
His two sons set up a fund to maintain the memorial. His eldest son,
Sir Horace Evans, became physician to the Queen, while the younger
son, Hubert John joined the Indian Civil service and served as a
consul in South-East Asia. The two sons made provision for a
scholarship for a Welsh student to study at the Royal College of
Music in London. Unfortunately this was merged with other
scholarships some years later and the name was changed.
Sir Horace Evans’ surviving daughter, Jean, and her late husband,
Eric Hathorn, had three children, James, who died in 2003, Helen and
Charles (a solicitor in London). Helen has
continued the musical tradition of the family. A violinist, trained
at the Menuhin School in London and the Juilliard School in New
York, she has played in leading orchestras, including the Birmingham
Symphony Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle (who was brought up in
Allerton), as well as playing on many film and music sound tracks.
After Harry Evans’ death, tributes flooded in and many were
reproduced in the Christmas memorial concert programme of the Choir.
Sir Edward Elgar wrote, “I had the honour to be associated with him
in several important musical matters. I held him and his abilities
and qualities in the highest esteem”. Tributes came from H. Walford
Davies, Dr William McNaught and Granville Bantock, who said “He was
a brilliant conductor..... Under his direction I have heard choral
singing attain to heights of expression beyond description”. W.J.
Evans, a Merthyr musician, asserted that Harry Evans “was the
greatest conductor Wales had seen”. The music critic of The Daily
Telegraph, Robin H. Legge, was of the view that Harry Evans “had
undeniable genius.....a conductor by the grace of God”. Caradog
Roberts composed the hymn tune In Memoriam as a tribute to Harry
Harry Evans’ reputation stemmed from his intense dedication and from
his superb musicianship rather than through holding some important
position. He insisted upon a
disciplined approach to music making and the attainment of the
highest standards. In this way he achieved some notable musical
What qualities made Harry Evans’ time with the Welsh Choral Union so
special and memorable? When asked about his approach to working with
the Choir, he replied “I always get my choir to understand the
significance of what they perform and the exact position of
everything they sing in a work, with the result that they sink
individuality into one common whole – are animated by the sole
desire faithfully to convey the composer’s idea”. Indeed, he held
that one of the weaknesses of Welsh choirs generally was that they
sang extracts from works rather than perform the entire work. He had
the ability to discern the essential general character of a work and
the close relationship between the music and the text. According to
the music correspondent of The Manchester Guardian, “in the course
of twelve years, Mr Evans developed the choir into one of the
greatest choral forces in the United Kingdom”. Some achievement.
In December 1914, the Choir decided to perform The Messiah in memory
of Harry Evans, conducted by one of his former pupils, John Watcyn
from Dowlais. It was a solemn concert which started with the Dead
March from Handel’s Saul. In 1915, the performance of The Messiah
was conducted by T. Hopkin Evans from Glyn Neath. He also conducted
the choir in a performance of The Messiah in 1918, which was held a
month after the Armistice. The rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus
was so superb that the audience insisted on an encore.
In 1919 the Choir invited T. Hopkin Evans to become its conductor,
which he accepted.