Sunday 10 June 2018

156 Morfydd Owen centenery

156 Morfydd Owen centenery
Elin Manahan Thomas, the Gorseinon-born soprano, sang Handel’s "Eternal source of light divine" at the recent Royal Wedding.  On 2 July she will be singing at the Gower Festival at St Paul’s Church in Sketty, where her subject will be the Welsh soprano, composer and pianist Morfydd Owen, who died in Mumbles 100 years ago.   
Morfydd Owen was born into a Welsh-speaking family in 1891, and soon showed signs of being a musical prodigy, playing the piano and beginning to compose even from the age of six.  After performing in chapels and at local eisteddfodau she studied at University College, Cardiff, and went on to London’s Royal Academy of Music, where she won every available prize at the end of her first year. 
She became a member of the Welsh Presbyterian Chapel in Charing Cross Road, and began to move in influential London Welsh circles.  She collaborated with the wife of Liberal MP Herbert Lewis to transcribe and arrange Welsh folk songs.  Admitted to the Gorsedd of Bards at the 1912 National Eisteddfod at Wrexham, she took the Bardic name Llwyn, being often known as Morfydd Llwyn-Owen.  While living in Hampstead she also moved in a very different sphere, meeting writers in Bohemian circles like D.H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound, and forming a lifelong friendship with Liberal MP and writer Eliot Crawshay-Williams.  An Associate of the Royal Academy of Music, she gave concerts in Bath and Oxford before her professional début at the Aeolian Hall in New Bond Street in January 1917.  But to the dismay of her chapel friends, a month later she married the flamboyant psychoanalyst Dr Ernest Jones from Gowerton, at a time when psychoanalysis was regarded with deep suspicion.  This severely curtailed her musical output, for Jones did not wish his wife to perform in public, and domestic duties at their West End flat and cottage in Sussex limited her musical creativity.  There was also tension between Jones’s atheism and her Christian faith. 
As the First World War prevented her taking up an award to study Russian folk music in St Petersburg, her husband brought her to visit Gower in August 1918.  They stayed at Craig-y-môr, at the top of Plunch Lane in Mumbles, the home of Jones’s widowed father, who had re-married.  The couple visited Caswell, Langland, Sketty, Swansea Market, and Castle Street’s Kardomah Café.  But Morfydd was taken ill with appendicitis, requiring an immediate operation.  Having a car, Jones could have driven her to Swansea Hospital (now Home Gower), but instead she was operated on at Craig-y-môr, with Jones acting as anesthetist.  With hindsight ether should have been used instead of chloroform, for tragically Morfydd died of chloroform poisoning, a few weeks before her twenty-seventh birthday.  She was buried at the top of Oystermouth cemetery - even before any death certificate was issued - and no post-mortem was carried out.   Her grave is marked with a red sandstone column giving the incorrect date of her birth (Jones believed she was two years younger than she was), and the dates of her marriage and death, with words in German from Goethe that translated read, “Here the indescribable consequences (of love) have been fulfilled”, for German was the language of the early psychoanalysts.  The circumstances of Morfydd Owen’s death raise several questions, which during war-time went unanswered. 
So Wales lost potentially one of her greatest musical talents, who will be remembered at the Gower Festival on 2 July, at a BBC Promenade concert, a lecture by Dr Rhian Davies at Swansea University on 6 September, the unveiling of a blue plaque outside Craig-y-môr the next day (the centenary of her death), with a ceremony around her grave, and the following day a blue plaque at her Treforest birthplace.  
The obituary in “Y Gorlan” stated: “O Death! We knew that thou were blind, but in striking Morfydd thou hast taught us that thou art also deaf.       




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