Heritage Songs: The Decline of a Cultural Tradition

Wales is a nation defined by a number of cultural stereotypes. Of these, singing and the choral tradition is one of the most heavily exported visions of Wales. The cultural origins for this intangible form of heritage are rooted in a faith-based non-conformist background, but as Wales becomes increasingly secular, what future does the singing tradition of Wales have?

“Heritage and the Holy” will explore the changing relationship between the heritage sector and faith, from the change in use of religious buildings, to the development of cultural traditions. While this column will be considering these relationships in a global context, I wanted to open with a case study close to my heart: the cultural heritage of Wales. When writing about cultural traditions in Wales, there are a series of cultural stereotypes that frequently get in the way. Perhaps the most common, and misleading, stereotype is that everyone in Wales can sing. Indeed, Wales is commonly known as the “land of song”; we like to tell people. It is a stereotype that has deep roots. I would challenge any reader who queries this to type that exact phrase into any internet search engine; the only results you will find (on the first few pages at least) will be about Wales. An associated stereotype is that the nation is obsessed with rugby. This perhaps is less misleading, with the fortunes of the national team having been shown to consistently impact on the economic fortunes of the country, not to mention triggering the odd baby boom here and there. When the nation comes together for such sporting occasions, the stereotype of song frequently reappears, with crowds singing in unison, though with questionable harmony, “Cwm Rhondda,” perhaps more affectionately known as “Bread of Heaven.”

On such occasions, as many as 72,000 voices might be heard singing or shouting the words of the hymn in the national stadium. While several versions of this hymn can be found, in both English and Welsh languages, the most commonly performed version opens with the verse:

Guide me, O thou great Redeemer,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
Hold me with thy powerful hand:
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven
Feed me till I want no more

In the performance of what could easily be taken for a prayer, do Welsh rugby fans call upon God for aid in sporting endeavors? Or is this simply a case of a verse having become popular, with no contemporary spiritual meaning left, other than it being the one song that everyone in Wales happens to know? Ultimately, there is no clear origin point for the practice of hymn singing at rugby matches. The sweeping popularity of this religious verse, however, might be taken to reflect some manner of cultural attitude towards a chapel-going tradition in Wales and the cultural relevance of this particular song.

In a historical context, the importance of the chapel tradition in Wales should certainly not be understated. Non-conformity in Wales was significant throughout the mid-eighteenth century, through to the twentieth century, reaching a peak of popularity and expansion in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Within a climate of chapel going, a new era of choral performance was born. Hymns, written by Welsh composers, increasingly set to melodies that reflected earlier folk compositions, became common commodities in the cultural landscape. As congregations grew, so did those who participated in the singing that would become synonymous with Wales. The choral tradition is still with us, with the Morriston Orpheus, Treorchy, and Fron male voice choirs all receiving global acclaim and international recording deals, which only serve to reinforce the worldview of Wales as this land of song. Despite the global appeal of these choirs, however, core numbers of participants are gradually declining. An aging demographic and a disinterested youth have left many Welsh choirs with questionable long term viability. As this form of intangible cultural heritage appears to be slowly failing, it is the physical manifestations of these traditions, the chapels in which the hymns were first sung, which are disappearing much faster.

Dwindling congregations and prohibitive running costs are among the factors that have resulted in the religious heritage of Wales being left in an incredibly precarious position. Capel, the Chapels Heritage Society in Wales, which monitors the condition of these cultural resources, estimates that a chapel closes its doors to the public at a rate of one a week. In such cases, the first point of concern for those who value the physical manifestations of religious heritage in Wales (i.e., the chapel structures) is, what will happen to the buildings? With a sad frequency, demolition of chapels occurs, as deserted buildings quickly succumb to the wear and tear of the ages. With a greater frequency, though, chapels find new uses. Conversion is among the most popular conservation strategies available for those eager to preserve the hundreds of empty chapels scattered across Wales. Today, it is not uncommon to find people living in converted chapels, and the opportunity to purchase anything from antiques to carpets from the many commercial enterprises that have moved into the empty spaces, is gradually increasing. This trend is certainly not unique to Wales, as evidenced by Josip Matesic’s observations on church heritage in Adelaide, Australia. Perhaps, though, in a Welsh context, it is the pubs and restaurants to have taken over chapels that would raise most eyebrows. What would the temperance preachers of the day make of the opportunity to drink a pint, or a glass of wine, in a (once) non-conformist chapel?

While it is certainly important to question the fate of such buildings, it is arguably the cultural shift that has taken place that is of greater concern. Tangible heritage buildings are relatively easy things to maintain, especially if we are not overly concerned with what is happening inside them. Intangible heritage is an altogether different prospect. The singing that defines Wales in the eyes of the world is just one such example of the intangible resource. It is a form of heritage that is utterly dependent on participants, but arguably, it is dependent on a living cultural context. Without a living culture in which it can thrive, intangible heritage withers and dies with alarming rapidity. For Wales, the loss of a chapel tradition, regardless of whether the buildings themselves remain standing, can be seen in direct correlation to the decline of the choral tradition. The next generation of great Welsh voices is in danger of being silenced.

Such concerns are far from exclusive to Wales. Globally, new additions are made on an annual basis to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, which records examples of cultural traditions on the verge of dying out. While various such examples of intangible heritage are largely secular, many of those under threat are fundamentally connected to faith-based practice, ritual, and tradition. With a decline in practice, and participants, these forms of frequently unique cultural heritage cannot survive. It is not simply a case of performing said ritual, it is a case of understanding the importance and context in which the ritual was or is manifest. Otherwise, the tradition becomes no more than a performance, an act for an audience. Meaning is lost; for rugby crowds, “Bread of Heaven” is just a song.

For Wales, there will always be song. As long as there is a rugby team for people to gather around, Welsh songs will be performed. But the cultural climate in which those songs were written, and the choirs formed, is in very real danger of being lost. It is far from as simple as suggesting that regular chapel attendances would somehow buck this trend; there are much wider social and employment difficulties which conspire against the traditions as well. However, it would be a very sad occasion, if one day during a rugby match, one fan turned to another and asked, “Why are we singing a hymn anyway?” and no answer could be found, given, or remembered in return.

Discussion and Comments

  1. Hi David.

    I am currently writing my dissertation on whether Wales can be considered the Land of Song or not… I would be interested in hearing some more of your views regarding this – please get in touch if you are willing to have a chat with me about this topic!

    Stephanie Jenkins