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About John Thomas - Pencerdd Gwalia

John Thomas - Pencerdd Gwalia

Photo of John Thomas in the 1860s‘Voila comment jouer la harpe’ wrote Hector Berlioz on 2 March 1854. John Thomas, the subject of his comment, was born in Bridgend, South Wales, on St David’s Day, 1 March 1826. He was the eldest of seven children, four of whom became harpists. His father, also named John Thomas, was a tailor by trade, but he was a good amateur musician who played clarinet in the town band. Little John is said to have been playing piccolo in the band at the age of six, but it was the harp that he was determined to play, and an old one was obtained for him. This was a Welsh triple harp and John Thomas was playing it in traditional style (with his left hand playing the treble and his right hand playing the bass) when he won a new Bassett Jones triple harp at the Eisteddfod organised by Lady Llanover at Abergavenny in October 1838.

He was only twelve years old, and created a sensation. Invited to London by Sir Charles Morgan, the Eisteddfod president, he made such an impression on Ada, Lady Lovelace, Byron’s daughter, that she offered to pay for three-quarters of his education at the Royal Academy of Music if his father could find the other quarter.

John Thomas went to London. He learned to speak English and he re-learned his harp technique, abandoning the triple harp for one of Erard’s grand new pedal harps, and changing from the traditional Welsh method he had been taught, transferring the harp to his right shoulder, so that now his right hand played the treble and his left hand played the bass. His harp teacher was John Balsir Chatterton whom he eventually followed, both as Professor at the Royal Academy of Music and as Harpist to the Queen.

John Thomas became harpist to the Royal Italian Opera in 1850. The season ran from March to mid-July, so the appointment gave him the liberty to tour the continent as a soloist in the winter months. This he did from 1851, and over the next few years he visited France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Austria. In Vienna he was greeted as the natural successor to Parish Alvars, who had died there in 1849, and John Thomas dedicated his famous solo ‘Autumn’ to Countess Esterhazy, Parish Alvars’s main benefactress. 1852 was an important year, with a commission to compose and perform a Philharmonic Society concerto on 3 May; the manuscript of his ‘Minstrel’s Adieu’ dates from 30 July that year. Working at the Italian Opera also gave him a lifelong love of the human voice – in fact, in 1860, he was engaged for a year to the well-known soprano Desirée Artôt, who, in 1868, received (and refused) a proposal of marriage from Tchaikovsky!

At the Aberdare Eisteddfod of 1861, John Thomas was invested with the title of ‘Pencerdd Gwalia’ (Chief Musician of Wales), and in the same year he published his famous Welsh Melodies arranged for the harp. A year later he published his Welsh Melodies for the Voice to resounding success, and on 4 July 1862 he began his series of Grand Concerts of Welsh Music at St James’s Hall, Piccadilly, with a choir of 400 accompanied by a band of twenty harps! These annual concerts continued for 42 years.

John Thomas composed, arranged and published a vast amount of music, especially music for the harp. Harpists owe him a great debt for rescuing the works of Parish Alvars from oblivion and re-publishing them. Favourite works in his repertoire were Parish Alvars’s Serenade, Mandoline and Danse des Fées, and he was also the first in modern times to edit and publish both Handel’s Harp Concerto and Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp. He became Harpist to the Queen in 1871, and at the time of her Golden Jubilee in 1887, he composed a work entitled ‘Cambria’s Homage to our Empress Queen’ for Male Voice Choir and thirteen harps! He gave his last public concert the following year, in June 1888, when his programme included a remarkable performance of ‘Sounds of Ossian’ Parish Alvars’s great posthumous work, then, as now, still in manuscript. Adlais will publish this work in the near future.

Continuing to compose, edit and publish, John Thomas lived on into the twentieth century, and after the death of Queen Victoria, he became Harpist to King Edward VII. His death occurred in London on 19 March 1913.

©Ann Griffiths 2005

Compositions & Transcriptions for solo harp

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Publisher Cat#
Aeolian Sounds
Adlais 043
Echoes of a Waterfall - Concert Study
Adlais 044
Ffarwel y Telynor - The Minstrel's Adieu to his Native Land
Adlais 045
Ffarwel y Telynor - The Minstrel's Adieu to his Native Land,
Special edition for Clarsach harp
Adalis 132
L'Espérance - Mazurka Adlais 046
Le Soir - Premier Impromptu Adlais 047
Pensive and Joyous Adlais 048
Rákóczy Induló Adlais 095
Rêverie Harpiana 046
Rhapsody Adlais 049
Tyrolienne  Adlais 060
Staccato Movement Adlais 054
The Spinning Wheel - Concert Study Adlais 055
Dewis Dethol o Ymarferiadau Telyn - Selected Studies for the harp Adlais 003
Four Romances
Romances - (1) The Tear
Adlais 050
Romances - (2) The Smile Adlais 051
Romances - (3) The Parting Adlais 052
Romances - (4) The Remembrance
Adlais 053
Four Seasons
The Seasons (1) Spring Adlais 056
The Seasons (2) Summer Adlais 057
The Seasons (3) Autumn Adlais 058
The Seasons (4) Winter Adlais 059
Transcriptions (or if marked ** harp composition edited by John Thomas)
Title (click for further info) Composer Publisher Cat#
Adagio from Sonata Quasi Fantasia (The Moonlight Sonata) BEETHOVEN Adlais 094
Una Furtiva Lagrima from 'L'Elisir d'amore' DONIZETTI Adlais 015
Nocturne DREYSCHOCK Adlais 016
M'appari tutt'amor from 'Martha' FLOTOW Adlais 018
Gigue HANDEL Adlais 025
The Harmonious Blacksmith HANDEL Adlais 208
Lieder Ohne Worte Volume 1
A selection of 5 "Songs without words"
Lieder Ohne Worte Volume 2
A selection of 6 "Songs without words"
Souvenir De Portico ** PARISH ALVARS Adlais 099
Assisa a pie d'un salice, The Willow Song, from 'Otello' ROSSINI Adlais 068
Ave Maria SCHUBERT Adlais 041
Barcarolle SCHUBERT Adlais 228
L'Adieu SCHUBERT Adlais 224
The Maiden's Lament SCHUBERT Adlais 098
The Promise of Spring SCHUBERT Adlais 227
The Wanderer SCHUBERT Adlais 097
Fantasia in C minor (Op.35) SPOHR Adlais 042

Traditional Welsh Melodies for solo harp

Traditional Welsh Melodies
John Thomas published 24 Welsh Melodies in two volumes. 22 were arrangements of traditional Welsh melodies and two were original works. All are arranged for pedal harp and have been engraved by Adlais Music Publishers and are printed and distributed world-wide by Creighton's Collection
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Title (click for further info) Publisher Cat#
Ffarwel y Telynor - The Minstrel's Adieu to his Native Land **
Adlais 045
Bugeilio'r Gwenith Gwyn - Watching the Wheat
Adlais 061
Clychau Aberdyfi - The Bells of Aberdovey Adlais 062
Codiad yr haul - The Rising of the Sun Adlais 063
Dafydd y Garreg Wen - David of the White Rock Adlais 064
Llwyn Onn - The Ash Grove Adlais 065
Merch Megan - Megan's Daughter Adlais 066
Serch Hudol - Love's fascination Adlais 089
Syr Harri Ddu - Black Sir Harry Adlais 093
Nos Galan - Deck the Halls Adlais 118
Y Gadlys - Of Noble Race was Shenkin Adlais 119
Merch y Melinydd - The Miller's Daughter Adlais 149
Rhyfelgyrch Gwyr Harlech - March of the Men of Harlech Adlais 157
Ar Hyd y Nos - All through the Night Adlais 158
Morfa Rhuddlan - The Plain of Rhuddlan Adlais 162
Pêr Alaw - Sweet Richard Adlais 163
Tros y Garreg - Crossing the Stone Adlais 165
Codiad yr Ehedydd - Rising of the Lark Adlais 167
Cwynfan Prydain - Britain's Lament Adlais 196
Ymadawiad Y Brenin - The Departure of the King Adlais 197
Riding over the mountain ** Adlais 198
Y fwyalchen - The Blackbird Adlais 199
Dewch I'r Frwydyr - Come to Battle Adlais 200
Torriad y Dydd - The Dawn of Day Adlais 201
** Original melody by John Thomas

Music for Two Harps

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Duets for two harps
Title (click for further info) Publisher Cat#
Bardic Fantasia on subjects from the author's Dramatic Cantata "Llewelyn" Adlais 075
Cambria - Set of parts for two harps Adlais 070
Cambria - full score Alaw 066
Carmen Duet for two harps on Subjects from Bizet's Carmen Adlais 090
Gigue - Handel GF tr. John Thomas Adlais 076
Grand Duet Adlais 211
March of the Welsh Fusiliers Adlais 074
Prayer from Rossini's Mose in Egitto (Op. 58)
Adlais 037
Rákóczy Induló Adlais 096
Scenes of Childhood

Adlais 071
Souvenir Du Nord Adlais 164
Schubert’s Songs transcribed by John Thomas for two harps or harp & piano
Title (click for further info) Publisher Cat#
Ave Maria Adlais 092
The Fountain Adlais 171
L'Adieu Adlais 225
Serenade Adlais 091
The Trout
Adlais 172
Marguerite (Gretchen am Spinnrade, Marguerite au rouet) Adlais 173

Music for Voice & Harp

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Single Voice and Harp
Title (click for further info) Publisher Ref
The Dove / Y 'Deryn Pur Adlais 206
Crossing the Stone / Tros y Garreg Adlais 205
The Blackbird / Y Fwyalchen Adlais 204
March of the Men of Harlech / Rhyfelgyrch Gwyr Harlech

Adlais 190
David of the White Rock / Dafydd y Garreg Wen
Adlais 191
4 Part Choir & Harp
Title (click for further info) Publisher Ref
Merch Megan / Megan's Daughter Adlais 210
Codiad yr haul / The Rising of the Sun Adlais 209
March of the Men of Harlech / Rhyfelgyrch Gwyr Harlech
Adlais 183
David of the White Rock / Dafydd y Garreg Wen
Adlais 186
Ffarwel y Telynor / The Minstrel's Adieu to his Native Land
Adlais 133

Music for harp & Other Instrument (Flute / Violin)

Flute & Harp
Title (click for further info) Publisher Cat#
Nos Galan - Deck the Halls. Welsh Carol tune
Adlais 156
Cadenzas to Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp Salvi
Violin & Harp
Title (click for further info) Publisher Cat#
Prelude for Harp and Violin (Felix Mendelssohn)
Salvi 705610-600
Romance for Harp and Violin Adlais 189