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Reference: NLW Evan James MS 1

A manuscript containing the earliest copy of 'Hen wlad fy nhadau' in the handwriting of the composer, James James (1833-1902)

The manuscript

The words and music that were later adopted as our national anthem were composed in January 1856, the result of a collaboration between a father and a son from Pontypridd: Evan James (Ieuan ap Iago, 1809-1878), author of the words, and James James (Iago ap Ieuan, 1833-1902) who composed the melody.

James James was a musician, who earned his living by playing the harp in the inns of Pontypridd. The earliest copy of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau is to be found in a manuscript containing a variety of instrumental and choral music collected by James himself. The material was compiled between 1849 and 1863, and gives an insight into the type of music that was popular in the Pontypridd area at the time.

Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (f.41v.) is the only piece in the manuscript where James is noted as the composer, and the composition date is clearly marked as January 1856. A four part version of God save the Queen, with one verse in Welsh, adapted by James is also included.

The actual story behind the composition of the national anthem is uncertain. Some believe that Evan James composed the words before his son composed the melody, and others believe that the melody was composed before the words. The title, Glan Rhondda, which was originally given to the work, followed a common trend for hymn music.

The anthem was performed for the first time in the vestry of Capel Tabor in Maesteg in either January or February 1856, by a singer called Elizabeth John from Pontypridd, and it soon became popular in the locality. Its popularity spread after the Llangollen Eisteddfod in 1858. Thomas Llewelyn of Aberdare won a competition for an unpublished collection of Welsh airs with a collection that included Glan Rhondda. The adjudicator of the competition, Owain Alaw (John Owen, 1821-1883) asked for permission to include Glan Rhondda in his publication, Gems of Welsh melody (1860). This volume, which gave Glan Rhondda its more famous title, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, was sold in large quantities and ensured the popularity of the national anthem across the whole of Wales.

The first recording

In London on 11 March 1899, the first known record in the Welsh language was made, when Madge Breese sang Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau for the Gramophone Company. The recording, pressed on a 7-inch single-sided disc, lasts for 1 minute and 17 seconds.

Further reading

  • Aeres Twigg. Yr anthem genedlaethol = The national anthem. Llandysul : Gwasg Gomer, 2000
  • W. Rhys Nicholas, 'The authors of "Hen wlad fy nhadau" : Evan James (1809-1878) and James James (1833-1902). In The bridge and the song : some chapters in the story of Pontypridd, p.28-43. Edited by P. F. Tobin and J. I Davies. Bridgend : Mid Glamorgan County Libraries, c.1991
  • Scholes, Percy A. 'Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau' in The National Library of Wales Journal Vol iii, Summer 1943