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Let’s Talk Lyrics ~ The GYMANFA GANU, CALON LÂN, and the Writing of CRYSTAL RIVER

Over my musical life, as I started paying more attention to the fine print in hymnals and songbooks, I became aware that some of the melodies I especially loved were Welsh in origin.  Ar Hyd Y Nos (“All Through the Night”) and Llwyn Onn (“The Ash Grove”/“Let All Things Now Living”) are examples of what I consider “heart-swelling” songs of the Welsh.  
By their own admission, the Welsh have a special place in vocal music history:
          It is not generally known, but a fact nonetheless, that part singing had its origin and early development among the Cymry,
          or as the English called them, the Welsh.  A famous historian, Giraldus, writing in 1188, speaks of their skill in vocal music,
          which they sang in parts, and not, as elsewhere, in unison.  This skill and custom, developed through the ages, finds its
          expression today in the Gymanfa Ganu, the Assembly or Festival for Sacred Song.  
          “The Gymanfa Ganu”, by Judge David G. Jenkins, Welsh and English Hymns and Anthems (Reformatted), 1995
Several years ago, I attended an American Gymanfa Ganu. I enjoyed the festival; it mostly consisted of singing songs from a hymnbook, typically a couple of verses each in Welsh and English.  The song leader also related interesting historical tidbits about the hymns.  One tune in particular caught my ear: Calon Lân (“A Clean Heart”).  I found the melody very beautiful and wondered why, in my (mumble number) years of singing, I had never heard it before.
At the second festival I attended, Calon Lân was again a selected hymn; it was obviously a favorite and sung with gusto.  Curious, I started researching.  Unlike many Welsh hymns which have crossed over into the English-speaking church (such as Aberystwyth (“Jesus, Lover of My Soul”), Cwm Rhondda (“Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”), and Hyfrydol (“Jesus! What a Friend for Sinners” and many other texts)), Calon Lân has remained mainly in the language and hearts of the Welsh.  Although the tune has been paired with P.P. Bliss’ “I Will Sing the Wondrous Story” in a (British) Methodist hymnal and “Abba Father, We Approach Thee” (“a plain evangelical hymn of no special merit”, according to a quote by John Julian published in 1907, posted on, the question remains:  
Why hasn’t Calon Lân been embraced more widely in English?
I had my ‘spicions.  Although it seemed like many of the available translated texts I found were fairly accurate, something was getting lost in translation.  And I offer that what was lost was the beauty of the sound of the original Welsh.  I decided to aim to write a new text which approximated some of the sound.  So I listened to Calon Lân being sung in Welsh...over and over...until new words emerged.  Although I had read the translation of the original words, it was actually a plus to not understand the language as the words flowed by, so I was not confined by the meaning.  I concentrated on how the music sounded, how it made me feel and what images and words came to mind.  Although the new text has a different focus, the original idea of purity is maintained (of the river of life vs. of the heart).  Also, the original theme (“a clean heart”) shows up, albeit briefly, in the final verse (2:49 of “Crystal River”).  
If you don’t mind juggling multiple windows to listen to the choruses of the Welsh Calon Lân and the English “Crystal River”, you will hear a “nod” to the original Welsh text by Daniel James (1847-1920), either by the pairing of assonance, or by a similar sound.  The word “lily”, which is shared in the two languages, maintains its place as a “link” between the two versions.  
Calon lân yn llawn daioni,         Crystal River, Water Holy,
Tecach yw na'r lili dlos:             where the whitest lily grows,
Dim ond calon lân all ganu        Crystal River, ever flowing
Canu'r dydd a chanu'r nos.        from the Lamb and Father’s throne.
CALON LÂN (Solo with harp; compare at 0:39)
or (Only Boys Aloud; compare at 0:42)

With a beautiful new arrangement by Heather Sorenson, I hope that English-speaking churches might enjoy this “introduction” to a lovely old Welsh tune.

->  Is there a traditional, well-loved song which is known mainly in your geographical region / cultural heritage / denomination of worship?  Consider if a new arrangement or a new lyric might bring it to the voices of another culture or a new generation.
Replies (8): Threaded | Chronological
on July 8, 2013 11:00am
Your prose is beautiful!   As a composer I'm not much interested in someone else's arrangements, but if you'd share the entire lyrics, I certainly might use them (if you want them re-used ...) .   Either here, publicly, or privately.
William Copper
on July 8, 2013 12:06pm
Thank you for your kind comments about my lyrics.  The copyright for the lyrics to "Crystal River" now belongs to Shawnee Press/Hal Leonard, so if you would wish to use them in an arrangement, here is the link for permissions:
on July 8, 2013 11:55am
I feel, as an Irishman, and as a fellow Celt, I should make the point that Welsh is an unfair attribution to the inhabitants of what we commonly call Wales.  'Wealas' is the Anglo Saxon for 'stranger' or foreigner, whilst it was the Anglo Saxons who were the real foreigner.  Modern Welsh and Cornish are a direct descendants of the language spoke  in Prydain (Britain) before the Romans or Anglo Saxons ever came.  In other words, they are the true British languages.  Scots Gaelic was brought from Ireland when the Irish invaded and set of the Scottish kingdom in the very early middle ages.  Scpots Gaelic and Irish Gaeilge are still close and are mutially comprehensible to read - and, with practice, to speak.
I can well believe that they would have used vocal harmonies in Wales.  Their emblem, like Ireland, is the harp.  It is hard to imagine that peoples used to the harp would not early on have learned to use harmonies. (cf playing only one note at a time on a piano.)
There are many beautiful tunes with Welsh lyrics.  Happily the lady who runs my local café (in France!) is Welsh, and on occasion will entertain her guests with Welsh song.
You did not give a translation of Calon L^an.  My Welsh is not up to much, but here is an attempt:
A pure heart is full of goodness,
Fairer than the beauty of the lily
Only a pure heart can sing
Day and night.
Chœur d'Alzonne
on July 8, 2013 2:15pm
Thank you for taking the time to write a translation, David!
on July 8, 2013 1:20pm
Julie, I'm descended from Welsh settlers, and rediscovered my Welsh musical roots about 10 yrs ago. I've been attending the annual North American Festival of Wales since 2009, the last two years with my brother and his wife.  
The Festival includes seminars on Welsh history, Welsh language classes, an Eisteddfod, and concerts by folk musicians as well as a Welsh choir specially invited from Wales.  One of our favorite activities during the 4-day festival is the nightly informal "hymn sing" in the hotel lobby.  Picture up to 200 or so people of all ages (children through seniors) surrounding a piano, singing Welsh hymns in 4-part harmony, in Welsh (mostly), with gusto, from about 10:00pm until midnight or so.  The official song book is the Welsh National Gymanfa Ganu Association (WNGGA) publication, which includes all the most popular hymns.
And the final day (Sunday) includes the formal Gymanfa Ganu -- a 4-hr hymn sing, usually in a church, with 600-700 (sometimes more) people singing Welsh hymns in beautiful harmony.  The focus is singing in Welsh, but the director usually alternates Welsh with English for those of us who aren't yet confident in Welsh.
I LOVE what you've done with Calon Lân.  This is one of my favorites -- actually, it's probably the most popular of all Welsh hymns in Wales, as it's the theme song for the Welsh national rugby team, and is sung at every match.  You're correct: the "usual" English translation of the original text just doesn't work.  It's weak in terms of meaning, and the syllabification is off-kilter.  It works MUCH better in original Welsh.  But your new text really conveys the feeling of the piece.  Definitely will be looking at it more closely.
For more info on the North American Festival of Wales, see
Lana (Mattox) Mountford
Bellingham, WA
on July 9, 2013 7:08am
Thanks so much for your post, Lana.  The North American festival looks great!  Perhaps some of our colleagues have been to the National Eisteddfod (competitive festival of music and poetry) in Wales:  Last summer, Only Men Aloud and Only Kids Aloud joined Only Boys Aloud in a performance of Calon Lân at the finale of the opening concert:
on July 9, 2013 7:52am
Wow, that looks like a great event, Julie.  I'm afraid I haven't ever been to the National Eisteddfod, but by coincidence our chorus manager, Elen, who is a Welsh lady, has just been appointed as their organiser. (See )  We shall be sorry to see her go!
on July 9, 2013 8:51am
Hi, Gordon!  Talk about 6 degrees of separation (a specialty of ChoralNet)!  Now all I need is a plane ticket and a tent.  Surely your colleague could help me find my way around the Maes. :-D  (jk)
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