Let’s Talk Lyrics ~ The GYMANFA GANU, CALON LÂN, and the Writing of CRYSTAL RIVER
Date: July 8, 2013
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 hymnary.org), 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.
CRYSTAL RIVER (chorus begins at 0:52):
CALON LÂN (Solo with harp; compare at 0:39) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DfCA0aP7yQ
or (Only Boys Aloud; compare at 0:42) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4nYgd61NMgE
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.
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