WNO and Arwel Hughes – making history

29 June 2021

Born on 25 August 1909 in Rhosllannerchrugog, Arwel Hughes’s was one of the most prominent composers of his day and his vast catalogue of compositions includes the hugely popular hymn Tydi a Roddaist (1938) – which was composed at Shrewsbury Railway Station, Fantasia for Strings (1936), Prelude for Orchestra (1945), and the oratorios Dewi Sant (1950) and Pantycelyn (1963) – of which he is most renowned. Hughes played an important role in the musical landscape in Wales and was rightfully awarded an OBE for his services to Welsh music in 1969.

Having studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams and C. H. Kitson at the Royal College of Music, Arwel Hughes began his professional musical career as an organist in Oxford, but it wasn’t long before he returned to Wales, composing, arranging and orchestrating music and conducting new works from some of the country’s finest composers as Head of Music for BBC Wales.

In Autumn 1953, he made history by becoming the first living composer to be performed by Welsh National Opera. The world premiere of Hughes’s first opera - Menna – was the only new production of that year. The libretto by Dr Wyn Griffith is based on the tragic Welsh folk legend of Menna who, on the eve of her wedding followed the ancient custom of hiding until found by the groomsman. However, several years later and yet to be found, Gwyn discovers her wedding dress in a nearby tree, leading to a heart-wrenching finale. An exceptional cast was assembled for the premiere, which received a warm reception from the first night audience - Elsie Morison as Menna and Richard Lewis as Gwyn.

Following some amends, the opera returned in August 1954 and was performed to an audience of 6,000 people at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in Ystradgynlais – the largest audience ever for an opera in Wales. In 2009, Owain Arwel Hughes conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra in a performance of his father’s opera, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 3.  

Hughes’s second, and last opera was also premiered by Welsh National Opera. Serch yw’r Doctor (Love’s the Doctor), a comedy adapted by Saunders Lewis from Molière's L'Amour medecin, was John Moody’s first production as WNO Director of Productions. Commissioned by the Welsh Arts Council the opera received its stage premiere, under the composer’s baton, on 1 August 1960 - the opening night of the National Eisteddfod of Wales at Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens. In the book Welsh National Opera, Fawkes summarises the story as ‘poor boy loves rich girl; father of girl forbids marriage; ‘doctor’ prescribes marriage to himself as the only answer to the girl’s ills and turns out to be, of course, poor boy in disguise.’ The cast included Lucille Graham, Rhydderch Davies, Rowland Jones and Marion Lowe.

These works played an important role in the development of opera in Wales and allowed Welsh National Opera to promote the country’s various talents, knowledge and skills which led to more world premieres by Welsh composers in subsequent years - Grace Williams's The Parlour (1966), Alun Hoddinott’s The Beach of Falesa (1974), William Mathias’s The Servants (1980) and John Metcalf’s The Journey (1981).