Professor Richard Howells

Picture of Professor Richard Howells

Professor Richard Howells

Well-known pianist describes an unusual incident

A gentleman well-known in the Rhondda valleys as well as in his own home town, Aberdare, in the old days, was Prof. Richard Howells, one of the most accomplished pianists in the Principality. He is still in harness and can play the piano as well as ever. His touch hath still its ancient power.

“Well,” writes J.L.R. “I had the supreme pleasure of a long and intimate chat with him the other evening. It commenced about the recent announcement of the cancellation of the Mountain Ash Eisteddfod, where he was to have been one of the official accompanists, as he was in the previous Mountain Ash event in 1905.

“There was a time when really capable pianists were few and far between. Now, of course, they are as “thick as autumn leaves that strew the brooks in Vallombrosa.”

Conversation turned to those glorious days, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when an eisteddfod was held somewhere or other every Mabon’s Day. Here in this article I will deal with only one, a big eisteddfod held in Porth, Rhondda. It must have been in the 1890’s perhaps 1895. I was singing alto in a mixed choir conducted by the late Mr. John Thomas, A.C., Cwmparc. I distinctly remember that the adjudicator was the late Mr. D.W. Lewis, F.T.S.C., Brynamman, and that we lost. The piece was “Worthy is the Lamb.”

Gwilym Thomas and Ffrangcon Davies

“But Prof. Howell, who is now in his 79th year, has another recollections of that eventful gathering. The test piece in the male voice was “The Pilgrims,” and as all musicians know, there is a solo part in it, “The Prayer.” Gwilym Thomas, Ynyshir was the favourite soloist for this part, and most male voice parties were keen on his services whenever “The Pilgrims” was on the eisteddfod programme.

“Treorchy Male Voice (later Royal) conducted by William Thomas, was in the running, and they had been in the habit of engaging Gwilym Thomas for the part, but this time they were fore-stalled by some rival party.”

“It happened that Ffrangcon Davies, the great singer, was one of the artistes at a concert in Treorchy a night or two before the eisteddfod, and William Thomas prevailed upon him to sing “Y Weddi” (The Prayer) in “The Pilgrims.” So it was.

“Came the eisteddfod and the male voice competition Parties appeared to sing, among them the one which had engaged Gwilym Thomas.”

“The Treorchy came forward, and immediately there occurred an unprecedented and painful scene. The audience spotted Ffrangcon Davies as the soloist, and then a storm burst! Protests raised. There was interruptions and shouts, from all over the gallery and floor, and it was impossible for the party to proceed. This continued for some minutes.”

“Then Mr. Ffrangcon Davies raised his hand and spoke. He said “I see you object to a professional sing this solo. I am very sorry and did not know there would be any objection. But let me explain. If the adjudicator awards me the prize (there was a prize for the best soloist as well as for the best party), I do not wish to take it. Let it go the next best – if I happen to be best, which I very much doubt.”

“Then there was silence, and William Thomas raised his baton and the party sang. It was in Welsh. Ffrangcon Davies took up the solo and his inspiring and emotional – rendering – thrilled the audience through and through. The people were spellbound and they hung upon his every syllable. When the solo ended and the party proceeded with the latter part, the audience, contrary to all rules etiquette, broke out into terrific applause and cheers, which almost drowned the beautiful strains that were still pouring forth from the platform. Ffrangcon Davies had electrified them.”

“Who was the winner? Mr. Howells cannot recall the victorious party, but he remembers the words of the adjudicator, who declared the Ffrangcon Davies had reached supreme heights and he would not attempt to describe the effect on him.”

“And by the way, which was the winning male voice choir” Is there a reader who can enlighten us?”

Professor Richard Howells 25.10.1940

I do not know of any musician who has given to young singers of the district more real service at the commencement of their career than Richard Howells, Aberdare. The first time I heard him plays was at the Gadlys Chapel, when he gave a solo on the harmonium. Some years afterwards he took part at a concert held at the Temperance Hall, Aberdare, and he played “Clychau Aberdyfi” in such an effective and masterly manner that many in the audience said that “here was a young man of exceptional talent.” From that day until now he has been, and his, considered one of the best and most accomplished accompanists we possess. The fact that he has been more than a dozen times an official accompanist at National Eisteddfodau proves this to be true.

Richard Howells in his youth was apprenticed as mine surveyor, and for many years he was an assistant to Sir William Galloway, the well-known mining engineer. However, music had too strong an attraction for the young musician, and he gave up his occupation of surveyor, and settled down as music teacher. And at that time reliable accompanists were few and far between.

There was however, in those days, an accomplished musician locally in the person of Mr. Joseph Perkins, Cwmbach, and he was the accompanist of the Aberdare Choral Union, and organist at the Presbyterian Church; he also was always most ready in assisting young singers. After Mr. Perkins’ retirement Richard Howells came into prominence, and the musical fraternity were rejoicing in having a local accompanist that could be compared with the well-known pianist, Mr. David Bowen, Dowlais, and he was selected accompanist to the Aberdare Choral Union, a position he held for over 20 years.

I can recall an interesting incident about Richard Howells when Aberdare Choir joined the Pontypridd Choir to perform “Israel in Egypt” at the Pontypridd National Eisteddfod, under the conductorship of Caradog. At a joint practice the choir were rehearsing the chorus, “The land brought out frogs.”

The conductor jocularly asked the choristers, “Have you ever seen a frog jumping? Well, Richard and I will show you how Handel would have done it in this chorus. Now, Richard, let us show them how a frog jumps.” The choristers had great fun watching the conductor waving his hands, and listening to the jump made by the accompanist on the piano!

At many eisteddfodau held in different parts of Glamorgan, it was no rare thing to see Richard Howells acting as engaged accompanist to six or more mixed male voice choirs competing.

He was also accompanist to the Cwmaman Male Voice Choir and to the Aberdare Glee Society.
On the death of Mr. Charles Chew, conductor of the Aberdare Orchestral Society, Richard Howells was selected as his successor. He was also the official accompanist to the Mountain Ash Cottage Hospital Eisteddfod and its inception until its discontinuance owing to the 1914-18 war. He has acted on many occasions as organist at Unitarian Singing Festivals.

I have also heard him giving organ recitals, but it is a pianist he excels. His most notable services was, however, the unstinting aid given to many a young singer to come to the front, and in this connection I can say, in the words of Sarnicol, “The best of his wares are for nothing as all.”

I feel proud that he acted as accompanist as a concert given by the Cymric Ariana Choir under my conductorship at Aberdare.

Passing of a Great Pianist

Wales loses one of the greatest pianists it ever produced in the death of Prof. Richard Howells, Hon. R.C.M., which occurred at his home Danyrallt, Abernant Road, Aberdare, on Tuesday afternoon. He was in his 80th year, and had been ailing for the past five or six weeks. Previous to that he was fairly active, though it was noticeable that his erstwhile strong constitution was gradually crumbling. During recent winter sessions he took several evening classes under the auspices of the Glamorgan Education Committee, and in the list published in the “Leader” a few weeks ago he was advertised as teacher of similar classes this session.

Though born in Resolven he belonged to a very old Aberdare family – the Howells of Maesgwyn, Cwmdare. His brother Mr. Edward Howells, Maesgwyn, passed away two or three years ago. Mr. Richard Howells leaves a son and daughter, Mr. Gwyn Howells and Miss Marie Howells the former, like his father, being a brilliant pianist, and the latter a well-known violinist. The deepest sympathy of all goes to them in the loss of a devoted father.

About nine years ago a testimonial was organised in his honour, and subscriptions poured in from all parts of Wales from people who realised that the country owed a deep debt of gratitude to him for his services to music. At a great concert held in Siloa in connection with that testimonial, Mr. Howells delivered which will be long remembered by those who heard him – a speech replete with interesting reminiscences of musical events 50-60 years ago. The artistes included former pupils of his, and old friends, such as Harry Lewis, Nelson, and John Devonald, Abercanaid. These two have since passed beyond the veil, and are now joined by their former colleague.

The funeral takes place on Saturday, and will be private.

His Career
Prof. Howells and Aberdare‘s Music Traditions

The following article is taken from the “Aberdare Leader” for May 14th 1932:

Caradog with his fiddle and Prof. Richard Howells at the piano – what a unique feast for music lovers of the old days! These two renowned musicians frequently figured on the same concert platform, and Welsh enthusiasm on those occasions ran high, we are quite sure.

In the course of a chat with Mr. Rowlands, of the “Aberdare Leader,” the veteran pianist recalled one such a meeting at the Unitarian Chapel, Cwmbach. Caradog at home in Cwmbach, for he lodged here for several years, and was employed at Lletty Shenkin Colliery as a blacksmith.

Born in 1862 at Resolven, Mr. Howells’ name as a first-class accompanist has been a household word in South Wales for many years. Has played in a dozen or so National Eisteddfodau: at Treorchy semi-nationals, in the old days, and at practically every Easter Eisteddfod at Mountain Ash. When he sits at the piano, competing choirs and vocalists are at ease – and well they may be!

Caradog conducted a big choir at the Pontypridd National, when they preformed; “Israel in Egypt.” A section of the choir was organised in Aberdare as in the days of “Y Cor Mawr.” The immortal conductor lived then in Pontypridd, and he used to come up to Aberdare to conduct some of the rehearsals and Prof. Howells was the accompanist.

“Evening Concert” 04.08.1893

On Thursday evening the third concert took place, when a grand performance of Handel’s oratorio “Israel in Egypt,” was given. The president was Mr. J. Ignatius Williams. Owing to the heavy rain which fell throughout the whole of the evening, the attendance was not as large as it would otherwise have been, but the audience made up in enthusiasm for lack of numbers. The artistes were-First soprano, Miss Maggie Davies; second soprano, Madame Williams-Penn; contralto, Miss Eleanor Rees tenor, Mr. Ben Davies; first bass, Mr. Lucas Williams; second bass; Mr. David Hughes. The choruses were rendered by the Eisteddfod Choir, consisting of 350 voices, and Mr. Theo. Carrington led the grand orchestra, made up of 60 performers. The performance was conducted by Caradog,” and, musically, was a brilliant success.

Aberdare National 1885

This was held on the site of Aberdare Girl’s County School, but Mr. Howells cannot remember where the Gorsedd stones were placed, Cwmbach Road was very narrow in those days, and the iron bridge in Commercial Street would hardly permit two vehicles to pass each other. Lord Aberdare (grandfather of the present holder of the title), and Mr. T. Marchant Williams (afterwards Sir) were instrumental in persuading Mathew Arnold to preside over one of the meetings. The famous poet, however, knew nothing of the temper of a big Eisteddfod crowd, and his speech was cut short. At this great gathering Mr. Howells was the leading accompanist, and Aberdare gave the National a good lead, for this was the first time it proved an unqualified success.

The story of a dispute concerning the winning of the chair for a poem and the subsequent Aberdare County Court action, when our president Stipendiary, Mr. R.A. Griffith (Elphin) appeared for Ceiriog, who claimed the prize, has been told very fully in the “Aberdare Leader” by Elphin (Mr. R. A. Griffith) himself.

And Pen Dar has from time to time told of great Christmas oratorios held in the old Temperance Hall, Aberdare (now the Palladium), under the conductorship of Mr. Rhys Evans, father of Mr. W.J. Evans. It was Mr Howells who played at those historic musicals gatherings, when Ben Davies, Dr. Mary Davies and other renowned artistes took part.

Welsh Pianist’s Death 27.09.1941

The death took place at his home Danyrallt, Abernant Road, Aberdare on Tuesday of Prof. Richard Howells, doyen of Welsh pianists. He was born in 1862, and was accompanist at the Aberdare National Eisteddfod in 1885, the event which led to the establishment of the National as a permanent institution.

Prof. Howells could recall how Mathew Arnold, the poet who was president of another Aberdare eisteddfod, attempted to address the gathering, but had to sit down before concluding his speech owing to noise in the building.

He was a personal friend of Caradog, and on several occasions after Caradog’s choir became famous by winning the Crystal Palace competition, Prof. Howells was the choir’s accompanist. He played at Pontypridd eisteddfod in 1893, when the great choir performed Handel’s “Israel in Egypt.” He played at eight National Eisteddfodau in South Wales.

He leaves a son and daughter. His nephew is Mr. Thomas Botting, J.P., formerly Aberdare’s director of education.

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