The Lost Chord - Bydd Myrdd o Ryfeddodau
The Welsh in Patagonia swallowed up just about everything their Welsh ancestors had to offer, especially the Eisteddfod, the Chapel and the tradition of Welsh hymn singing. The majority of hymns sung in chapels in Patagonia today are those that would be familiar to the first groups of settlers that arrived in the second half of the 19th century. Of course, some became firm favourites in Patagonia and some fell out of fashion in Wales. One in particular, popular in Wales and Patagonia, Bydd Myrdd o Ryfeddodau, was both an Easter hymn and known as "The National Funeral Hymn" in Wales, due to its regular use by mourners in chapels. Despite it having been sung to an Eisteddfod chair bedecked in black when the poet Hedd Wyn posthumously won the Chair at the National Eisteddfod in 1917, the hymn seems to have been forgotten, with most references to its use on the internet being more than one hundred years ago.
But that's about to change.....
Patagonia was struck by Gold Fever in 1883 when stories of easy fortunes came from new Welsh settlers arriving from Australia. Welshmen went off on expeditions to hunt for the precious metal and one small group set off from the Atlantic Coast and almost reached the far Andes. This group of four young men nervously heard that some Indians were on the warpath due to their persecution by the Argentine government in Buenos Aires, so they trod a careful path. Hitherto, the relationship between the Welsh and the Indians had been cordial and mutually beneficial. In fact, the Welsh occupation of Patagonia was the only event in the history of the Americas where the European settlers hadn’t slaughtered the native population.
However, after almost 5 months on the road, the four men, Richard Davies (Llanelli), John Parry (Dinbych), John Hughes (Caernarfon) and John Evans (Aberpennar), suspected that they weren’t safe so decided to make a run for home, over 400 miles away. During the first two days and nights, they rode along the centre of a river so that they would leave no tracks for Indians to follow, and they had to be tied to their horses when exhaustion overtook them. Once they thought they were out of danger, they relaxed, stowed their weapons and rode alongside the River Chubut, the main river in Welsh Patagonia. But the Indians were never far away and, around midday on 3 March 1884, they attacked, downing three of the men. One man, John Evans, managed to escape, thanks to his horse’s willingness to jump down a steep ravine where the Indians' horses couldn’t follow.
Once he got back to the coast, he reported the event and a posse of 43 men was mustered to hunt the perpetrators. But their first duty was to visit the site of the attack to see what had become of Richard Davies, John Parry and John Hughes. Nothing could have prepared them for the sight that greeted them. The three had been killed and cruelly torn apart by the Indians and their remains scattered. The posse, led by one of the founders of the Welsh Colony, Lewis Jones, gathered what the vultures had left and buried the remains of the three men together. They then sang.
Bydd myrdd o ryfeddodau Unnumbered are the marvels Ar doriad boreu wawr, The last Great Day shall see, Ar doriad boreu wawr. Pan ddelo plant y tonau With Earth’s poor storm-tossed children Yn iach o'r cystudd mawr, From tribulation free; Yn iach o'r cystudd mawr. Oll yn eu gynau gwynion, All in their shining raiment Ac ar eu newydd wedd, Transfigured, bright and brave, Yn debyg idd eu Harglwydd Like to their Lord ascending Yn d’od i'r lan o'r bedd. In triumph from the grave.
After a fruitless search for the murderers, they returned to the site, only to find the remains of the three men had been disinterred and scattered. They buried them again and sang again. Few had experienced, nor had any knowledge hitherto, of violent death. The community, so small and close knit, was dealt a mortal blow. The emotions that swept over them as they sang made it almost impossible to finish the hymn.
At the lonely and deserted site today, more than 10 miles from a road, the men are still buried under an earthen mound and a marble monument has been erected to commemorate the events of that awful day.
I spent some time with Robat Arwyn during his visit to Patagonia and explained the history behind the singing of Bydd Myrdd o Ryfeddodau at Rhyd y Beddau. I had a recording of the Gaiman mixed choir singing the piece many years ago, but held in my mind the image of those men singing the hymn and the fervour with which it must have been rendered. I felt it vital that a new version of the hymn be produced to reflect both the passion and the tragedy and that only a Welsh Male Voice Choir could rise to this challenge. He kindly agreed to schedule time to write a male voice arrangement for this classic Welsh hymn to honour the three murdered Welshmen as well as the 43 Welshmen who sang it over their remains. It is not currently performed by male choirs anywhere. The resultant composition pays homage to the tragedy of the event and stirs the soul, as all great funeral compositions do.
The London Welsh Male Voice Choir has been chosen to give the first performance of Robat Arwyn’s new masterpiece. It is hoped that once this hymn has been heard by other Welsh male choirs, they will leap at the opportunity to sing about those Welsh favourites, death and Patagonia, with a hymn whose story cannot fail to stir even the sternest heart.
The sheet music will be available from Robat Arwyn’s publisher, Curiad, and he has generously agreed that all the proceeds from sales of the sheet music will go to the Welsh school in Trevelin in Patagonia, Ysgol y Cwm.
Quote from Robat Arwyn: “Writing a new arrangement of a historically significant hymn in the history of the Welsh settlers in Patagonia was both an honour and a challenge: an honour in gratitude of the extremely warm welcome extended to me and my family on our visit to Patagonia in 2018, and a challenge in reinterpreting the original hymn tune for the contemporary male voice concert repertoire. I am looking forward immensely to hear the piece brought alive by a real male voice choir.”