Morfydd Llwyn-Owen

Morfydd Llwyn Owen

Morfydd Llwyn Owen (October 1 1891September 7 1918) was a Welsh composer, pianist and mezzo-soprano. Though she lived a tragically short life, dying shortly before her 27th birthday, Owen was a prolific composer, as well as a member of influential intellectual circles.

Owen was born in Treforest, South Wales, October 1, 1891. Her parents were both amateur musicians and ran a drapery business. She was a musical child, showing great talent at an early age and received piano lessons early on. While in her teens she appeared as a soloist in a performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto. At 16 she began to study piano and composition with David Evans and published her first work in 1909, a hymn tune entitled “Morfydd.”

After two years of study with Evans, Owen won a scholarship to study at Cardiff University and was formally admitted into the composition class. Many of her works were performed in student recitals at Cardiff, and she graduated in 1912. Owen then moved to London to study with Frederick Corder at the Royal Academy of Music on the Goring Thomas scholarship, which she held for four years. It was at the Academy that Owen also began to study voice. She was a very successful student and won two prizes (including the Charles Lucas medal for composition and the Oliveria Prescott prize for general excellence) within her first year. She continued to accumulate awards during her stay at the Royal Academy, and it is said that her record of distinction has yet to be matched.

While she was in London, Owen formed two separate circles of friends. The first group being that of the Welsh Presbyterian Charing Cross chapel, which was a central gathering point for many Welsh people living in London. Owen developed an especially close friendship with Herbert and Ruth Lewis. Ruth Lewis was an important figure in the Welsh Folk-Song Society of London and invited Owen to become involved with the organization. Owen obliged and transcribed, as well as wrote accompaniments to, many pieces for collections of Welsh Folk Songs. Her interest grew so great that Owen would often give lectures and talks on Welsh folk music.

The other social circle Owen associated with was that including the poets D. H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound. She also was friends with several Russian émigrés. It was through her Russian friendships, as well as influence of her work with Ruth Lewis, that Owen developed a fascination with Russian folk song. In 1915 she asked for, and received, a fellowship from the University of Wales to study the folk music of Russia, Norway and Finland. However, the war made travel impossible.

Owen also had a substantial career as a singer, often performing her own works. Her professional debut was in January 1917 at the Aeolian Hall in London. In February of the same year, much to the shock and disappointment of her parents and the Lewis family, Owen married psychoanalyst Ernest Jones. Jones, who was twelve years older, was seen as part of the ‘Bohemian’ circle and it was reported that Ruth Lewis refused to even meet him. There is some evidence that Jones was unsupportive of Owen’s musical career; in a letter to Sigmund Freud, Jones stated that the 1917 Aeolian Hall concert was to be Owen’s final public appearance. However, Owen did perform again, presenting the premiere performance of Harry Farjeon’s song cycle A Lute of Jade in July 1917 at the Birkenhead National Eisteddfod. In the summer of 1918 Owen developed a sudden and acute case of appendicitis while visiting her father-in-law in Wales. She died after an emergency operation on September 7, reportedly from delayed chloroform poisoning. She was buried in Oystermouth Cemetry on the outskirts of Swansea where her gravestone bears the inscription, chosen by Jones from Goethe's Faust: "Das Unbeschreibliche, hier ist's getan" - "Here the indescribable is done."

Though Owen only composed seriously for just over 10 years, she was able to produce 180 compositions. These include pieces for chamber ensemble, piano, mixed choir and tone poems for orchestra. However, the majority of her output consisted of songs, including 22 hymn tunes and several anthems. After her death, Jones arranged for the publication of a memorial edition of much of her work for voice and piano (Jones and Corder, London 1924). Thanking Jones for the copy he sent her, her close friend Elizabeth Lloyd wrote, "Each page brought fresh memories of our lost darling". A centenary edition was also published by Cardiff in 1991-6.

Discography

Owen continues to be a revered figure of Welsh musical tradition, and many of her works have been recorded in compilations of Welsh songs and music. Some of these include:

  • Great Welsh Songs performed by Stuart Burrows and John Constable, recorded by Enigma, 1978 (LP)
  • Composers of Wales performed by Janet Price, Kenneth Bowen et al, recorded by Argo, 1974 (LP)
  • Y Teulu O’Neill performed by Andrew O’Neill, Dennis O’Neill, et al, recorded by Sain, 1980 (LP)
  • Cerddoriaeth Cymru The Music of Wales performed by Osian Ellis, John Scott, et al, recorded by Curiad, 1996 (CD)
  • Songs of Dilys Elwyn-Edwards and Morfydd 'llwyn' Owen performed by Helen Field, recorded by Sain, 2005 (CD)

Bibliography

Fuller, Sophie. “Morfydd Owen: 1891-1918.” The Pandora Guide to Women Composers, Britain and the Unites States 1629-Present. London: Pandora, 1994.

Jones, Keith Davies. St. David’s Society of Winnipeg: Morfydd Owen. 2007. [Online]. Available from http://web.mac.com/keith_davies_jones/iWeb/Site/Morfydd%20Owen.html. 23 March 2007.

Rhian Davies: ‘Owen, Morfydd’, Grove Music Online (Accessed 23 March 2007), http://www.grovemusic.com/shared/views/article.html?section

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