In the beginning…

Mads was founded early in the academic year of 1950 by English student Walter Ryan, who at the time was President of the Collage Music Society. Walter thought the singers of the university needed an alternative to the Collage Choir. Walter wanted the choir to specialise in music of the pre-classical period; the Elizabethan Madrigal Singers of Aberystwyth University were born.

Early Performances

First Performance

The Elizabethan Madrigal Singers’ first performance was at the first Collage Concert joining with the Choral Union in the Kings Hall on the 3rd of December 1950.

January 1951 - Bristol

On January 4th 1951 Mads performed at the NUS Arts Festival in Bristol at the Victoria Methodist Church. The choir were given the honour of a complete recital – 32 pieces in all including madrigals such as Fair Phyllis, Lady, when I behold and Oyez! Has any found a lad?, Byrd’s anthems Cibavit Eos and Visista quaesumuo, Palestrina’s Missa aeterna Christi munera, and solo items for baritone, (Dewi Thomas) soprano (Margaret Richards) and organ (Walter Ryan).

January 1952 - Trecynon

Taking Mads to ‘meet the parents’ was another tradition which started early. The choir travelled to Walter Ryan's home town of Trecynon, on the 3rd of January 1952. Note the printing mistake in the year on the programme!

The College Concerts

In his role as President of the Music Society, Walter Ryan also founded the college concerts in which Mads were regular performers.

1957 - Llangollen

In the summer of 1957 conductor Jane Davies (nee Filer) took Mads to compete in the Llangollen International Eisteddfod where they won second prize in the Folksong Party competition. Jane recalls the event

“We had entered the competition for Folk Song Parties of 25 voices in company with 32 other choirs from all over the world. Since most students had left Aber during the month of June we had no chance to rehearse until the day before the competition. We all duly made our separate ways to Llangollen on Tuesday, July 9th, where we met ‘on the field side of the bridge’ near the railway station. A few frantic hours of work on the two pieces that evening, a quick sing through on the field next morning, and suddenly there we were on stage, surrounded by the scents and colours that are so much part of the festival. Our performance seemed to please the audience and I recall a very young (Lord) Emlyn Hooson running backstage to congratulate us. But we had to wait on tenterhooks all day for the result, as the competition continued well into the evening session. We were amazed and ecstatic to be awarded second prize between the winners from Yugoslavia and the group from Oswestry, England.”

— Jane Davies (nee Filer) on competing in Llangollen in 1957)

William Mathias: In excelsis Gloria / In Arcadia

Many composers have emerged from their time in Mads, but the first and foremost of these is William Mathias, who studied music under Prof. Parrott from 1952-56 and who went on to become a leading figure in the generation of young composers who would go on to create a Renaissance in Welsh music. Mathias wrote his earliest pieces whilst at Aberystwyth, and one of them Gloria in Excelsis Deo was written for Mads in 1954. In 1991, the year before he died, Mathias returned to this piece, revised and published it. The first professional recording was not available until 2009. The fact that he went back this early carol is due in large part to Jayne Davies.

“When Professor Parrott suggested that the music students should write something for a proposed Music Club Members’ Night, it was Will who saved the day with his Carol: In excelsis Gloria, written 20-21 October 1954.

“He asked a small group of us to perform it at the concert (when the audience demanded an encore). I was a member of that group and sang it only once after that at an International Student Conference in Birmingham when Mads shared a concert with a German chamber orchestra from Mainz University.

“Though Will had given me a copy of the full score, the carol lay neglected until late 1989 when I asked his permission to photocopy my old copy for a private performance marking the 40th reunion of Mads in February 1990. The composer replied in a letter of 30 January 1990:

‘I’m intrigued that you have found a copy of the carol I wrote for the choir in 1954. As I don’t appear to have it, do you think you could make a photocopy for me? It will be interesting to see if I still like it! It certainly hasn’t been sung since those days, though I recall three or four performances in various places, e,g, a little tour of South Wales to chapels with unpredictable organs!’

Matthias was reported to have been the life and soul of every rehearsal:

“When Mads was ordered to provide light entertainment on the processional route on Rag Saturday the conductor took up a position on the traffic island in Great Darkgate Street directing the future Professor of Music at UCNW Bangor playing his ‘aarmonium’, much to the delight of the waiting crowd. Will’s part in the first Mads spot in the Rag Show at Queen’s Hall was reminiscent of the great Groucho Marx at his best, and also featured the first (and I suspect only) performance of his unpublished, but meaningful ‘Mock Madrigal’.”

— John Cynan Jones

Mads Memories

“In my second year I found, to my horror, that I was elected President of the College Music Society and therefore responsible for the musical activities of the student body. This involved two things – the Gram Soc. on Sunday evenings, and the College Choir on Sunday afternoons. Gram Soc. more or less ran itself, and my only contribution here seemed to be to extend the listening by the introduction of new works. Every Sunday, with every available space occupied, even to sitting on the stairs, we listened in darkness to the Walton No. 1 or the Sibelius No. 2. The darkness helped the concentration and also allowed you to hold hands with your current girlfriend.

“The student’s choir, however, was a more difficult problem, for it became obvious to me that here was a complete waste. We had well over a hundred young voices whose sole purpose, so it seemed to me, was to compete in the inter-coll eisteddfod once a year. Now, since this entailed only two works for mixed choir and the same number for the male and female choirs, we would be rehearsing for more than half the year on just half a dozen pieces. This often meant a lack of regularity in rehearsals.

“With so much talent so little used something had to be done, or so it seemed to me. So I inaugurated the college concerts, the first of which was held at the King’s Hall on 3rd December 1950, and founded the Elizabethan Madrigal Singers.

“In the first year I invited a fellow student, Alun Roberts, to conduct, but kept a close control on the policy of the choir. The Elizabethan Madrigal Singers were to specialise in music of the pre-classical period and our programmes mirrored that policy and never deviated from it”.

— Walter Ryan (founder)