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This article originally appeared in the Welsh Music - Cerddoriaeth Cymru Journal, Spring 1980, Vol. 6, No. 4.

It appears here courtesy of the Welsh Music Guild who were the original publishers.

Articles can be accessed via their site as well as part of our Welsh Music Collection.

Songwriter to Singer

The Composer Dilys Elwyn-Edwards talks to Phyllis Kinney

P.K. : Dilys, you and I have been friends for nearly twenty years now, but I have known you only as a mature composer. Going back to your childhood, what were the influences that led to your development as a writer – of songs in particular?


D.E-E. : Until I went to university the important early influences were naturally associated with Dolgellau, the town where I grew up. My father was a talented musician, self-taught, as most were then, but able to read music equally well in old notation and in tonic sol-fa. He was the Precentor at the local Methodist Church and the conductor of a number of choirs. He also played the euphonium. And, incidentally, it was he who taught me how to produce my voice properly and not to hoot (as I'm afraid the choirs in Dr. Williams School tended to do!). My mother was an avid reader and I must have inherited my love of words from her for she introduced me to all kinds of literature, Welsh and English, from the traditional classics to the modern writers. Mary Webb was a great favourite of hers.

P.K. : What about your schooling?


D.E-E. : I was a pupil at Dr. Williams School, Dolgellau, a boarding school with a strong emphasis on music and the arts. It was there that I fell in love with the music of Delius. I hadn't heard very much English music before – the town choir that I accompanied sang mostly Handel and Mendelssohn (Elijah, etc.) and I was completely bowled over by Vaughan Williams and Holst. And it was at Dr. Williams School, which had a very good music department, that I wrote my first composition, and, as one might expect, it was a song – a setting of Robert Bridge's I love all beauteous things. My teacher seemed taken with it, but I was somewhat affronted when she asked me if I'd written it myself!

While at Dr. Williams School I won the Turle Music Scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, but did not take it up as my Matriculation subjects didn't tally with the University entrance requirements. An extra polish on my Latin would have done the trick, but I was impatient to get on with my music, and so I accepted the Joseph Parry Scholarship to University College, Cardiff, where I studied for the degree of B.Mus.

P.K. : Was it there that you really began to compose in earnest?


D.E-E. : Yes, indeed. To tell you the truth, I wasn't very keen on the academic side and enjoyed composing and performing much more. The BBC broadcast some of my songs and I sang with the college madrigal group which did a number of broadcasts. The weekly college concerts at the Reardon Smith Theatre were of a particularly high standard and a delight to listen to, and I regard these concerts as one of the main influences in my musical life. Altogether, it was a happy and fruitful time.


P.K. : And then you went to London?


D.E-E. : Oh, no. After getting my B.Mus. I returned to Dr. Williams School and taught there for three years. But during my time at Cardiff I had been strongly attracted to the music of Herbert Howells. I well remember singing his exquisite carol, Here is the little door. And I was determined that somehow, by hook or by crook, I would get to London to study with him. I tried an open scholarship in composition at the Royal College of Music where Howells taught (and still does part-time!) and happily got it.


P.K. : So that was the end of your apprenticeship and the beginning of your life as a fully-fledged composer. But a composer who has specialised almost entirely in songs. Have you ever had any desire to write instrumental works?


D.E-E. : Oh, yes. I have in fact written for various instruments and instrumental ensembles – for instance, piano, harp, flute and piano, piano trio, string orchestra, etc., but words – poems – are the things that really stimulate me, so I've concentrated on songs and part-songs. I believe, incidentally, as James Joyce's poem Strings in the Earth and Air puts it, that there are ‘strings’ between the arts, between painting and music and words. And, for me, there are very special ‘strings’ between music and poetry. I don't think my music could exist without words. There is a particularly strong tie.


P.K. : What do you look for in words to set to music?


D.E-E. : They must be about things that I like, appreciate, am sensitive to, such as nature – James Joyce's ‘Strings’ again. Nature is very important to me. I like going for walks, listening to the birds, looking at trees and flowers. This is why I liked Williams Parry's nature poem Y Gylfinir so much; the sheer atmosphere of the poem got me. And you can see the same influence in many of my part-songs – Very old are the woods,