Playford Tunes in Wales

Robert Evans traces a mingled musical history

In London, in 1651, John Playford published “The English Dancing Master Or, Plaine and easie Rules for the Dancing of Country Dances, with the Tune to each Dance”. The English country dances contained in his book had been enjoyed in town and country, royal court and village revel, during the 16th and early-17th centuries. New editions of Playford’s collection appeared, with new dances and many old favourites, from the mid-17th to the early-19th century. Playford presented lively tunes, much as they may have been heard at country inns, to fashionable, rich townspeople and, simultaneously, helped to disseminate courtly ideas and styles to dancers and musicians in the countryside.

A document written around Christmas time circa 1598 records the presence of thirteen members of the bardic profession (gwyr wrth gerdd) : seven poets, four harpists and two crwth players who were gathered at Lleweni, a mansion a little North of Denbigh, as guests of the Middleton family [1]. Families like the Middletons and nearby Salesburys were part of a group of cultured Welsh families who took part, at a high level, in the intellectual life of England yet still valued Welsh culture. There is no record of what the bardic instrumentalists played or which poems were sung, but there is a long list, in English, of songs, ballads and English country dances. Many of the songs and instrumental pieces from the Lleweni list were presented as Welsh harp repertoire, their names translated directly into Welsh, in the work of Edward Jones [2] and others in the 18th century. The whole list is of English titles, with two or three Continental titles. This document shows how the new music from Continental Europe and England was already replacing the professionally produced, bardic music and poetry which had fed the Welsh gentry with praise and the promise of immortality for centuries.

We may guess that the bardic practitioners provided cerdd dafod, (poetry) and cerdd dant, (formal harp and crwth music). It is likely that the English repertoire was played by the family and perhaps by other musical Christmas guests.

Here are the country dance tunes from the Lleweni list which are also found in Playford’s first and second editions. I give Playford’s spelling instead of the idiosyncratic spellings of the 1598 document.

As Phyllis Kinney has noted, many English ballads and dance tunes continued in use in Wales long after they had fallen out of fashion in England. An example of this, found on the Lleweni list and in Playford 1651, is ‘Peppers Black’, which was still used in the popular 18th century Welsh theatrical form known as anterliwt (interlude).  During these popular, often ribald plays, one of the stock characters would perform a comic dance to ‘Peppers Black’. ‘Irish Trot’, the tune to a stage-Irish, comic song-and-dance routine, popular in London for nearly three hundred years [3], appears in Playford’s first edition and part of it, somewhat modified, is used as the tune for the song ‘Ffoles Llantrisant’ [4]. Other Playford tunes e.g. ‘Soldiers’ Joy’ have Welsh variants. ‘Sweet Richard’, a rather plain melody in Playford, appears as a simple Welsh harp tune in Edward Jones’s ‘Musical and Poetical Relicks’ then is taken down as a set of sophisticated, elegant variations in a late-baroque style from the playing of Richard Roberts, the Blind Harper of Caernarvon at the Wrexham Eisteddfod, 1820 [5].

Playford tunes are a joy to play for their own sake as well as being part of the very substance of popular Welsh music since the late 16th century.

  1. Williams, Ifor   Cerddorion a Cherddau yn Lleweni, Nadolig 1595, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, November 1935.
  2. Jones, Edward     “Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards” 1784
  3. Rimmer, Joan   Carole Rondeau & Branle In Ireland 1300-1800, Part 2. Social & theatrical residues 1550-1800, Dance Research VIII, 2. Autumn 1990
  4. Williams, Maria Jane  “Ancient National Airs of Gwent and Morganwg” Facsimile of 1844 Edition, Ed. Daniel Huws, Reprinted 1994
  5. Owen, John   “Gems of Welsh Melody” Wrexham 1860

This article first appeared in Ontrac magazine