I am sitting at home thinking of Dr. Williams’ School, Dolgellau, where I was a boarder from 1958 to 1966, and of its legacy to me throughout my following years. There are feelings of hiraeth whenever I visit North Wales. According to Wikipedia: Hiraeth is a Welsh word that has no direct English translation. The University of Wales, Lampeter attempts to define it as homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed. It is a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an earnest desire for the Wales of the past. ‘Hiraeth’ was one of the
many songs that we sang in the School Choir and it reminds me of the love of music which the school gave me and which continues to provide me with joy today in my continuation of violin playing and choir singing.
It was pure serendipity that led me to the arduous world of learning to play the violin, something I might never have done if it hadn’t been for the suggestion of a classmate who had a notion to start playing and asked me to find out from my parents if we could both take lessons with Esme Cox, the strings teacher. Parental permission was granted and I started to learn with Mrs. Cox at the age of 14 yrs. By today’s standards, rather late to begin such a difficult instrument with any hope of becoming a virtuoso!
Practice times were posted by Mrs. K.M. Thomas, Head of Music, on the notice board in the Music Department, and rooms were allocated for the statutory half hour of private practice. As the majority of music students were studying piano, they got the benefit of the small sixth form cubicles that were equipped with a piano. I, however, did not need a piano for my practice and was often allocated the much larger sixth form common room – much to the fury of the resident sixth formers who regularly complained: here comes that dreadful catgut scraping girl again! Little did they know that the insults they hurled in my direction were the spur that goaded me on to make as fast progress as possible on the instrument in as short a time as possible so as to make as beautiful a sound as I could.
Mrs. Cox, was my inspiration, and her motherly and enthusiastic encouragement meant that as a result of her excellent teaching I passed Grade V with distinction in November 1965. Violin playing was, other than taking part in drama productions, my favourite activity at school and gave me the opportunity to play in the school orchestra on a Wednesday afternoon. To my delight this meant that I had a good excuse not to become a girl guide as their timetabled activities clashed with orchestra. I was in my element being one of Mrs. Cox’s favoured ‘pansy scrapes’ as she used to call us, getting the classroom ready for our Wednesday afternoon forays into Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony for Strings Op. 4 amongst other delights. Who could forget the difficulties of getting a handful of early learners to perform its tricky Playful Pizzicato movement without sounding like a load of plonkers? Playing it again last year in a public concert brought back many fond memories of Mrs. Cox.
Singing at Dr. Williams was another powerful activity, whether at our daily assemblies in the morning or in the School Choir or Madrigal Group. I was lucky enough to be a member of both. With hindsight I never cease to be amazed that we were brought up on a diet of Benjamin Britten, Orlande de Lassus, Monteverdi and many wonderful English madrigals. Amongst these was Orlando Gibbons’ heart-rending The Silver Swan published in 1612. Who can forget the experience of singing his memorable words on the shore of a lake up in the mountains near the school on one of our choir picnics:
The silver Swan, who, living, had no Note,
when Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her breast upon the reedy shore,
thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
"Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!
More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise."
DWS 1958 - 1966