Morfydd Llwyn Owen
1 October 1891|
|Died||7 September 1918
Morfydd Llwyn Owen (1 October 1891 – 7 September 1918) was a Welsh composer, pianist and mezzo-soprano. Though she died shortly before her 27th birthday, Owen was a prolific composer, as well as a member of influential intellectual circles.
Early life and education
Owen was born in Treforest, Wales on 1 October 1891. Her parents were both amateur musicians who 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 Dr David Evans in Cardiff 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 where her work - songs, part-songs and piano pieces including a sonata, pieces for violin and piano, trio for violin, cello and piano - were performed. At the end of her course, she was honoured with the Academy's diploma, the ARAM.
In the meantime she developed her voice as a mezzo-soprano, winning another scholarship - the Swansea Eisteddfod Prize for singing. At a concert in the Bechstein Hall (later renamed the Wigmore Hall) in 1913, she sang 4 of her own songs:"Chanson de Fortunio"; "Song from a Persian Village", "Suo Gân" and "The Year's at the Spring". Her professional debut was in January 1917 at the Aeolian Hall in London.
Life and career in London
While she was in London, Owen formed two separate circles of friends. The first group being that of the Charing Cross Welsh Presbyterian Chapel, which was a central gathering point for many Welsh people living in London. Owen developed an especially close friendship with the wife of the then Liberal MP for Flintshire, Sir John Herbert Lewis. Lady Ruth Herbert 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. She provided musical examples to illustrate Lewis’s lectures on folksong and in 1914 they collaborated in publishing Folk-Songs Collected in Flintshire and the Vale of Clwyd.
The other social circle Owen associated with was the London literary intelligentsia; notable acquaintances were 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 First World War made overseas travel impossible.
In February 1917, much to the shock and disappointment of her parents and the Lewis family, Owen married the psychoanalyst Ernest Jones. Jones was the leading exponent in Britain of Freud's ideas and an avowed atheist. 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 of 20 February 1917 to Freud, Jones indicated 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, whilst travelling in South Wales with Jones, Owen developed an acute appendicitis. She died after an emergency operation on 7 September, from delayed chloroform poisoning. She was buried in Oystermouth Cemetery on the outskirts of Swansea where her gravestone bears the inscription, chosen by Jones from Goethe's Faust: "Das Unbeschreibliche, hier ist's getan".
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, it is her compositions for voice and piano that are regarded as her most important and mature contributions. Her most well known include "Slumber Song of the Madonna", "To our Lady of Sorrows", "Suo Gân", and her masterpiece in Welsh, "Gweddi'r Pechadur". There were also some 22 hymn tunes and several anthems. After her death, Jones and Corder arranged for the publication of a four-volume memorial edition of her work for voice and piano and for piano solo (Anglo-French Music Company Ltd, 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 of some of her songs and piano pieces was published in Cardiff in 1991.
- Christened Morfydd Owen, her bardic name "Llwyn" - her father's birthplace - was added when she was admitted to the Gorsedd at the National Eisteddfod held at Wrexham in 1912. Maddox 2006 pp. 130-32
- Davies 1994 p xiii
- Davies 1994 p xv
- Maddox 2006 p134
- Davies 1994 p xv
- Maddox 2006 p 137
- Paskauskas, R. Andrew (Editor). The Complete Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones, 1908-1939. Cambridge, Mass/London: Belknap Press 1993, p322
- Maddox 2006 pp 140-141. The Goethe text translates as "Here the indescribable is done."
- Cleaver 1968 p 95
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. 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)
- Morfydd Owen: Portrait of a Lost Icon performed by Elin Manahan Thomas, soprano and Brian Ellsbury, piano, recorded by Ty Cerdd, 2016 (CD).
- Cleaver, Emrys. "Morfydd Llwyn Owen (1891-1918)" in Musicians of Wales. Ruthin: John Jones 1968
- Davies, Rhian. Never So Pure a Sight: Morfydd Owen (1891–1918) A Life in Pictures. Llandysul: Gomer 1994.
- Davies, Rhian. ‘Owen, Morfydd’, Grove Music Online (Accessed 23 March 2007)
- Fuller, Sophie. "Morfydd Owen: 1891-1918." The Pandora Guide to Women Composers, Britain and the United States 1629 – present. London: Pandora, 1994.
- Jones, Keith Davies. St. David’s Society of Winnipeg: Morfydd Owen. 2007. [Online]. Available from http://www.winnipegwelsh.org/St_Davids_Society_of_Winnipeg/Morfydd_Owen.html 23 March 2007.
- Maddox, B. Freud’s Wizard: The Enigma of Ernest Jones. London: John Murray 2006.
- Paskauskas, R Andrew (ed), The Complete Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones, 1908–1939., Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1995, ISBN 978-0-674-15424-7
The Morfydd Owen archive is housed at Special Collections and Archives, Cardiff University.