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Carte-de-visite photograph by Charles Bergamasco, St. Petersburg, [1874]. Royal Society of Musicians of Great Britain.

Carte-de-visite photograph by Charles Bergamasco, St. Petersburg, [1874]. Royal Society of Musicians of Great Britain.

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THOMAS, John [Pencerdd Gwalia] (b.Bridgend, Wales, 1 March 1826; d.London, 19 March 1913)
John Thomas was born in Bridgend, Glamorganshire, on St. David's Day 1826, the eldest of seven children four of whom became harpists. His father was a tailor by trade, but he was a good amateur musician who played clarinet in the town band. John is said to have been playing piccolo in the band at the age of six, but it was the harp he was determined to play, and an old one was obtained for him. This was a Welsh triple harp and John was playing it in traditional style (on the left shoulder, with his left hand playing the treble and his right hand playing the bass) when he won a new Bassett Jones triple harp at the Eisteddfod organised by Lady Llanover at Abergavenny in 1838. He was only twelve years old, and created a sensation. Invited to London by Sir Charles Morgan, the Eisteddfod president, he made such an impression on Byron's daughter that she offered to pay for three-quarters of his education at the Royal Academy of Music if his father could find the other quarter.

So John Thomas went to London. He learned to speak English and he re-learned his harp technique, abandoning the triple harp for one of Erard's grand new pedal harps and changing from the traditional Welsh method he had been taught, transferring the harp to his right shoulder, so that now his right hand played the treble and his left hand played the bass. His harp teacher was John Balsir Chatterton, whom he eventually followed both as Professor at the Royal Academy of Music and as Harpist to the Queen.

John Thomas became harpist to the Royal Italian Opera in 1850. The season ran from March to mid-July, so the appointment gave him the liberty to tour the Continent as a soloist during the winter months. This he did from 1851, and over the next few years he visited France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Austria. In Vienna he was greeted as the natural successor to Parish Alvars, who had died in 1849, and John Thomas dedicated his famous solo Autumn to Countess Esterhazy, Parish Alvars's main benefactress. 1852 was an important year, with a commission to compose and perform a concert at the Philharmonic Society on 3 May; the manuscript of his famous Minstrel's Adieu dates from 30 July of that year. Working at the Italian Opera also gave him a lifelong love of the human voice - in fact, in 1860, he was engaged for a year to the famous soprano Desirée Artôt, who, in 1868, received (and refused) a proposal of marriage from Tchaikovsky.

John Thomas became 'Pencerdd Gwalia' (Chief Musician of Wales) at Aberdare Eisteddfod in 1861, and in the same year he published the first volume of his Welsh Melodies arranged for the Harp. A year later he began publication of what would eventually become a 4-volume edition of Welsh Melodies for the Voice, and on 4 July 1862 he began his series of Grand Concerts of Welsh Music at St James's Hall, Piccadilly, with a choir of 400 accompanied by a band of twenty harps. These annual concerts continued for 42 years.

John Thomas composed, arranged and published a considerable amount of music, especially music for the harp. Harpists owe him a great debt for rescuing the works of Parish Alvars from oblivion and publishing a collected edition, and he was also the first in modern times to edit and publish both Handel's Harp Concerto and Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp. For Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee he composed Cambria's Homage to our Empress Queen for male voice choir and thirteen harps. After the Queen's death he was appointed Harpist to King Edward VII.

During the last two years of his life, he moved to live in Station Road, New Barnet, and it was there that he died on 19 March 1913. He was buried in West Hampstead cemetery.

© Ann Griffiths 2013

(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)

Music from John Thomas's library. Bertucat (Apollonie): Six études caracteréristiques. London, [c.1842]. Inscribed J. Thomas Aug. 42 / R.A. of Music / Presented to him by / The Right Honble. / Countess of Lovelace. Parish Alvars (Elias): Concertino pour la Harpe, Op.34. Vienna, [1838]. Inscribed John Thomas / R. A. of Music. Godefroid (Félix): Trois Etudes Caractéristiques pour la Harpe. Paris & Lyon, [1847].

Welsh Melodies for the Harp. London, [1861]. Welsh Melodies for the Voice, Vol. I. London, [1862].

Welsh Melodies for the Voice, Vol. III. London, [1870]. Inscribed The / Marchioness of Downshire / With John Thomas' / Compliments. / St. David's  Day - 1870. Welsh Patriotic Song and Chorus. London, [1863].

Six Songs. London, [1858]. Scenes of Childhood. Duett ... on Welsh Melodies. London, [1862]. Inscribed The / Countess of Dunraven / 1st June 1863. Cambria. Duet No.2 ... on Welsh Melodies. London, [1863]. Inscribed The / Countess of Dunraven / 1st of June 1863.

Eolian Sounds. Fantasia for the Harp. London, [1891].

Wordbook for John Thomas's Grand Harp Concert, St. James's Hall, London, 23 June 1894. Royal College of Music, London.

Wordbook for John Thomas's Grand Harp Concert, St. James's Hall, London, 24 June 1899. Royal College of Music, London.

Wordbook for John Thomas's Grand Harp Concert, St. James's Hall, London, 29 June 1904. Royal College of Music, London.

John Thomas: History of the Harp from the Earliest Period down to the Present Day. London, [1905?].