Every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, their faces pop up: Norman, Nigel, Alan, Dai and the others. It’s become second nature to close the door at 6.30pm, click the Zoom link, check if everyone’s well, ask if anyone’s fled beyond Swansea, have a laugh. Then the men mute themselves, and the singing begins.
They sing along on their own, watching their friends’ silent faces, imagining the rousing sound they make all together, from the heart, from the gut: singing to each other hymns, spirituals and songs from musicals. The Dunvant Male Choir (DMC) is Wales’s longest-running male singing group, and it has kept going despite Covid-19. Last year was meant to be a celebratory year, the group’s 125th anniversary, with concerts planned to recognise their endurance and survival, including a gala concert last June featuring Sir Bryn Terfel, the world-renowned bass-baritone who began his career with the choir as a student (he loved them so much they sang at his wedding).
In the end, only two small concerts took place. I went to the first, in January 2020, on the night of their anniversary, in the chapel where the choir was formed, and where they usually practise. The emotional impact of the sound of 80 men filling a room with powerful, tender, massed voices is hard to convey, especially when this choir is such a big part of many local families, including mine. My stepfather and youngest brother sing in it; my middle brother, Jon, 38, is its musical director and conductor (at three, he would pull up a chair in my grandparents’ living room to conduct along to tapes). In this part of south Wales, choral music runs through our veins.
When the pandemic came along, so did silence. The choir needed to keep going. Dunvant has overcome industrial tragedies; the decline of steel, copper and coal; a decrease in the chapel communities that fed its culture of singing hymns; the younger generations’ preference for less communal, at-home entertainment. An ageing population is a challenge to all-male choirs, and one Dunvant had started to tackle before a disease came along that was a particular threat to older men. But if it could survive two world wars, it could take on a pandemic – as Geoff “Effie” Evans, one of the choir’s two longest-serving members, reminds me: “We were determined coronavirus wouldn’t finish us off.”
Ebenezer chapel sits on a bend in the road near a laptop repair shop, a playground, and the Full Moon Cantonese takeaway. It is in the heart of Dunvant, a sprawling, hilly village four miles west of Swansea. The chapel was built in 1890, only five years before the choir that formed there. Up the hill, Evans’ house looks over the valley where its drift mine once sat.
Evans, a small, solid man with a kind, cheeky face, is third-generation DMC, following his father, Cyril, and grandfather, Stanley; his mother’s three brothers sang, too. He was in his teens when he joined, and has just turned 80. “I was just a boy when I started singing,” he grins. “Literally wearing short trousers.”
Dunvant was a textbook Welsh village at the turn of the 20th century, dominated by industry and chapel, its two collieries employing 770 men (the percentage of men working in industry across Wales was 43% at the time). It was a tough life. A colliery engineering apprentice at 20, Evans had to bring his boss out of the pit after the roof came down on the coalface. The man died soon after. “His skull just burst through his head, and I carried him out. At the morgue, the policeman tried to be brave and told me to sling him up on the table. I said, ‘I was working with that man three hours ago.’”
The village also lost miners in underground floods in 1914 and 1924, and another to an accident on a railway line. But there was a warmth to that world, too, Evans says: “A companionship, without wanting to be sentimental.” He describes how this would translate into music on the journeys back and forth to the coalface at either end of the week. “You’d jump in a drum on the spake [the train that took the men down], and every Monday morning sing The Lord’s My Shepherd together, or There’s A Gold Mine In The Sky. That would be you all reinvigorated, ready for the off. And the same on a Friday afternoon, when you’re coming out, ready for the weekend. That was lovely, when you heard that.”
Choir singing involved more of this rousing stuff after work, but the tradition was not an exclusively Welsh one. Gareth Williams’ 2015 history of male choirs, Do You Hear The People Sing?, describes how they were initially popular in early 19th-century mainland Europe, fuelled by nationalism and Romanticism. Glee clubs were also becoming in demand in the UK, with many male groups singing a cappella; the Welsh male choir boom was the consequence of vast numbers of men having moved there to find work. As the first nation to have more people employed in industry than agriculture, Wales qualified as the world’s first industrial society. Men vastly outnumbered women nationwide (in the Rhondda, another heartland of male choirs, there were 50,000 men to 38,000 women in 1891).
Many of these men were single, and keen for entertainment; the choir gave them an expressive outlet, a social life and, crucially, other cultural opportunities. Eisteddfods (Welsh cultural competitions) encouraged the learning of new repertoire; a win was always fantastic, says Evans. He recalls getting home from one in west Wales at 5am in the 1960s: “Being dropped off by the bus in the square, and the men all peppered around the hills here, walking home in different directions, still singing, their voices still carrying on together across the valleys.”
As early as the 1890s, Welsh choirs also travelled to the US, sharing their songs with Welsh immigrant communities. The Dunvant choristers have travelled to America, Canada and Singapore, but count their trip to the German village of Burgaltendorf in 1966, just outside Essen, as the most groundbreaking. They had been approached by the West German embassy, and the tour was a “sensitive situation”, Evans tells me, “because a lot of choristers had fought in the war.”
It was an eye-opening trip. “Wealth-wise over there, you were either up or you were down. I stayed with a couple who were as poor as church mice, and had to go to their work baths to have a shower, but they were so lovely, so kind. And Burgaltendorf was a bit like Dunvant is to Swansea, really. We built bridges – that was the concept.” Lifelong friendships were formed, and the choir returned for a 50-year reunion in 2015. “I loved every minute,” Evans says, beaming.
He is a regular at the choir’s afterglows, the post-concert singalongs in the nearest pub, hotel or club. Here, massed voices whisper together, mesh and soar, often fuelled by “a few cwrws” (beers). Their last came after the concert I saw: their voices swam around the drip-trays as they had soared around the pews, with celebratory force. Another concert followed on Saint David’s Day, in the nearby village of Three Crosses. But soon the venues lay empty, the choristers’ doors firmly shut.
Last April, my brother (an A-level music college lecturer getting used to delivering his classes online) decided to run rehearsals on Zoom, splitting the choir into tenor and bass sections on Mondays and Wednesdays. The early days were difficult: many members are over 70, and, like Evans, not computer literate. “There were a lot of grandchildren delivering iPads through letterboxes and mouthing instructions through windows,” Jon says. Thankfully, this strategy worked: a year later, two-thirds of the choir regularly sing online together (every rehearsal is also recorded and available for them to replay).
Chris Wood is more adept at technology, being a younger member of the choir. “At 52,” he laughs. He returned to Wales from America in 2008, where he had lived and worked for 20 years. After a divorce, he came home and went to DMC’s Christmas concert to cheer himself up; he had experienced the afterglows as a child in a local pub, the Found Out. “It was such a dramatic, moving experience, seeing these men sing again, 30 years on – the same men, but 30 years older. It changed my life. And the sound they made: it was heavenly.”
At the afterglow, Wood learned that the choir had had 150 members at its peak in the mid-20th century, but its active membership was now about 70. More worryingly, the average age was 75. “ I thought, do you know what? The choir has given me so much pleasure, I owe it to them to join, or just even try.”
He was nervous, because he couldn’t play an instrument or read music, and none of his family had ever been members. He also has tinnitus, sustained from a neck injury in his youth, so his first rehearsal was tough. “Being told, ‘This is your note,’ then trying to hold it – at first, it was like they were speaking Russian. But that night was one of the greatest experiences of my life. There was such camaraderie from the older members towards me.” It’s the same with new members today, he says: “We all look after each other.”
The choir has been busy with recruitment drives in recent years. There have been flashmobs in local markets and shopping centres, and on Gower’s beaches; there have been viral videos (Facebook is their main communication tool). They also sing regularly on the pitch at Welsh rugby internationals, an arena that showcases the power of their sound, and their importance in Welsh culture. New choristers have joined from Welsh universities, and the youngest member now is 20 (the eldest is 93).
Covid-19 has posed a cruel risk to male voice choirs, with statistics from the first wave pointing to the particular vulnerability of older men. The aerosols through which it spreads are produced in larger masses when people speak loudly or sing. (The government has published principles for safer singing to assist choirs.)
Singing through the pandemic months has boosted the wellbeing of choir members, Wood tells me. The health benefits have continued to be a significant area of study throughout the pandemic, and a 2020 study by the Gerontology Society of America supported the adoption of community choirs to help reduce loneliness and increase interest in life. Closer to home, an Oxford Brookes University study, published in July 2020 but based on research conducted before the pandemic, showed how choral singing had increased feelings of relatedness (a desire for acceptance through interpersonal connections) between older people.
Tony Tucker, 82, another long-term member, is a widower who, like Evans, is sharp and savvy. The choir is a commitment, he says. Before retirement, he was a foreman at BP, often doing double shifts in the week to make sure he could get to rehearsals and concerts on weekends. “There are no half-measures, you’re either in or you’re not.” He has missed only three concerts, and one tour to Singapore, because his wife, Sandra, was ill with dementia; she was in a care home, he explains, and he couldn’t leave her. He talks warmly about how supportive the choir have been, making sure widows of deceased members are included. His favourite memory is of the time they won the National Eisteddfod of Wales in 1980. The men went on to sing at the Royal Albert Hall, and he will never forget the applause. “Out of this world, it was. We thought we were world-beaters.”
He misses hearing the other voices now. “It’s hard to explain how much it means. Meeting different people from different walks of life – fitters, labourers, engineers, office workers, teachers, headmasters, policemen. And everybody’s being treated exactly the same, and everybody’s in one pursuit, then you’re all singing together… it’s a very powerful thing.”
For the past year, every Thursday has brought a quiz, the choristers taking it in turn to be quizmaster (one week, Evans wore a bow tie, and sang the whole of Calon Lân, one of Wales’ best-loved hymns). The social importance of this, as well as the rehearsals, is vital, Jon says. “The choir isn’t just about singing. It’s about shared stories and friendships, these long bonds that get strengthened by rehearsing together.” On Facebook Live, they have broadcast their annual young singers’ competition (pre-recorded by the individual entrants), and even managed to do their annual Christmas concert and Saint David’s Day concert, on 1 March, together. For these, each chorister had to stand in front of an iPad or laptop, wearing his burgundy choir blazer and tie, and watch a video of the conductor beating each song, as the lyrics travelled across the screen. Each singer then recorded his vocals alone, before Jon patched their performances together electronically.
A year into their existence as a Zoom choir, things are also looking hopeful. As lockdown eases slowly in Wales, the older choristers are getting their second vaccinations, while singing is being promoted as a healthy way of managing any lingering Covid-19 symptoms (NHS England is rolling out a programme, ENO Breathe, devised with the English National Opera). In recent weeks, the choir has started an online recruitment drive, bolstered by their new online archive of recordings. The April 2022 gala concert now seems a solid prospect rather than a fantasy.
Bryn Terfel is looking forward to it, too. When I speak to him in late January, he is at home in Penarth, having performed only a handful of concerts in the past year: Fidelio in Graz, Tosca in Munich, and a show with the Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican in London. “For those concerts, every ‘i’ was dotted and every ‘t’ was crossed – but the time will come for Dunvant, too. I can just imagine the joy of them singing when they come back – the joy in them at being over this horrific, fragile period.”
The DMC is special to Terfel because the choir sought him out as a 20-year-old singer who had done well at eisteddfods. He was a soloist with them at the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea, where he will perform alongside the choir next year. He remembers staying with the choir secretary, his wife and their “yappy terrier” in 1985, and being well looked after. “They fed me and paid me, which meant a new score or a new suit. Those concerts were also among the first times I ever performed big operatic arias live in front of people, and it mattered to do it with these guys, because they had such a deep love for singing. They’d come up and tap me on the shoulder at the end, and it meant such a lot.”
Terfel did his first international tours thanks to Dunvant, travelling with them to the US and Canada between 1985 and 1987; he saw the Met in New York for the first time and sang to his first sold-out crowds. He has since sung with professional choirs all over the world, but says there is something about Welsh amateur choirs that gets to him like nothing else. It’s partly about church and chapel, he says, and people coming together every Sunday to sing loudly, after a week working in industry or agriculture. It also comes from the singing of the Welsh language: “Welsh has seven vowels, so it’s good for it.”
It’s also about “that feeling of being a team, where everyone knows they can achieve more together, and that it’s something that has to be worked at. It’s about nurturing this feeling that’s sprung from the ground, and keeping it growing.” Terfel says he knows why Dunvant has kept going for so many years, and why it will endure. “They’re like an underdog in a football match, one that always has a twinkle in the eye and a smile. These people will do anything to help each other, and that never goes away. That’s what the joy of music is. Sharing this love.”