What is Wales, then, aside from these two things? Owain Glyndwr, or, as Shakespeare called him, Owen Glendower, the quintessential Welsh hero and last independent Prince of Wales. The Welsh archers, who were pivotal to winning the Battle of Agincourt for Henry V. Hedd Wyn, the poet, who died at Passchendaele.
At one time, and perhaps again, a land of coal mines. The Aberfan disaster, and the fans at a soccer match who passed blankets to collect money for the victims’ families as they sang the Welsh National Anthem, “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau.”
The land of leeks, sheep, and incomparable countryside. A land of consonants, to be sure. These days, the land of Daffyd, “the only gay in the [fictional] village” of Llandewi Breffi.
And always, the land of poets and singers, and of harps.
To me, the harp seems an ethereal instrument. I’m astonished how easily it can be heard over a full orchestra. And I’m entranced watching the harpist’s hands pluck its strings to make those extraordinary sounds.
When I listen to music, though, I don’t think to choose the harp. But one evening, the sound of a harp floated over a string orchestra in a piece I’d not heard before. I stopped what I was doing, for the music was too lovely to pass by.
The piece was Mapping Wales, by John Metcalf, whom my partner recalled from her time in Wales and whose music she’d found online. I wondered, why do I not know him? And I thought, had she not had a connection with Wales, and I with her, it’s likely I’d never have heard his music at all.
That would have been a shame. He seems to understand the harp exactly, and to extract from it every gorgeous sound a harp can make. And he understands not only the harp, but also the cello, the piano, the violin, the trumpet, the string quartet, the orchestra, and the voice.
When I listen to Mapping Wales, I soar upward, and all of Wales is laid out before me: the mountains of Snowdonia, the Vale of Glamorgan, the towns with names like Machynlleth and Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (which I'm advised on good authority does exist).
The Wales I have remains the Wales of my imagination, but from here on out, it’s the country mapped by John Metcalf's lyrical, singing lines.
For more on John Metcalf and his music, and to hear clips from Mapping Wales, click here.
See Catrin Finch, the harpist on Mapping Wales: