Eisteddfodau

This is one of those weird plurals from another language, in this case Welsh.

The whole concept of musical competitions is a fraught one, partly because it is a little discomforting to confront the reality that although the moment of musical performance is not (unlike sport) itself a competition, in terms of getting work and attracting audiences, music is competitive, and brutally so.

As a child pianist, I had my own experiences of Eisteddfodau.  I still have my first trophy, won at the City of Sydney Eisteddfod when I was 12, though this proved to be rather a flash in the pan and I did not keep on competing in the followng years.  I changed in year 10 to a teacher who was something of a tiger of the eisteddfod circuit, and in year 11 I must have done almost every eisteddfod in Sydney.  We were her team, often all turning up together in her car, and were usually pretty successful.

Sometimes there were some internal upsets.  I particularly remember when, at the Warringah Eisteddfod, playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue I beat her then prize student, K, who played the Shostakovich “Youth” Concerto. K had already played this with some success with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the state final of the piano division of the ABC’s then Instrumental and Vocal Competition.  The adjudicator at Warringah was John Champ, a pianist and ABC radio personality of minor renown.  My teacher sniffed something about how I had won because Mr Champ wore his jacket over his shoulders.  Even at the time I thought that very unprofessional of her.

Last night, at the instigation of a friend who was one of the adjudicators, I returned to the City of Sydney Eisteddfod, now known as the McDonalds Performing Arts Challenge, for the finals of the John Allison City of Sydney Piano Scholarship.

Some things about the Eisteddfod haven’t changed: it is still run almost entirely by volunteers, who prepared the refreshments which were served after the conclusion of the final. The session was also almost unbearably long (2 hours without an interval). The audience was made up of parents and family members, teachers, hard-core eisteddfod supporters and pianistas. Afterwards, there was some gossiping about one young pianist whose personal problems had apparently prevented her from fronting even for the preliminary round.

John Allison, who some years ago donated the capital whose income accounted for half of the $10,000 and who clearly does not confine his support for the eisteddfod to turning up at the final of this scholarship, gave a rather good speech at the end. The high point of this (for me) was a slightly recherché joke about attending the modern dance finals with Gough Whitlam (who was also there on the night with Margaret) the punch line of which referred to John’s (and by implication, Gough’s) appreciation and enjoyment of “all the wonderful bodies writhing about on the floor, and then there were the women.”

The standard has definitely risen. Each of the four finalists (all on this occasion male; three from Queensland; aged from 16 to 23) played formidably difficult pieces: Brahms’ Paganini Variations (both books); Schumann’s Études symphoniques; Chopin’s Sonata No 3; Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. The winner, Jason Gillham, who played the Chopin with a glorious sound and at a level that I would be prepared to pay reasonable money to go and hear, has previously been a finalist in the Sydney International Piano Competition. At least 2 of the others show every sign of being able to reach a similar standard. But where will any of them find an audience or a career, other than, eventually, joining the terrible pyramid-marketing scheme of teaching further young pianists themselves?

5 Responses to “Eisteddfodau”

  1. Legal Eagle Says:

    Now, can you tell me how that “dd” is pronounced in Welsh? I heard somewhere that it’s pronounced “th”, but I’m sure I’ve always heard it pronounced “d” insofar as the word Eisteddfod?

    I love the joke.

    Dad has just given me a CD of Bach cantatas. Looking forward to listening to them. In fact, I just suggested to the hubby that he put them in the CD player…

  2. marcellous Says:

    LE, I’ve always used an anglicized pronunciation (that is, [d]) but I believe it is supposed to be a voiced “th” [ð]. Australian eisteddfodau bear only the most superficial resemblance to the Welsh cultural institution, which in any event I suspect to be a fairly reinvented tradition.

    A quick check on Wikipedia confirmed this:

    “An eisteddfod (IPA: /aɪˈstɛðvəd/, Welsh /ə(i)ˈstɛðvɔd/; plural eisteddfodau /-stɛð’vɔdaɨ/ or eisteddfods) is a Welsh festival of literature, music and performance. The tradition of such a meeting of Welsh artists dates back to at least the 12th century when a festival of poetry and music was held by Rhys ap Gruffydd of Deheubarth at his court in Cardigan in 1176, but with the decline of the bardic tradition it fell into abeyance. The present-day format owes much to an eighteenth century revival arising out of a number of informal eisteddfodau. The word eisteddfod is derived from the Welsh word eistedd, meaning “sit”.”

    It appears from that site that the adoption of the Welsh term in Australia is an Australian peculiarity.

    One thing I was unaware of until I rummaged around was that Argentina apparently still has a Welsh-speaking community, though I suspect this is overstated by internet Cymricists. Its establishment was apparently motivated by factors which had something in common with Zionism, on the one hand, and William Lane’s New Australia and Cosme on the other. Some of the settlers or their descendants later relocated to Australia. The internet is a trove of obscure information!

  3. Legal Eagle Says:

    I had heard of that Welsh speaking colony in Argentina. How bizarre.

    A Jewish friend of mine has relatives living in a Orthodox Jewish colony in Argentina. They moved there at the start of the 1900s (at least I think it’s Argentina). He went to visit them, but I never heard what they were like.

  4. ninglun Says:

    That Argentinian Welsh community was featured in the Pilot Guide DVD on Argentina which I borrowed for M, who as you may know is planning a South American tour. I was surprised. They were definitely speaking Welsh and eating Welsh food. (I hadn’t really been aware of Welsh cuisine, I have to say, except for something to do with toasted cheese…)

  5. Eisteddfod 2 « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] This Sunday afternoon I went again (I went last year) to the finals of the John Allison City of Sydney Piano […]

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