Dilys Elwyn-Edwards, who died aged 93 on January 13, was the fastidious doyenne of Welsh musicians and the composer of some of the finest songs in the Welsh language. Born on August 19, 1918, in Dolgellau, Meirionethshire’s county town nestling among the southern slopes of Snowdonia, she was always terribly keen to preserve a sense of enigma about her actual age and date of birth, and partly for this reason forbade any celebrations of her anniversary even when, at 85 in 2003 and later at 90 in 2008, all the great singers in Wales were anxious and ready to do so. But she had been equally strict in rejecting a 75th cornucopia in 1993 and was content simply to write some new music if suitably moved by a combination of artists, poetry and venue. More seriously, behind this reluctance was a genuine sense of personal modesty, or perhaps restraint, which instinctively eschewed a lot of unnecessary public fuss. At the same time she had a keen awareness of her true worth and was grateful for any genuine attention paid her and thus relished an unexpected Indian summer of frequent performances and recordings by a new generation of singers which included Rebecca Evans, Helen Field, Shân Cothi, Bryn Terfel, Gwyn Hughes Jones, Rhys Meirion, Jeremy Huw Williams and even the young Charlotte Church.
She studied initially at the celebrated Dr Williams’s School for Girls in Dolgellau where her musical instincts were sensitively nurtured. She turned down a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, in favour of one to the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (now Cardiff University) where her creative imagination was suddenly fired by a performance of Herbert Howells’s carol-anthem Here is the little door. Finding any compositional guidance at Cardiff quite stultifying, she eventually fulfilled a dream (after some wartime years of teaching back at her Dolgellau alma mater) in moving on to London and Howells himself at the Royal College of Music. Howells immediately detected a sense of modality in her writing which he thought was somehow Celtic, even if it derived in part from Delius, Warlock and Moeran among other essentially English composers. Howells himself however was to remain her musical lodestar and their personal friendship lasted the rest of his life. Dilys’s marriage to Elwyn Edwards, a London-born Presbyterian ordinand at Mansfield College, Oxford, led to an idyllic period based in that city during which she consolidated her mature musical idiom and also took organ lessons with Sir Thomas Armstrong at Christ Church Cathedral. The couple then returned to Wales and settled in Caernarfon, overlooking the Menai Straits, with Elwyn as Minister of the famous Castle Square Church and Dilys a piano tutor at nearby Bangor University, where the prolific composer William Mathias was an inspirational friend and colleague.
Commissions for songs and choral works now began to flow her way and with Caneuon y Tri Aderyn (‘Songs of the Three Birds’) – settings of the great romantic Welsh poet R Williams Parry commissioned by the BBC for Kenneth Bowen in 1962 – she achieved a classic marriage of words and music in Welsh which has yet to be surpassed. A miniaturist by nature, she was encouraged by Herbert Howells to ally her lyrical and melodic gifts to sensitive word-setting. Several of her early songs were of English poems, notably ‘The Bird of Christ’ (Fiona McCleod), ‘Sweet Suffolk Owl’ (Thomas Vautor), ‘Merry Margaret’ (John Skelton) and ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ (WB Yeats), and publication by the University of Wales Press encouraged her productivity. If most of her later songs were of Welsh poetry, this largely reflected the demands of singers based mainly in the Principality and also her enduring popularity within the rich Eisteddfod tradition, where she was a regular and highly prized adjudicator until the 1990s. Her last English settings were the Two Songs of Walter de la Mare for soprano Rosamund Shelley at the Criccieth Festival in 2001 (published by Cwmni Cyhoeddi Gwynn) and in 2004 Bryn Terfel recorded ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ on his recital disc ‘Silent Noon’ with pianist Malcolm Martineau for Deutsche Grammophon. The 1980s saw a fruitful return to choral and liturgical music (following some delightful secular madrigals in the 1950s) after George Guest at St John’s College, Cambridge showed an interest in a set of psalm settings which he then recorded with his choir for the Welsh label Sain. The death of her husband in 2005 marked the natural end of a creativity which she always claimed was maintained only as a result of his unfailing interest and nurturing spirit. Dilys Elwyn-Edwards died peacefully at a care-home in Llanberis overlooking Llyn (Lake) Padarn at the foot of Snowdon itself. Her legacy will survive as long as the Welsh language is spoken and sung.