John Thomas, Pencerdd Gwalia (Chief Musician of Wales)
John Thomas, world famous, celebrated Welsh harpist was born on St David’s Day 1826 in Bridgend.
He came from a very musical family – his father played the clarinet and 3 of his siblings also became harpists. As a child he spoke only Welsh and played the triple harp in the traditional Welsh style. He had strong connections with Maesteg and performed in concert at Maesteg Town Hall.
John Thomas won several eisteddfodau and was invited to London to play by the president of the Eisteddfod when aged only 12. It didn’t take long for the protégé to be noted by celebrities such as Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, who contributed toward the cost of his musical education.
His career went from strength to strength. He became harpist the Royal Italian Opera, taught at the Royal School of Music and was appointed harpist to Queen Victoria and Edward VII. In 1861 at the Eisteddfod at Aberdare, he was given the title Pencerdd Gwalia, Chief Musician of Wales, and that year he published his famed collection of traditional Welsh tunes.
He was a prolific composer and arranger of music and his works are still performed regularly today – including his arrangement of Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn, Wil Hopcyn of Llangynwyd’s love song to the maid of Cefn Ydfa.
Connection with Maesteg
John Thomas’ father was a deacon at Tabor Chapel (the building which is now Maesteg Workmen’s Club), and in January 1884 performed in a grand concert at Maesteg Town Hall to raise funds toward the debts of Hermon Chapel, Garth and Moriah Chapel, Pontrhydycyff near Llangynwyd. The Hall was full and the harpist gave two or three encores. Because of his connection with the chapel and with the Llynfi Valley, he gave his services free of charge.