Tramping round Liverpool last week, I was struck by the thought that there are aspects of family history that I can never uncover. Most importantly – SOUND and SMELL. I cannot hear their voices, I cannot hear the voices that surrounded them. When my great great grandfather’s tar and turpentine distillery works caught fire, I can only imagine the sound of the roaring flames, the pungent smell of the melting liquid, the shouts of the workmen summoning help, the ringing of the fire engine bell.
I do try to reconstruct the music that they played, and sang and listened to. In my childhood, we would sometimes gather round the piano on a Sunday evening, my mother would play and we would sing, usually folk songs of England, Scotland and Wales. Whenever we sang ‘All through the night’ (or ‘Ar Hyd Y Nos’), I would watch my grandfather’s eyes fill with tears, and I knew he was remembering his own childhood in the 1890s, when his sister would have played the piano in Denbigh and his brother would have been the one singing in his fine tenor voice.
When my grandfather chose his Desert Island Discs, one piece was Mendelssohn’s War March of the Priests from Athalie, which he said was the first music he ever heard played by an orchestra, although he had heard much choral music, usually accompanied by his father on the harmonium or organ. On another occasion, at a tea meeting at Denbigh Free Reading and Recreation rooms, his father ‘sang a song with a peculiar chorus, which he hoped the friends would help him to sing, and a good deal of merriment was the result.’
His grandmother was a fine singer. The first twenty years of her marriage to William Casson were spent in Liverpool, where she must have studied singing. In 1863, soon after William moved his family back to Wales, she took part in a concert in Portmadoc. ‘Mrs Casson’ we are told ‘possesses a splendid voice, which evidently has been highly cultivated, and nothing could be finer than the style in which she rendered [a solo from Mendelssohn’s St Paul]. This splendid and beautiful piece was followed by protracted and hearty cheering.’
Meanwhile, William’s brother George, who lived in Festiniog all his life, was a great patron of local music. In 1853, he was the patron of a concert there, performing THE ORATORIO of the STORM ON THE LAKE OF TIBERIAS, composed by a local vicar and performed by a choir of 100. I rather fancy this work has never been reprised. Many of the social events he attended ended with ‘lively songs’ . A particularly jolly coming-of-age party in 1849 included a large number of solo contributions, interspersed with many toasts, and I like to imagine ‘Song by Mr George Casson’, rather late in the evening, was a performance of much ‘brio’.