John Owen (Owain Alaw)

John Owen, also known by his bardic name Owain Alaw Pencerdd (November 14, 1821-January 29, 1883), was a Welsh language poet, baritone vocalist, accompanist and musician.

Early life

Owen was born and raised in Chester, England, just across from the Welsh border. As a young man he was apprenticed as a cutler, but also studied music and trained to become an organist. He became the organist at the countess of Huntingdon chapel as well as the conductor of the ‘Octagon Orchestral Society’. He married a Miss Williams in 1842, and in 1844 gave up his business to devote himself to his music full-time. [ [ Owen, John] , Welsh Biography Online]

Music career

For the next few years he held organist positions at St Paul’s Church in Broughton and St Bride’s Church, and was then organist and choirmaster at St Mary’s Welsh Church in Chester. It is from this time that his earliest music is to be found (‘Calfari’, published in the "Haleliwia" collection of 1849), and his first major success came soon after, winning at the Rhuddlan eisteddfod of 1851 with his composition ‘Deborah a Barac’. During the 1850s he continued to achieve much success at eisteddfodau held throughout Wales and in England, and in his later years he became widely sought after to adjudicate in these competitions. [ [ Owen, John] , Welsh Biography Online]

‘Hen Wlad fy Nhadau’

At the Llangollen ‘national eisteddfod’ in 1858, Owen (who was an adjudicator) and others in attendance were treated for the first time to the recently-penned anthem ‘Glan Rhondda’, part of the selection of Thomas Llewelyn (Llewelyn Alaw) of Aberdare. Llewelyn went on to share first prize at the eisteddfod, and Owen was clearly impressed by the tune.

Owen played a major role in popularising ‘Glan Rhondda’, singing it at concerts throughout north Wales, and then publishing it in his widely-used "Gems of Welsh Melody" collection of 1860 (where he gave it the more familiar modern name, ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’). [ [ The Story of The Welsh National Anthem - Hen Wlad fy Nhadau - The Land of My Fathers] , Rhondda Cynon Taf Libraries Heritage Trail Website]

Later life

Owen continued to compose, perform and adjudicate in his later years, and also edited and contributed to several collections of Welsh music and poetry that were published in the 1860s and 1870s (including "Tonau yr Ysgol Sabothol" and "Y Gyfres Gerddorol"). Of his own works, several songs appeared in "Y Gyfres Gerddorol" and in many other collections, and his oratorio "Jeremiah" was published in 1878. Owen died at the age of sixty-one on January 29, 1883, and was buried in Chester. [ [ Owen, John] , Welsh Biography Online]

Eisteddfod honours

* Rhuddlan, 1851: ‘Deborah a Barac’
* Tremadoc, 1851: ‘Gweddi Habacuc’ (tied with John Ambrose Lloyd)
* London, 1855: ‘Can Mair’
* Merthyr Tydfil: ‘Y Ddaeargryn’
* Llanrwst, 1859: ‘Arnat Ti y Llefais’
* Caernarfon: ‘Tywysog Cymru’
* Chester, 1866: ‘Gŵyl Gwalia’


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