JOHN THOMAS (1826 - 1913)
John Thomas, harpist and composer, was born on 1 March 1826, to a large respected family in the Welsh town of Bridgend. Although his first instruments were the piccolo and the violin, which were introduced by his musically-inclined father who performed locally as a clarinettist, the young John Thomas was attracted to the harp and it instantly became his lifetime passion. Interestingly, the first harp presented to John Thomas was a triple harp, which was so in vogue at the time in Wales that it was also known as the Welsh harp. He played it in the Welsh fashion, placing the harp on his left shoulder, and playing the treble with his left hand and the bass with his right hand—the opposite of today’s concert harp technique.
Besides his teaching at the Royal Academy of Music, where he himself had completed his study with the sponsorship of Lady Augusta Ada Lovelace, a harpist and daughter of Lord Byron, John Thomas presented Welsh music in London as well as across the continent, in Germany, Italy, Russia, Austria, and in France, where Hector Berlioz enthusiastically commented, “Voilà comment on joue de la harpe… Il m’a charmé, fasciné, magnetisé”. He was also harpist to the Royal Italian Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London and as a result was inspired to compose numerous vocal works.
In 1861 John Thomas was awarded the Welsh bardic title of Pencerdd Gwalia (Chief Musician of Wales) at the Aberdare eisteddfod, and was appointed official harpist to Queen Victoria in 1872 and then to her successor, King Edward VII. He died in 1913 at the age of 87 in London.
In addition to achievements as a major harpist of his time, John Thomas was a prolific composer who greatly enriched the classical harp repertoire by drawing on his folk-music background. This inlfuence is obvious in all his compositions in terms of the melodies he used, such as the well known 'Men of Harlech' theme, displayed in Scenes of Childhood, as well as his display of techniques meant to reproduce the effects of the Welsh harp on the double action concert harp of today, which John Thomas went on to play from the age of fourteen onwards.
John Thomas’ compositions present a broad range of specific harp techniques. He was able to compose for the harp most skilfully, since he was such an accomplished performer himself.