Benjamin WILLIAMS

By William Meredith Morris

It is very remarkable that Wales, the land of song (" Mor o gan yw Cymru gyd"), has produced so few violin-makers. This is probably due to the fact that she has cultivated vocal at the entire expense of instrumental music. The orchestra is all but non est in Wales. But then, the Welsh people have ceased to be an artistic people. Even their bards to-day know no other art than that of cynghanedd, and it is even doubtful if a quasi-esoteric use of numbers be a sufficiently important art to command the homage of the best talent. And where the orchestra is an unknown quantity, the art of fiddle-making may be denoted by zero. The only Welsh fiddle-maker (barring a few who made sporadic and amateurish efforts) was Benjamin Williams of Aberavon, a joiner by trade. This maker was born in 1768, and died in 1839. He was buried in Michaelston-super- avan Churchyard, but there is no tombstone to mark his resting-place. His grandson, John Davies, now living at Ystrad, Rhondda Valley, who is seventy-five years of age, and who can remember his grandfather very well, says that Benjamin Williams was a tall, wiry, broad-browed man, with a patriarchal crop of snow-white hair and beard. He habitually wore a leathern apron and a skull-cap (Had he heard of old Antonio ?), and was much addicted to tobacco-chewing. He is said to have made about eighty fiddles and a few Welsh harps during leisure moments, when joinery work happened to be slack. Several of these fiddles are said to be in existence to-day, but I know of only three, one of which is in my possession. The following is a brief description of this last. The outline and model approximate to those of N. Amati. Probably the maker had a Duke fiddle as model, since the measurements are identical with those of a genuine Duke of the date 1768. The back is cut sur couche, and the wood is sycamore of rather plain figure. The pine of the belly is very fine and even-grained. The sound-holes are somewhat after the Stainer pattern. The scroll is much worn at the left boss of the volute, but it is thrown with a firm hand and full of decision and meaning. The varnish is a pale, straw-coloured one, elastic and transparent. The tone is not large, but it is sweet, round, and free. The instrument is the work of a man who knew how to handle his gouge and calipers. Williams obtained his pine from abroad, but he cut his sycamore in the Margam woods. He rubbed linseed oil and turpentine into his fiddles, and then hung them up for a long season to dry before varnishing them. The varnish is a spirit one, laid on in three or four thin coats. Williams was known locally as " Benny'r fiddler," as he was a player as well as a maker of fiddles. It is said that he played beautifully on one of his own make instruments, and that his services were frequently requisitioned at local weddings, dances, &c. He also, as needs would have it, wielded the magic wand, and a story is told of his laying a ghost at Penhydd by playing a certain tune on his fiddle at the haunted spot on three successive nights. The fiddle on which he then played was made specially for the occasion, and had its back of mountain-ash, and a drop of dragon's blood was mixed with the varnish. Tradition does not say whence he obtained this drop of blood. It was not the gum known by that name, for he did not use it, and this had no affinity to the methods of magic. Willams could write a beautiful hand, and no doubt his smattering of English and knowledge of about a dozen Latin words magnified him to Merlin-like proportions in the estimate of his fellows. Two local country-side fiddlers, lanto'r Garth and Deio Llantrisant, played upon fiddles of his make. Another noted village-green fiddler, Levi Gibbon, of Fishguard, played upon a Williams fiddle, and people who remember this really fine player (albeit humble) said his instrument had a tone like that of a flute. It is said that Williams won his spouse by the cunning of his bow. Ann Davies was a young woman of beauty, and the daughter of a well-to-do local farmer. The fiddle-maker wooed her, and wooed not in vain, though the young woman's parents resented the match. The fiddler's playing appealed to the heart of Ann, and, helped by the dignified bearing of his princely figure, was completely successful in making captive the maiden's heart. He would play in the wood opposite her dwelling, and the pathetic pleading of the notes borne on the wings of the breeze reached the ears of Ann, and brought her out to the sylvan retreats. During one of these rambles the vow was made, when both swore eternal love to the music of the fiddle.