Dr Rhian Davies – Belgian refugee musicians in Wales

The exodus of refugees from Belgium after Germany invaded in August 1914 was the largest national group displaced during WW1, with more than 110,000 reaching Britain. Gwendoline and Margaret Davies enabled a select group of the Belgian refugees to settle in Ceredigion and Powys with the aim of raising cultural standards in the Principality. By October of that year, 91 Belgian composers, writers and artists and their families had been rescued, crossing the Channel on the ‘last but one’ boat to leave. On their arrival in Wales, the families were provided with accommodation in Aberystwyth and Cardiff, and the costs of their settlement were met by the Davies family. In due course some of the mid Wales refugees relocated to Llanidloes and stayed in houses in Garden Suburb, and here the Davies sisters continued to support them. One of these was George Minne, an internationally renowned sculptor and painter. Two of his drawings are at Gregynog.

Gwendoline and Margaret had a vision for the arts in Wales, and in 1914 Gwendoline donated £75,000 towards the founding of the Aberystwyth University School of Instrumental Music to support the development music education in mid Wales. While the conservatoire had a short existence, it was indicative of the Davies sisters’ philanthropy and their desire to use their great inherited wealth to the benefit of the people of Wales. They continued to donate large sums to the University over many years.

An exhibition of paintings produced by the artists Valerius de Saedeleer, George Minne, Edgar Gevaert and Gustave van de Woestyne was held in Cardiff and Ghent in 2002. The exhibition catalogue, Art in Exile, also alludes to ‘several well-known musicians from Brussels’ who came to Wales, but who were they and why had their narratives disappeared? This discrepancy prompted Dr Rhian Davies, Artistic Director of the Gregynog Festival, to see what she could find out and a remarkable story has emerged of the distinguished composers, singers and instrumentalists who held prominent positions at the Brussels Conservatoire, Royal Palace and Opera House (Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie) before they were displaced by the First World War.

The musicians in the Aberystwyth refugee group quickly arranged a concert at the Coliseum in that town. The performance was so successful that they took it on tour around Wales, including to venues in Mold, Trefeglwys, Newtown and Tregarron. The composer and pianist Eugène Guillaume, the violinist Nicolas Laoureux and his son Marcel, a pianist and accompanist, were based in Aberystwyth. The composer and organist Joseph Jongen spent the War in London but his piano piece Crépuscule au Lac Ogwen (Twilight at Lake Ogwen) was inspired by a holiday in Snowdonia in 1916. And David van de Woestijne -son of the artist Gustave van de Woestijne and his wife Prudence – was born in Llandinam’s Temperance Hotel (now The Lion) in February 1915 and grew up to become a leading musician of the next generation.

Rhian’s research has taken her all over the UK and to Belgium, where she found music by the composers that she was able to include in Gregynog Festival concerts in 2014. She has also spoken about the work in Cardiff, London and Brussels and people are always fascinated that a major Flemish composer should have been born in Llandinam. Music composed by David van de Woestijne and Eugène Guillaume was performed at the Gregynog Festival in 2014. Guillaume’s work ‘Fantaisie’ was in the programme for one of the Festival’s concerts in Llandinam. The work is dedicated to Gwendoline Davies.

That remarkable story of a century ago is being repeated in 2016-17 in the welcome and support that displaced Syrian families have received from the people of Newtown and Aberystwyth today.