Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Roberts, John (1822-1877)

ROBERTS, JOHN (1822–1877), Welsh musician, better known as Ieuan Gwyllt, was born at Tan-rhiw-felen, Penllwyn, near Aberystwyth, on 22 Dec. 1822. His father, a maker of sieves, was musically inclined, and his own love of music manifested itself early. He gained his first insight into the theory of music from the ‘Gamut’ of Owen Williams of Anglesey. Subsequently he attended the classes of Richard Mills [q. v.], who did much towards improving congregational singing in Wales. He was only fourteen when he was chosen leader of the local choir. At sixteen he became schoolmaster. He had adopted the pseudonym of Ieuan Gwyllt before November 1839, when he contributed to a Welsh magazine, the ‘Athraw,’ a musical composition known as ‘Hafilah.’ In 1842 he became clerk and messenger to a business firm in Aberystwyth, and in 1844 he took charge of the Skinner Street schools in the same town. In July 1844 he entered a solicitor's office there. In December 1852 William Rees (1802–1883) [q. v.] offered him the post of assistant editor of the ‘Amserau’ (i.e. ‘Times’), the most important Welsh paper of that day. It was published in Liverpool, whither Roberts removed. He devoted himself to the work with enthusiasm, writing most of the leading articles, in which he gave expression to his ardent radicalism, and compiling a large proportion of the news columns. By the end of the year the circulation of the paper had nearly doubled.

In June 1856 he began to preach as a Calvinistic methodist. In 1858 he settled at Aberdare, and edited for a year the ‘Gwladgarwr’ (i.e. ‘The Patriot’), a paper circulating largely among the miners of Glamorganshire. He still taught music; and at Aberdare, on 10 Jan. 1859, under his leadership, was held the first of those musical festivals which became established institutions all over the country.

In 1859 his tune-book (‘Llyfr Tonau’) was published. It became popular at once, and in July 1863 the seventeenth thousand was in circulation. It contains selections from nearly three hundred musical works—Welsh, English, Scottish, American, and European. His aim was to secure tunes marked by simplicity, breadth of view, dignity, and devotion. The preface, in Welsh, well defines the principles of good congregational singing, and the Calvinistic methodist hymn-book was entirely adapted to Roberts's work. In 1864 an edition in the tonic sol-fa notation was published, and in 1876 another edition in the short or compressed score. From 1859 to 1861 he published ‘Telyn y Plant’ for the use of children, and from 1861 to 1873 ‘Cerddor Cymreig,’ a magazine devoted to music generally, with essays on the theory. From 1869 to 1874 he edited ‘Cerddor y Solffa,’ and in 1874 ‘Swn y Iiwbili,’ a translation of Sankey and Moody's hymns, which for a time had an immense popularity.

On 29 Aug. 1865 Roberts removed to Llanberis in North Wales to the pastorate of Capel Coch, and in 1866 he founded the Snowdon temperance musical union. He died on 6 May 1877.

On 4 Jan. 1859 he married Jane Richards of Aberystwyth, but there was no issue. Probably no other musician has left such a deep impression on musical Wales. His chief aim was educational; but of the twenty-one or more tunes he composed some half a dozen are still in popular use. His most ambitious literary attempts are his contributions to the ‘Traethodydd,’ the Welsh quarterly; these include articles on Mendelssohn, his life and times, 1857; the life and works of Isaac Taylor, 1866; the Priesthood, 1866; Pain, 1867; Jonah, 1869; War as a Teacher, 1871; the Brothers of the Lord, 1873; Life and Immortality, 1877.

[Bywyd ac Athrylith y Parch. John Roberts; Bywgraffiaeth Cerddorion Cymreig.]

R. J. J.