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Neville John

Neville John, the son of a coal miner, was born in Tumble, a mining village in Carmarthenshire in 1928. Following many years as a wages clerk in a colliery office, his success in Matriculation examinations at Cardiff University enabled him to pursue a course leading to the B.Mus. degree. On graduation day Neville was informed by the Professor of Music (Dr Joseph Morgan) that he had won the coveted David Evans Memorial Prize awarded to meritorious students in the Music Department. After a year of teacher training, he was appointed Head of Music in a Grammar School near Sheffield. For over 30 years until retirement, he was employed as Teacher of Orchestral Instruments for Merthyr Tydfil Education Authority. Whilst in Merthyr, his “ March for School Orchestra” won 1st prize at Ammanford National Eisteddfod in 1970 (adjudicator: William Mathias), and his work with chamber ensembles and the Merthyr Youth Orchestra produced several 1st prizes in Youth National Competitions. His son Steven and daughter Delyth were both 1st prize winners in the finals of the under-19 Urdd National Eisteddfod Violin Competitions in 1975 and 1982 respectively.

Neville John became known as a composer mainly through his two overtures commemorating the Aberfan disaster in which three of his violin pupils met their early deaths. Songs and poetry have been written in memory of this terrible disaster, but John reckons that he is the first, and most probably the only,
person to write orchestral music to commemorate a Welsh mining disaster. He wrote “Tragic Overture Aberfan” in 1969 ( three years after the disaster) and “The Triumph of Aberfan” in 1970. Numerous public performances of these overtures have taken place in Wales, including : Merthyr Tydfil (1993), Pontypridd (1993), Caerphilly (1994), Abergavenny (2000), Treorchy (2003), Llandaff Cathedral (2005), Nelson near Treharris (2006), Cardiff University (2006), Aberystwyth Arts Centre (2009) and Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall (2012). The orchestra for the Aberystwyth concert was the London-based Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by James Slater. Many of John’s other orchestral compositions have been performed in Newport, Nelson near Treharris,Merthyr Tydfil and St. Mary’s Church Swansea.


Concert Brangwyn Hall Swansea 25/6/12
Neville John Tragic Overture, Aberfan
Swansea Community Orchestra. Leader Rhian Owen, conductor Andy George

Composed in 1969, the historical background to the work needs no enlightenment for this or any audience - for the work commemorates the appalling events of Friday 21st October 1966, when the landslide of a mountainous slagheap overwhelmed Pantglas Junior School, resulting in the deaths of 144 souls, including 116 children. Neville John ( who is playing cello tonight) was working as a peripatetic string teacher in Merthyr Tydfil at this time and taught at the school. His Director of Education, John Beale, who was later to take up the same post for the West Glamorgan Education Authority, persuaded and inspired the composer to write this (and a subsequent, redemptive overture “ The Triumph of Aberfan”) as a homage to all those involved in the disaster.
Concert notes are perfunctory and inappropriate in this programme, for the musical imagery is all too obvious. Suffice it to say that three of Neville John’s pupils perished in the disaster, and he was personally acquainted with many others.
The S. C. O. is honoured to perform this most poignant work in the presence of so many people who were personally touched by the Aberfan disaster, and dedicates tonight’s performance to the tremendous courage of the living, and to the perpetual memory of the dead.

Concert Cardiff University 4/11/2006
Fantasy Overture “The Triumph Of Aberfan” - Neville John

Neville John, who lives in Merthyr Tydfil, is a retired professional musician. In 1969 he composed a tragic overture entitled “ Tragic Overture Aberfan” commemorating the appalling disaster that befell the village when at 9.15am on Friday 21st October 1966 a landslide from a mountainous slagheap overwhelmed Pantglas Junior School, resulting in the death of 144 souls including 116 children.

After the Overture’s first performance it was suggested that he should write another overture depicting the courage of the people of Aberfan, both in their rehabilitation and ultimate triumph in their fight with the Authority over safety measures. This second overture entitled “The Triumph of Aberfan” was first performed by the Merthyr Festival Orchestra in April 1971.

The original programme note from the first performance described the work as follows:
The sombre elegiac opening is followed by a change of tempo which brings a complete change of mood. The school bell, given out by the triangle, is followed by nursery tunes heralding the re-opening of the school after the disaster. Later, we hear the “jazzy” tune on the bassoon which symbolises the light entertainment that was thrust on the people of Aberfan in an endeavour to make them forget their anguish. From this tune emerges a triumphant march theme which by and large dominates the rest of the work.
Other items in this concert by the 150-strong Cardiff University Symphony Orchestra are:
Finzi’s Romance for Strings
Jacob’s Trombone Concerto - soloist Chris Spreadbury
Grieg’s Symphonic Dances
The leader of the orchestra is Rosanna Collin and the conductor Dr Timothy Taylor.

Concert Llandaff Cathedral 27/6/2005


City of Cardiff Symphony Orchestra leader Denise Richardson conductor Martin McHale


A former music teacher who lost three pupils in the Aberfan disaster is having his musical tribute

performed at a special concert later this month.

The overture : “The Triumph of Aberfan” was composed in 1970 by Neville John of Merthyr Tydfil

and honours the courage of the people left devastated by the disaster of October 1966.

The music reflects how they sought to overcome the tragedy, their rehabilitation and their quest for

better safety measures.

The Aberfan disaster , which claimed 144 lives, 116 of them children, is a cause particularly close to

Mr John’s heart as he taught the violin at Pantglas Junior School for 5 years prior to the disaster.

“I used to make a note of all the violins I issued into schools” said Mr John of Penydarren Park

Merthyr. “For years I got the children to write their signatures in a book. Three girls at Pantglas

Junior School were given violins on September 12th 1966. They would have been nine years old.

“It was a terrible shock to lose three pupils and I felt compelled and justified in writing some music”.

The first piece written by Mr John was a sombre overture entitled “ Tragic Overture Aberfan”.

After the first performance in 1969 the Director of Education, Mr John Beale, suggested to Mr John

that he should write another overture and call it “ The Triumph of Aberfan”. The latter was completed

in 1970 and first performed in the Merthyr Tydfil 1971 Festival at Merthyr C ollege.

An elegiac opening is followed by a change of tempo and mood . Nursery tunes follow a school bell

to represent the re-opening of the school. A “jazzy” tune first heard on bassoon, represents light

entertainment which was forced on the people of Aberfan to make them forget the pain. From this

tune emerges a triumphant march theme which by and large dominates the remainder of the work.

Also in the programme was :

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, soloist Antony Tarlton and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.

Overture The Triumph of Aberfan composed.Neville John Performed City of Cardiff Symphony Orchestra by Caroline Carpenter on Mixcloud