The competitions were intense, the stakes enormous. Tournaments brought together the best in their field from throughout the land.
And the potential reward was a professional career.
These weren't basketball, baseball, football or hockey championships. This was poetry, accompanied at times by a harpist or singers. These events, as far back as 1,000 years ago, featured bards from all over Wales, each competing for a seat of honor in the households of noblemen -- in effect, a contract of employment, since poets depended on patronage for their livelihoods.
From these gatherings, a tradition began that has evolved into both a national pastime and one of Europe's premier cultural events: the eisteddfod. The focus now is on singing, dancing and instrumental music.
Each summer, Welsh choirs, soloists and other musicians as well as poets compete for prizes in the Royal National Eisteddfod, which alternates sites between north and south Wales and is billed as the largest folk festival in Europe.
In the village of Llangollen in northeast Wales, 2,000 amateur performers come from all over the world -- from 49 nations in 1995 -- to compete in the International Musical Eisteddfod, billed as the Olympics of music and dance.
The presence of acclaimed international artists has helped make both events major tourist attractions. Luciano Pavarotti highlighted the Llangollen festival last summer, and Welsh tenor Bryn Terfel, flutist James Galway, harpist Marisa Robles and the London Mozart Players will appear at the 1996 International Musical Eisteddfod July 9-14.
Terfel and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales are among professionals booked for the Royal National Eisteddfod Aug. 3-10 in Llandeilo, near Cardiff in south Wales.
But the real beauty and joy of an eisteddfod (pronounced with the accent on the middle syllable and meaning "sitting together" "gathering") are the amateur musicians who practice year-round and compete, often in colorful costume and in the traditional Welsh language.
Wales is called "The Land of Song" today, just as it was in the 12th century, when Welsh literary giant Giraldus Cambrensis wrote, "When they come together to make music, the Welsh sing their traditional songs not in unison, as is done elsewhere, but in many modes and modulations. "You will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers, all joining together in the end to produce a single organic harmony and melody. What is even more remarkable, small children sing in parts and tiny babies do so, too, from the moment they first stop screaming and begin to sing."
Eight hundred years later, music remains an integral aspect of Welsh childhood. A national youth eisteddfod is a popular annual event.
Separate youth and children's competitions are conducted even the International Musical Eisteddfod.
Even community-choir practice sessions frequently attract visitors, and the Wales Tourist Board can provide a free brochure detailing where and when many choirs practice. Visitors are apt to discover an impromptu sing-along in any pub.
Legend holds that the eisteddfod may date as far back as the sixth century, when at the request of King Maelgwn Gwynedd bards and minstrels competed with one another. Manuscripts from the 10th through 12th centuries refer to competitions throughout Wales.
The first national eisteddfodoccurred in 1861, and 19 years later the decision was made to alternate sites between regions. Only in 1914 and 1940, during the world wars, was the competition canceled.
The impact of the Royal National Eisteddfod goes beyond music; it also serves to honor the Welsh language. Not one word of English, Wales' main language, is allowed in this competition.
The International Musical Eisteddfod was established in 1947, after World War II, in an effort to promote peaceful coexistence among nations. Pavarotti, who traveled to Llangollen from Modena, Italy, in 1955, long has credited winning first prize with inspiring him to abandon a planned teaching career to become a professional tenor.
Scores of other internationally acclaimed musicians also appeared as amateurs at the International Musical Eisteddfod, including Spaniard Placido Domingo, who was so little known at the time that he was billed mistakenly as "a Mexican tenor."
This eisteddfod is set in a charming village tucked into a valley where the River Dee winds between two mountain ranges. Attractions include scenic journeys by boat and an eight-mile steam railway as well as quaint shops and restaurants.
If you go. . .
Getting there: Llangollen and Llandeilo, Wales, are both about a five-hour drive from London. Several airlines serve Manchester, England, a closer gateway to north Wales (Llangollen). Car rentals are available in London or Manchester. British Rail serves Chester, England, which is near Llangollen, and Cardiff, near Llandeilo. Call BritRail at (800) 551-1977 to inquire about combination rail-car passes.