Arwel Hughes was born in Rhosllanerchrugog and was educated at Ruabon Grammar (during the 1920s) and at the Royal College of Music where Ralph Vaughan Williams was among his contemporaries. Following his studies at the RCM he became organist at the church of St Philip and St James in Oxford. In 1935 he returned to Wales to join the staff of the BBC’s music department where his duties included a great deal of conducting. He directed the first performances of many original works by Welsh composers, including those by Grace Williams, David Wynne and Alun Hoddinott. He was also called upon to compose, arrange and orchestrate a great deal of music for live radio broadcasts.
In 1965 he became Head of Music at BBC Wales, holding the post until his retirement in 1971. He was appointed OBE in 1969 for his services generally to Welsh music and particularly for organising the music for the Investiture of Charles, Prince of Wales at Caernarvon in the same year. From 1978 until 1986 he was Honorary Music Director of the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod.
For many years Arwel Hughes conducted performances by the Welsh National Opera – the WNO – and his own two operas – “Menna” (to a libretto by Wyn Griffith; a tragedy based on a Welsh folk legend) and Serch yw’r Doctor (“Love’s the Doctor”; a comedy adapted by Saunders Lewis from Moliere’s play of the same name). The operas were performed by the WNO in 1953 and 1960 respectively. Both works played an important role in the development of opera in Wales, and demonstrate Hughes’ lyricism and melodic originality.
He is best remembered though for his music for chorus and orchestra. The large-scale oratorios “Dewi Sant” and “Pantycelyn” exemplify his imagination and technical competence and combine the early twentieth century British tradition with his original harmonic language. Gweddi (a Prayer) is a shorter work with haunting melodies which encapsulate the spirit of the composer, and is recognisably Celtic.
The composer’s orchestral writing includes a “Fantasia for Strings” which has received many performances. From the 1940s onwards he produced a stream of works for orchestra including “Suite for Orchestra”, “Prelude for Orchestra” (dedicated to the Youth of Wales), “Anatiomaros”, and a single symphony.
The Welsh orchestral conductor Owain Arwel Hughes is his son.