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MARTIN SHAW (1875-1958)

an appreciation by Erik Routley

Any celebration of Martin Shaw's life is in a very real way an English occasion; and therefore in some sense an old-fashioned occasion. For we are here reflecting on the life of the man whose special distinction it was to restore to English church music the quality of being English. This he did because he profoundly - we might almost say fanatically - believed in the virtues of being English. Times have changed, manners and assumptions have changed unrecognizably; and it will be as if we were writing of somebody who belonged to a far distant age. That is inevitable. I must try to bring to life a man whom I myself met only once - although memorably - but whose name has ever since I can remember anything been among those which I most affectionately honoured.

Martin Shaw came of a Yorkshire family. His father, James Shaw, a gifted musician, was born in Leeds in 1842 and served as a choirboy in Leeds Parish Church. He was accustomed to say that he served under Samuel Sebastian Wesley there, but that eminence of English church music left Leeds in 1849: even a short apprenticeship under him, however, would have been memorable. James Shaw moved to Edinburgh in 1862, and was organist in St John's Episcopal Church, Princes Street, 1862-64, and at the church now known as SS Paul and George, York Place, 1864-69. He then moved to London, where he was organist at the Bedford Chapel until 1876 when he became organist at Hampstead Parish Church and music master at Clapham Grammar School. Martin Shaw was born in Belsize Park on 9 March 1875, the eldest of three brothers: Geoffrey, born 1879, became almost as well known as Martin, though in the field of school music rather than that of the church, while Julius, who died in the First World War, was an actor. Geoffrey died in 1943; Martin lived to the ripe age of eighty-three, leaving us at the end of 1958, only a few months after his revered friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams.

I have already implied that Martin Shaw was a church musician. But that could be misleading. One slips into these descriptive phrases when one can find nothing that will serve better. Exactly what sort of a musician Martin was is a question you cannot answer by tying a label on him. The nearest we can get in a short phrase is to say that he was a natural musician whose talents, after being exercised in many directions, came to find a special response in the English church. But to the end of his life he was engaged in composition and lecturing, and every kind of musical activity that took him far outside the field of church music.

an Edwardian family group - Martin Shaw second from right

A 'natural musician'. That he certainly was. In his autobiography, Up to Now - which tantalizingly stops at 1929 - he says that he cannot remember a time when he did not love music. But I am sure it is relevant to add that the theatre was as much in his blood as music was. We have just noted that one of his brothers was a man of the theatre. Martin Shaw turned out to be a personality of quite compelling force, a man who loved an audience, a man who when he first broadcast on the BBC in 1924 (he was one of the first ever to do so) mentioned the disconcerting effect of not having an audience. To understand him, and indeed to understand his music, one must always have this in mind. He was, and always remained, the reverse of the perfectionist, introverted, lonely musician who prophesies from a distance. He was first and last a communicator - a ready writer, a strenuous correspondent, a man of ideas who must express them, a man who listened hard and, after listening, found the music which would say successfully what he wanted to say without leaving the player or the singer or the hearer feeling that the new message was hard and demanding. Musicians like this can go two ways. They can simply put their talents at the disposal of vulgar taste, and write music they know to be bad because that's what people want. Or they can write what they are sure is good, but yet what people can readily assimilate, and become the prey of a hundred pedantic critics - which last of course has been Martin's fate.

I almost implied that he wasn't a perfectionist. No: in one sense he was. He never knowingly wrote below his best level. That does not mean that everything he wrote was first-class, even on its own scale. Anybody can have his off days, and those who know and enjoy his music admit that Martin Shaw had his. But this is quite different from writing below your best level. There is, however, something that is different again: this is writing below your capacity. This I feel sure Martin Shaw did most of the time. He wrote not to the limit of his capacity but within the limits of his constituency's capacity. He wrote what children could sing, what amateur choirs could sing and, what concerns me most here, what the parish could sing.

And here we must bring out a point concerning church music which is vital to our understanding of church music, and especially of this composer's contribution to it. Church music (I have ventured to say this elsewhere before) is music designed to be sung by, or in the presence of, the unmusical. Hymns are the property of a congregation containing mostly people who need not be musical at all. Liturgical music is partly for those people, partly for choral musicians of limited talent. Only cathedral music gives the composer the chance to write for highly trained musicians, and Martin Shaw had little interest in cathedral music. It was the parish, and the slightly dim parish at that, that he sought to evangelize. Church music at this level can only be written with any success by people who have renounced the desire to appear to be great composers, and who regard the gratitude of ordinary devout parish congregations as ample compensation for the lack of international fame and the dubious promise of immortality. Indeed, there are some who would say that writing for the parish church is an activity in which certain kinds of musician should not attempt to engage; for it is, let's face it, a kind of journalism, and there is always a danger that it will corrupt the style, and soften the intellectual integrity, of a certain kind of musician. What nobody should say is that the journalist can never be a man of letters, and that the church musician who produces a splendid hymn is a musician of inferior status and lower talent than he who presses out to the frontiers of thought in his symphonies.

It remains true that the great symphonist can't often write a popular hymn tune or a manageable short anthem. Vaughan Williams never wrote a popular hymn tune after he became a symphonist, though at the end of his life he did show that he could write a perfect epigram in church music -'0 taste and see'. Martin Shaw might well have made a symphonist if at the age of, say, twenty-five he had been urged in that direction. But two things stopped him. One was the way his temporal life fell out at that time, and the other was his own nature. He had something to say to English music that wasn't musical at all, but political. He set himself to say precisely that in his music.

He was, at the beginning, an orthodox professional in as much as he went to the Royal College of Music. He became a pupil of Stanford - what could be more respectable than that? But anyone who has any association with academic institutions knows that when they are at their best their students learn as much from each other as they do from their senior preceptors. And what a gang those contemporaries of Martin Shaw must have been! Coleridge-Taylor, Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, John Ireland, Rutland Boughton, Thomas Dunhill - he knew them all. These were the people who influenced him. And in Up to Now he gives the whole secret away in a telling paragraph:

During the whole of my college career I felt vaguely dissatisfied. I knew that something I instinctively wanted was not there, though it was not till long after that I discovered what it was. I will borrow from The Times critic a word which describes it most adequately: 'Englishness'.

It is quite understandable that he couldn't, while he was at the college in the nineties,, put a name to the thing he was looking for. As he says, the expression 'folk song' was never mentioned there in those days. But what he did know was that he was reacting against the assumption that the musical Kremlin was located in Germany, and that what Brahms didn't say wasn't worth hearing.

We shall see in a moment where that led him. But for the present we will recall what happened to Martin after he left college. He left as what one could call a 'dissenting' musician. He accepted the post of organist to Emmanuel Church, Hampstead, which he held from 1895 to 1903. As an organist he was never a recitalist, but, as those who heard him testify, always a magnificent accompanist and brilliant extemporizer. He also had an admirable opportunity of discovering that tradition of church music which later he committed himself to abolishing.

But something far more important than this happened in 1897. In that year he met Gordon Craig, and it was Gordon Craig, that dynamic innovator in the theatre (whose Life was published by his son, Edward Craig, in 1968) who gave him something to live for. He first met him in Southwold - the town in which he himself spent his last years. Their friendship lasted sixty years. And Edward Craig says that it was Martin Shaw who 'was to introduce him [Gordon] to the magic and power of great music'. They collaborated at the local pub in the introduction to a scene from Craig's Francis Yillon, Poet and Cut-throat, Martin playing the pub piano. A better pub story than that is of how he and Martin walked over Hampstead Heath, while Martin expounded the music and the drama of the St Matthew Passion; and when they arrived at Jack Straw's Castle they made straight for the bar-parlour piano, on which Martin played enough of the music for Gordon to decide, on the spot, to produce the Passion with visual effects which would have commanded the respect of any theatrical manager of the 1960s. 'For,' as Edward Craig writes, 'in his mind, as Martin played, he had seen visions of great flights of steps, crowds of moving figures,, crowds that opened up as a single figure ascended to his destruction.'

Gordon Craig in 1905

The vision came to nothing, although Craig worked on it seriously over a period of fourteen years. But when Craig launched a little magazine called The Page in 1898 he gave himself the distinction of publishing in it the first works of Martin Shaw to see print; this was followed in 1899 by The Dome, a somewhat more ambitious journal, which again featured the occasional contribution by Martin. And in the same year the Purcell Operatic Society came into being. Purcell (like the St Matthew Passion) was virtually unknown to the British public at the time. Indeed it was he who first introduced Purcell to Craig and their production in 1900 of Dido and Aeneas which he conducted, that rescued Purcell from oblivion and initiated the process of restoring him to his rightful place in the pantheon of British composers - as well as being Craig's first ventures in the arts of stage production and design. There is a superb story telling how a favourable review from a contemporary journal was posted in three envelopes to 'Gordon Craig Esq.', 'Martin Shaw Esq.' and 'Henry Purcell Esq.', all at the Coronet Theatre.

An impression of Marrtin Shaw conducting by Gordon Craig

In 1903 Martin Shaw left his organist's post, with its respectable security, and threw in his lot with the world of the theatre. One thing led to another, and it was not long before he found himself conducting orchestras for the legendary Isadora Duncan. The years 1903 to 1908 found him travelling all over Europe conducting for her orchestras, which were never better than fourth rate and one of which he described as 'solid, stolid, and squalid'. He spent much time in Germany and the Netherlands, but went as far north as Stockholm and as far south as Rome. There was no money in this - he used to return to London with a few pounds in his pocket and no certainty at all whence the next meal would come. In the intervals of travelling on these romantic assignments he turned to anything, from copying tunes in the British Museum for the English Hymnal to sorting stamps for the editor of the Daily Mail.

But in 1908 things took a new turn again. Martin went back to the organ loft. It is doubtful if he would ever have done so for anybody but Percy Dearmer, but it was Dearmer, Vicar of St Mary's, Primrose Hill, who persuaded him. And in Dearmer of course he found a kindred spirit - a lover of the ancient and the catholic in church liturgy, a fastidious and dedicated apostle of craftsmanship in all church matters, including music. Thus began a partnership which did so much to set a new standard in English congregational music; the partnership whose fruits were Songs Of Praise and, more importantly, the Oxford Book of Carols. It is probably safe to say that Martin Shaw never in all his strenuous work for English religious music did it a greater service than he did in the second of these books. Dearmer's preface to it, and Martin Shaw's selection and editing, injected something into the English church culture which irreversibly transformed it. This was the celebration of authentic folk song and authentic English music.

But at his appointment to St Mary's, the Oxford Book of Carols was still twenty years away. Martin Shaw had found, just when he needed it most, not only an economic focus, but a focus for his talents. He would never forget, and he would never stop being influenced by, his theatrical experience. He would never become a 'churchy' composer; indeed it was to be said, quite rightly, that his finest compositions turned out to be his secular songs. But from here on, for fifty years, he was to be increasingly an apostle of renaissance in church music.

He found one thing here that the theatre did not give him; he could communicate and command an audience otherwise than through making music. He began to lecture and to write. He was closely associated with the English Folk Dance & Song Society. And he had something to work on. For the English Hymnal, whose editor Vaughan Williams was already a good friend, with its crusading zeal for musical purity, gave him his programme. Here, in folk song and well edited plainsong and in other new styles, was a new vocabulary for English parishes. Here also, in liturgical renewal, was a new code of behaviour. Just what Martin Shaw could get his teeth into!

The First World War found him hard at work promoting English music of all kinds,, articulate where his fellow-composers were contemplative, pugnacious where they were resigned. Only Vaughan Williams shared his crusading zeal, and VW sometimes thought Martin went rather far. Certainly the consequence of the outbreak of war was dramatic for Martin. He was never fit for military service - his sight was always weak and he had other afflictions - but a ferocious hatred of Germany and all things German, to which he often gave uninhibited expression, reinforced his passion for England and English music. Consequently - and it is fascinating to follow this through the pages of the Musical Times and other papers of the years 1917-20 - his mind all through the war was on his plans for celebrating English music and delivering it from the tyranny of German music after its end. When what he would have innocently called victory came, he was - one cannot put it any other way - rarin' to go. And it was his mind and energy that fostered the musical celebrations that followed the war, and that, using the impetus of these, drove English congregations to seek new musical languages for their popular songs. Indeed, he very much wished to influence secular popular music as well as the folk song of the church - but this was more than even he could really do much about.

During the 1920s his influence and fame became widespread and assured. He made countless friends and disciples by the ten thousand. It was his organising of the Bristol Summer School of Church Music in 1922 which led to the founding of the Royal School of Church Music. He was too much of an individualist to see eye to eye with that other massive influence in church music of the same era, Walford Davies, yet between them those two were responsible for a standard of music in the humblest parish church of, say, the 1950s, which makes the standard of a big London church in 1900 look laughable.

It was not uncharacteristic of him that he should follow Dearmer eventually to the Guildhouse. This was an extraordinary adventure on Dearmer's part in intellectual evangelism. In a chapel which the Congregationalists had recently vacated in Eccleston Square, Dearmer set up a new-style preaching service at tea-time on Sundays in which he sought to combine the intellectual drive of contemporary nonconformity with the decency of ritual and music whose advocate he had been for, by then, at least twenty-five years. Martin Shaw ran the music. They used Songs of Praise, which began as a broad-church version of the English Hymnal but developed into a real frontier-book for intellectual Christians - searching literature for good hymns which weren't to be found in the usual repertory, setting Shelley and Shakespeare to music alongside Watts and Mrs Alexander, catering for progressive schools and far-out congregations. Once when somebody wrote to The Times deploring the traditional tune to '0 Valiant Hearts', Martin wrote back saying, in effect, 'Come to the Guildhouse next Sunday and hear a decent tune by HoIst'.

All this would make a fascinating study if it was appropriate to go into it here. The point, however, is that here once again Martin Shaw was evangelizing through high-quality music. He was making it, and making it well, but he wanted the gospel spread. He would never be one to lock himself up in a cathedral and let the world go by. He wanted ordinary people to share the pleasures of refined and simple music; and he wanted the best composers of his time to write what ordinary people could sing. (In this last his dreams weren't realized: most of the 'big name' new tunes in Songs of Praise were non-starters.)

So that when the Diocese of Chelmsford created for him the office of diocesan music organizer - as it were, bishop of music - in 1936, one simply comments, 'Why on earth did they wait so long?' And when the Archbishop of Canterbury gave Martin and his brother Geoffrey the Lambeth D Mus (the inextinguishable story is that he read the formula for the D D until Geoffrey jogged his elbow), one wonders again what caused him to delay so long. Martin was turned sixty by then, yet only then did he get recognition from the Church. Of course, in the light of later history this isn't surprising: the office, when Martin Shaw retired, was not continued and no other diocese imitated the fitful enterprise of Chelmsford. And in a way, Martin Shaw had already earned this honour to such a degree that one has to say that his best and most influential work was by then done. Not but what he had twenty years yet to live, and remained in great demand as a teacher and lecturer. He carried on as long as his unsteady health permitted, and until his death he was, without any doubt, the most talked-about of English church musicians.

But if one wants to know what made Martin Shaw the person he was, looking back over his story we can say that there were three utterly dissimilar forces at work. The first was, undoubtedly, his father - that strange, unreliable, picturesque character who at sixty determined (with no success whatever) to become a concert pianist, and of whom Martin himself writes with a sort of helpless affection. They loved but did not always understand each other - and obviously they both depended for their very life on the compensating good sense of Martin's mother. Yet where else did Martin's extraordinary power of responding to impulses and his restless questing for musical adventure and truth come from?

The second influence was clearly Gordon Craig - that wild and eager man who, had he been the only influence, would probably have killed Martin Shaw with overwork and over-strenuous enthusiasms, but who gave Martin such insights into the theatre and who, even more importantly, listened so avidly while Martin talked.

The third influence, however, was the most potent of all: so preoccupied have I been with the adventures of his outward and professional life that I have not mentioned at all the fact that he married Joan Cobbold in 1916. His references to it in his own book permit his chronicler to reveal that he saw her once, determined to marry her, and did so - the storybook poor musician invading an aristocratic family and carrying off one of its most gifted members. It is not fair to say that under her influence he 'settled down' - she would have hated to be thought of as restraining him in any way. But under her influence he finally found himself: and it is no accident that his most creative and organized period dates precisely from 1916. And after his death in 1958 Joan Shaw did everything possible to keep his memory alive and to promote what he stood for.

Well, the time has come, in conclusion, to say something of Martin Shaw as a composer. I believe it has been right to emphasize up to now that side of his work from which musical history has most conspicuously benefited. I believe he would agree that it is primarily in making us free of other people's music, in opening the doors of history, in challenging our parochial notions of culture and vocabulary, that he did his most memorable work. But it would be absurd to leave unmentioned the fact that his published works amount to at least 300. If you cast an eye over the list, running all the way from the beginning of the century to a year or two before his death, you may well be impressed by the variety of forms he made his own. Opera, chamber music, instrumental music are there; no symphonies (nobody ever gave him the time), but several cantatas and a fine oratorio, The Redeemer, and a long list of songs, part-songs, anthems and liturgical pieces. His cantata God's Grandeur, to words by Gerard Manley Hopkins, was composed for the first Aldeburgh Festival and received its first performance in the same concert as the first performance of Britten's St Nicolas.

Martin Shaw with Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Leslie Woodgate at the first Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, for which he wrote God's Grandeur

At this moment his music is not, and one is bound to say regrettably, very much heard. He made little contribution to cathedral lists. His 'Folk Mass' is still known in parishes up and down the country. The anthem, 'With a voice of singing', with its famous quotation from Vaughan Williams's 'For all the saints', is still a universal favourite - not least (I am not sure if this would have pleased him) in non-anglican churches. The hymn books continue to find his tunes 'Marching' and 'Little Cornard' indispensable (the second badly needs a text fit to sing). The schools sing his unison songs with undiminished gusto, especially 'Cargoes' and 'The Seekers'. And no composer however eminent could have been anything but proud of his exquisite 'Song of the Palanquin bearers' - an early work of remarkable sensitiveness. But behind the little that is, during a restless and cacophonous age, popular at present there is a good deal that somebody will one day discover again. Why, they are writing theses now on the Victorians and the Edwardians; anyone who explores Martin Shaw will have something a good deal more useful than that to work on.

No; he was a composer of absolutely faultless integrity, who so limited and restrained his talent as to make it accessible to ordinary choirs of children, schools and parishes, and to ordinary singers in ordinary pews. But if the chaotic state of music publishing at present allows a passing cloud to obscure some of his best work in music, and if - as is more understandable and less reprehensible - the changes of fashion and new insights cause the revision of some judgments he would have made, what history can never take away from him is the influence he had on English music-making. Others shared in the movement that produced that influence - Ireland, Bax, Holst, Vaughan Williams; but they would all say - indeed, at one time or another each of them did say - that it was Martin Shaw who made the movement bite, by communicating it to people whom the others never reached. Name any British composer who is getting published now, be he as eminent or as avant-garde as you like: Martin Shaw helped to make the world safe for him.

And this zestful communicator, this cheerfully dogmatic apostle of renaissance, this outgoing, self-giving, strenuous, tardily-appreciated musical evangelist was a man who carried with him throughout his life one of the most alarming facial disfigurements any mortal ever had to bear. Those who met him remember the birthmark which ravaged the whole of one side of his face; and they remember how after a minute and a half in his presence you completely forgot it. For a man who loved an audience, in whose blood the theatre always was, this could have been a crippling frustration: not so for Martin Shaw. The course of his life was always public, always outgoing, always in the front line; and where others would have gratefully opted for the life of the retiring and contemplative musician because of this apparent disability, Martin Shaw, urged on by those good friends who helped to give direction to his life, never hesitated for a moment to do things the hardest way.

When he was eighty (in 1955) his loyal friend Vaughan Williams was persuaded to visit Southwold and give the oration at a service of thanksgiving in the parish church there. Everybody who was there (and it was a good company) remembers how VW at an early stage deserted his prepared script and spoke freely and with characteristic truculence about the music of the English Church. One credibly gathers that near the climax the old lion roared, 'Cursed be all who do not listen to Martin Shaw!' More cautiously, as befits a humbler member of the animal kingdom, I should say that if you do not know about Martin Shaw you are missing a good deal, and that if you do not honour and respect a man who so single-mindedly devoted himself to the educating of the English musical mind, you don't know a good thing when you see one. To him the English song tradition, the English choral tradition and the tradition of English church music owe more than any of them know; their best compliment to him has been their taking for granted now so many of the things which when he first said them were surprising and even revolutionary. We haven't followed his denunciations of 'German' music; and we haven't altogether embraced his detestation of all things Victorian. But we know to whom we owe the fact that we look at both with new and clearer eyes.


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