Music & Song
The website for Dr Martin Shaw OBE FRCM (1875 –1958)
"...the great purpose of music should be to aid the cause of Humanity"
Music to Aid the Cause of Humanity
In an article written circa 1928, Martin Shaw discusses the philosophy behind his music:
If you were to ask me to sum up in a single sentence what I think about music, I should say at once that music should serve life.
Like all such concentrated statements, this dictum needs to be expanded and perhaps explained, but I hold very strongly that the great purpose of music should be to aid the cause of Humanity, and that we should regard it, therefore, as being in its nature at least as much social as artistic. It ought not to be a thing set apart from the ordinary course of life which is to be taken out from its appointed resting place for the purpose of occasional worship.
And this leads me to the thought that there exists a distinct danger of all art becoming self-centred and detached from practial life, just because those who profess it are themselves guilty of these very faults. How much better would it be if occasionally they put their art on one side and remembered that there are other things to be done in life, even if it be only riding a horse or sailing a yacht.
More time devoted to outside matters would react favourably on life and on art. Therefore, I say, be a man first, and an artist afterwards.
I hold very strongly that the great purpose of music should be to aid the cause of Humanity, and that we should regard it, therefore, as being in its nature at least as much social as artistic.
Although I would stoutly disclaim being in any way Chauvinistic, I regard music largely from the national point of view; that is I, as an Englishman, wish the music of this country to be English in character.
Every country and nationality expresses itself in songs, and without gainsaying that each has its own characteristic beauty , let it be remembered that each has also its own characteristic idiom. No one who has ever studied on comparative lines the national songs of different countries would ever mistake a German folk song for an English one, or a Russian for a French. I confess my personal prediclictions in music tend very much to folk song, which I regard as the beginning of music. The folk songs of this country constitute as fine a treasure house as is to be found in any other country, whether Scottish, Irish, Welsh, French, German or Italian.
People often rhapsodize over the folk songs of Russia and other foreign countries, but it is incontrovertible that we can boast songs quite as fine, not to say even finer. The qualities we find in English folk song are precisely those distinguishing the larger works, which display a truly national idiom or flavour. They consist of a broader and more interesting sweep of melodic outline than there is in a Russian or German song.
The qualities we find in English folk song are precisely those distinguishing the larger works
The Features of English Music
There is a strength and freshness of tone in English folk song which is unsurpassed by that of any other country.
It can be at once tender and beautiful or forcible and expressive; but the point I want particularly to bring out is that one of the outstanding features of our national idiom is that English composers are not afraid of harmonic clash. It may produce a shock, but at the same time it causes a healthy reaction; it is like a plunge into cold water.
Thus one often finds what in technical language are called 'false relations' which may be explained to the unlearned in such matters as the chromatic alteration of a note in different parts instead of the same part. In unskilled hands this may prove a two-edged tool, and be productive of a very ugly effect; but the English composers of the Elizabethan period boldly used false relations whenever they felt that their purpose was served thereby.
It is interesting to compare our music of that period with that of the Italians, our chief rivals of the time.
On the English side the principal characteristics were an abundance of strength and vigour combined with a kind of healthy roughness as well as a feeling for beauty, which were perfectly bracing in their effect; while on the Italian side there was a tendency to the suave and smooth mingling of the parts which was quite different from our English practice. It is therefore perfectly easy to distinguish between a mass, say by Byrd, and a similar piece by Palestrina; the two styles ar not only quite distinct, but are typical of the respective nationalities.
These characteristics can still be observed in modern English music. There has never been a time when they were not, although it is true that in the 17th and 18th centuries they were considerably obscured owing to foreign influences; but they have never been wholly obliterated, and now they seem to have come uppermost.
In Elgar, in Vaughan Williams, and in others of our composers we possess men who stand in the direct line of descent from the Elizabethans.
Folk Song: the Basis of All Music
When I was a student at the Royal College of Music, folk music was not regarded as of much importance; it was all classical music in those days, and what I know about folk music I have consequently had to find out for myself.
Of course, I do not set up the one against the other. In my opinion, a knowlege of both is essential to one who aspires to be a national musician, and if there is danger in adhering too rigidly to the forms of classical music, there is no less danger of folk song becoming stilted and artificial by the use of mere formulae such as consecutive fifths and harmonic roughness. For these in themselves do not supply the real spirit of national music.
All the same, I consider that folk song forms the basis upon which each country can develop its latent gifts in composition, rather than by copying classical composers. After all, what is the good of writing in the style of Mendelssohn when Mendelssohn has done it so much better himself? That kind of thing has no value.
Folk Song forms the basis upon which each country can develop its latent gifts in composition
Another feature of present-day music-making is Community Singing, which is really a species of Congregational Singing.
Now it should be realised that this is no new thing; it has always existed to some extent, though not under its present name, and though not in so well organised a form as now. Community Singing is, in my opinion, a very useful factor in the musical development of a nation, and consequently in the reaction of music upon individual and national character. Let me repeat that I am amongst those who firmly believe that music influences character. I hold that the repeated singing of a sloppy or a feeble song will tend to impress those qualities upon the singers, no matter in however slight a degree they may be present. This is part of what I meant when I said that music should serve life.
An Aid to Character
Fine music is a valuable aid to teachers in the formation of character, and that is why only good strong music , and not the feeble or frivolous, should be given to our children.
I do not meant to say that music should not be popular. It should be, but let us realise that there are two kinds–the good popular and the bad popular. My belief is that most people like the good at heart as much as the bad, and if this is so, why not give it to them? I am all on the side of healthy music; morbidness does not appeal to me. Music should make us better, not queerer! It is a very encouraging sign of the times that a song like Parry's "Jerusalem" should have become so popular with all kinds of people, and it goes to show that at heart the nation is musically sound.
The popularity of good music may, by its influence on character, play a part of no inconsiderable degree in counteracting the many insidious and debasing forces which are to-day exploited in the theatre, in pictures, and in literature.
In a sense, therefore, a hymn tune or a popular song may be more important than a symphony, for whereas the latter attracts its possible hundreds, the former may appeal to tens of thousands.
Its potential influence is therefore the greater of the two, and we should see to it that its quality is good and strong.
Music in Schools
The hope of the future lies very largely in the schools of this country.
On the whole the teachers in the elementary schools have a strong sense of their responsibility –in what they give children to learn– and the standard of choice is decidedly much higher than it used to be. The policy of the Board of Education has had much to do with this improvement. The Board have constantly and consistently recommended the increased use of folk song and national music. Coming into contact with this kind of music has certainly tended to raise the standard of taste. Concurrently with this there has been a vast improvement in school singing, and the performances of many schools could hardly be surpassed in any country for excellence of tone, accuracy, and interpretation.
The Future of Broadcasting
In the future development of musical knowlege and appreciation broadcasting may yet come to play a great part.
I hope that it will, though I must say at present I am not wholly in favour of it. Doubtless it is because of its comparative newness that it is still far from exact in conveying the original.
With the pianoforte it does so to a great extent, but it fails in regard to orchestral music. It gives the sounds, but not the colours on the orchestral palette. It would be foolish not to recognise the value of broadcasting in certain cases and under certain conditions, but listeners-in must guard against concluding that they hear the real sound produced by the orchestra.
A photographer may succeed in conveying a correct impression of a picture so far as the composition is concerned, but it gives no sort of the idea what the colouring is like. Similarly, through broadcasting we can get a very good notion of how the piece is made, but not of what the orchestra is really like, and in this respect, the wireless is inferior even to the photograph.
The danger is that people who never go to concerts may thus be led to misconceive altogether the sound of an orchestra, with the result that their ears will be corrupted through false standards. Probably the improvement which we may reasonably look for will remove this objection. All I can say is, the sooner the better.
The B.B.C. has been widely criticised for its choice of programmes, but I don't agree that they have done at all badly.
Naturally, there is plenty of scope for ammendment; but on the whole their choice of music ought not to be summarily condemned, despite the fact that many musicians go for them. The programmes, in my opinion, are better than might have been expected considering the number and diversity of tastes which have had to be considered. It is only fair to bear that in mind.
The programmes, in my opinion, are better than might have been expected considering the number and diversity of tastes which have had to be considered.
Music for Life
If we regard music as a part of our life, it will not be thought out of place for me to draw attention to the improved standard of music in our churches, both Established and Free.
This is largely, even mainly, due to the broadening of musical ideas generally, and to our interest in our own national style. Apart from books like "English Hymnal" and "Songs of Praise," which both have an Anglican origin, I should like to commend our new "Church Hymnary for the Presbyterian Church," which is a great advance on anything the Free Churches have yet done in this line.
Let us Broaden our ideas
Let me end as I began by urging the more intimate connection of music with our life.
Do not let us regard it as a kind of sweet thing which is just an indulgence or a luxury, but let us broaden our ideas as to the influence of art, and taking it with us into the street, into the office, and into the church, let us bring it into the lives of all with whom we come into contact.
The music we bear with us need not always be audible, but like the great poetry we store in our memory, fills our mind with pure and lofty thoughts which ennoble the soul.
Do not let us regard [music] as a kind of sweet thing which is just an indulgence or a luxury... let us bring it into the lives of all with whom we come into contact.