Music & Song
The website for Dr Martin Shaw OBE FRCM (1875 –1958)
"He would arrive for the festival or conference dressed in riding breeches, his personal and musical luggage dwarfed by a huge double-handled saw roped together with an axe, a smaller saw and several heavy iron wedges"
A portrait of Martin Shaw's daughter, the journalist Elizabeth Montgomery Campbell , taken in 1963
A Daughter's Recollection of her Father
To commemorate Martin Shaw's Centenary, his daughter Elizabeth Montgomery Campbell (known as Mary Elizabeth) wrote this piece for the Royal School of Church Music. It was published in 1975, and is given as a reference in the monograph on Martin Shaw in Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
MARTIN SHAW is still the most remarkable man that I have ever known. Time has tempered the uncritical hero-worship of my youth, and I can see him with an objectivity which once would have seemed unthinkingly disloyal. But I have never met anyone who combined the gifts of warmth, humour, integrity and pioneering zeal as he did; or who had such a rare blend of humility and authority.
He was born in 1875 – not such a statement of the obvious as it might appear, for at least two well known reference books give the date as 1876. This is because at one time he forgot what it was himself, and filled in their forms wrongly. He was the eldest of nine children – two brothers and four sisters survived childhood, the younger of the brothers being Geoffrey, who developed with Martin a partnership of mutual devotion and shared musical beliefs.
James, the father, was a Yorkshireman and a gifted musician with some published works to his name. He was also an endearing eccentric who seemed destined to be one of life’s victims. Anxious to impress an aristocratic pupil, he would go through the lesson and ceremonious bowing out to the carriage unaware that he had forgotten to put a collar on his shirt. Smuggled by a friend into an architects’ conference attended by royalty, it had to be James who was singled out by HRH to answer an abstruse question on building design. Determined to punish my father for repeatedly failing to practice the piano before breakfast, he swept into the bedroom one morning at 6.30, flung back the bedclothes and administered the first slap before discovering that an elderly aunt had been given Martin’s room for the night. His tactlessness was legendary; my family never needed to kick one another under the table to advert an awkward situation – simply to murmur “James” was enough.
James Shaw moved from Leeds to Edinburgh and thence to London, where he became organist at Hampstead parish church. Martin and Geoffrey were organists in their teens, Martin becoming assistant to his father. Eccentricity notwithstanding, James was a loving father who encouraged his sons to develop their musical talents and was proud of their achievements. Martin went to the Royal College of Music where he studied under Stanford, for whom he had a great respect, and mixed with such fellow-students as Vaughan Williams, Holst, Ireland, Rutland Boughton, Coleridge-Taylor, Dunhill and others who were later to become well known musicians.
But it was at the College that he left the first stirrings of the dissenting fervour that eventually shaped his career –though to begin with his feelings were mostly negative. He could not respond to the College ethos. Something was missing – something he instinctively felt to be of vital importance, though he did not yet know what it was. To understand this, it is necessary to understand the whole musical background against which Martin grew up, and which is almost impossible for us to appreciate today unless we have heard it described by someone who knew what it was like.
In the late 1890’s the only good composer was a German one. Outside a small esoteric circle the names of the Tudor composers, Purcell, Boyce, Arne and other 16th to 18th century English musicians were unknown. Such early English music as was published had been ruthlessly ‘ironed out’ to confirm to Victorian ideas of harmony. Folksong, if it was known, was simply a rustic curiosity. The Victorians themselves, content to worship at German shrines, encouraged students to model themselves on Brahms and Beethoven and tacitly accepted that England was only capable of producing minor musical talents. It was a monstrous and seemingly impregnable wall of prejudice.
What Martin had missed at the College was “Englishness”, the name he gave it, which would perhaps have been better understood fifty years ago than it would be today. But if nationalism is an unacceptable concept in England now (unlike Scotland, Wales, Ireland or Cornwall) we should remember the years of strenuous campaigning that were needed to restore English music to its rightful place and make it so secure that it no longer had to be fought for. In this campaign Martin Shaw was a leading figure.
Martin left the College prematurely, “unhonoured and certainly unsung” as he wrote in his reminiscences, Up to Now. He became one of the original Bohemians, affecting long hair, a wide-brimmed hat, cloak and sandals, mixing in London with artists like Augustus John, Jacob Epstein and the Beggarstaff Brothers as well as with his musical contemporaries. But it was in Southwold, the beloved Suffolk coastal town where his family went regularly on holiday and where he eventually retired, that he met the first great influence on his life – the actor and artist Gordon Craig. With Craig he played dominoes in the Sailors’ Reading Room, joined the pierrots on the beach, walked and talked among the lanes and marshes. The outcome was the decision to share a house in Hampstead, where Craig was to be the producer for the Purcell Operatic Society which Martin had just founded.
Their joint productions received critical acclaim but foundered on financial rocks, neither having thought about the need for capital backing. After two or three years, the Purcell Operatic Society ceased activities and Craig returned to other enterprises; he had already published such periodicals as The Page and The Mask, lovingly printed on handcrafted paper and illustrated by original woodcuts and engravings. Here were presented the first of Martin’s songs to be published, including the delicate Song of the Palanquin Bearers, which is still selling today.
The friendship proved to be an enduring one. For a time Martin was brought in by Craig to conduct for Isadora Duncan on her European tours, and after they finally parted company, the two men kept up a correspondence lasting until Martin’s death in 1958. It was undoubtedly Craig who fostered the theatrical side of Martin’s nature and inspired him to begin writing for the stage. But at the time of their parting Martin found himself without work or money, still at thirty years old with hardly any compositions in print, existing largely on jobs given him by friends – including research into manuscripts at the British Museum for his other great life-long friend, Vaughan Williams, who was preparing The English Hymnal for publication. A daunting handicap was the extensive birthmark which disfigured one side of Martin’s face and forced him to endure stares and whispers wherever he went – it was not until the return of badly maimed soldiers from the First World War that the public began to learn compassion and tolerance for physical deformity.
Many people have said how quickly the warmth and charm of Martin’s personality made them forget his disfigurement completely, and of course as children we simply did not notice it. But it was never to be mentioned, and this taboo may not have been best for him. I do not know what his private sufferings may have been – even to my mother he only referred to it once, to say “I am as God made me”. But it must have taken enormous courage and determination for him to achieve the marvellous audience-holding qualities which made him so sought after as lecturer, adjudicator, teacher and conductor. He never allowed this handicap to prevent him from living a public life to the full; and I believe it was in his mind when he ended Up to Now by commending the maxim “Damn braces, bless relaxes”.
In 1908 there came an offer which was not only to lift him out of his immediate troubles but to begin a far-reaching partnership. Percy Dearmer invited him to become organist and choirmaster at St Mary’s, Primrose Hill. Dearmer was that rare thing among parsons – one whose enlightened, not to say revolutionary, ideas on worship are matched by an equal respect for high artistic standards in church. So many avant-garde parsons take a totally permissive view which includes giving congregations bad music and accepting low standards of singing if that is what the congregation wants. Dearmer shared Martin’s passionate belief that only the best in art should be offered in church, and that it was the professionals’ job to help congregations to appreciate the best rather than indulge uninformed tastes.
By the time he joined Dearmer, Martin had already begun to discover folksong, which was to be the dominant influence on his own music. But he had never before heard plainsong, and did not even understand its notation. (Neither folksong nor plainsong had so much as been mentioned during his time at the College.) St Mary’s already had a reputation for its plainsong singing, and Martin immediately responded to the purity and haunting beauty of the ancient modes. He later wrote: “My ten years at St Mary’s removed the bar line for me and taught me the value of fluid rhythm and of just verbal accentuation”. To some extent he applied this principle also to the singing of Anglican chants, though he never approved of speech rhythm when this was introduced, believing that to try and impose it on the Anglican chant produced an unacceptable hybrid.
At St Mary’s he taught himself the light, unobtrusive style of modal accompaniment which plainsong demanded, and also used The English Hymnal for the first time. Both were revelations to him and important formative influences. The partnership with Dearmer was a happy one, lasting long after Martin had handed over the music to his brother Geoffrey; and its outcome was, of course, the collaboration with Dearmer on Songs of Praise and The Oxford Book of Carols.
The outbreak of war found Martin just beginning to make a name for himself, though at nearly forty he had still earned no more than ten guineas from his own published compositions. Ill-health was already beginning to show itself; much later he was diagnosed as diabetic, but at this time the symptoms of lassitude and failing eye-sight were not linked with the disease.
In 1916 he met and married Joan Cobbold, the young Director of Music at Whitelands Teacher Training College in Chelsea, and a native of his much loved Suffolk. It was a highly unlikely union: she was fifteen years younger than Martin, copper-haired and attractive, with a traditional county background. Perhaps in her mind he took the place of the younger brother born with a hare-kip whom she had for so long protected and helped to bring up, eventually pulling strings to get him into the Army, where he spent only four weeks at the front before being killed. Certainly she married Martin with the intention of devoting herself to him and his career, never expecting that he would want children. As time went on she gradually took over all aspects of their life except for this actual creative work, becoming secretary, librettist, and chauffeuse, running the family’s affairs and finances, supervising the children’s education at schools chosen by herself, buying all Martin’s clothes. Whether this situation was altogether right is perhaps arguable, but it cannot be denied that Martin found his direction and began to achieve success from the time of his marriage.
He began to direct his energies into more positive channels. Folksong was still his greatest influence, and like other composers of his generation he used folksong themes as the basis for much that he wrote. Even his music for the children’s play Brer Rabbit, that all-American folk tale, included lovesongs based on the opening of O Waly Waly – and very moving they are. For although he was becoming more and more concerned with the music of the Church, he was also writing music for the stage – the West End stage, no longer semi-private or club performances. Commissions were increasing and his reputation was growing fast.
Had he been a different person he might now have gone on to become a writer of major works; but the reforming spirit was too strong in him to allow this to happen. He chose instead to limit his output chiefly to composing and editing for the young, the musically uninformed and the parish choir – those who could be guided and helped towards an appreciation of the best things in music, who did not already have idées fixes like many cathedral and professional musicians.
At the same time he continued to write songs which professional singers performed widely and which are, perhaps, the best of all his music because they were truly inspired and not written to fulfill a need like quite a lot of his church music.
The next ten years saw Martin at the height of his abilities and influence. As well as composing for the theatre, the church and major festivals, he travelled widely on his mission of personally communicating his beliefs to as many people as possible. Lecturing, adjudicating, conducting, contributing to music journals, broadcasting, even preaching, he drove home his message: take pride in the English musical tradition, sing with vigour and joyfulness rather than sentimentality, never knowingly accept shoddy standards but offer to God the best of which you are capable. It was a message that found a wide response among clergy, people and Press. Of course he had critics and made enemies – he and Geoffrey were once described as “the bumptious brothers Shaw” – but this was natural enough.
During this period he also found time to act as joint musical editor with Ralph Vaughan Williams on Songs of Praise and The Oxford Book of Carols, and to write his reminiscences Up to Now –though by his own admission he wrote it in rather a hurry and condensed some of the most interesting years of his life into a few pages at the end. The book nevertheless was highly praised by the critics; today some of the humour seems dated but when it was written, it demonstrated a rare offbeat sense of humour which set it apart from other books of its kind.
It has always been my regret that as the youngest of the family I remember little of this time when his career was at its peak. There are patchy memories of dinner parties for well known people, the comings and goings of secretaries and copyists, piles of Press cuttings, discussions about research, performances and publications. I can remember doing a childish drawing for Ralph Vaughan Williams, and I still have the beautiful reproduction of a Book of Hours illustration, The Exit from the Ark , which he gave me in return. But when the rest of the family went to hear a Martin Shaw cantata commissioned for the Three Choirs Festival I was sent to stay with relations; and I still suffer from a feeling of deprivation at having been told so often (and doubtless quite rightly) that I was too young to go everywhere my brothers went. It was not until 1936, when my father had turned sixty and we moved to Essex, where he had been appointed diocesan music organiser, that I really became aware of his work.
But by that time, most of his activities on a national scale had come to an end. One reason was his continually deteriorating health. Only a year or two after his marriage he had been ordered to live and work on a farm for a time, to try and improve his condition. Either marriage, or the farm, or both, did bring about an improvement, enabling him to keep up his natural inclination for hard physical exercise. Riding and woodcutting became his favourite relaxations. Before accepting a travelling engagement lasting for several days, he would insist that his hosts provide him with a horse to ride and a tree to saw during leisure moments. He would arrive for the festival or conference dressed in riding breeches, his personal and musical luggage dwarfed by a huge double-handled saw roped together with an axe, a smaller saw and several heavy iron wedges. Riding he kept up until he was seventy, when arthritis in his legs forced him to give up; but his arms never lost their power and he was still sawing and splitting logs a few weeks before his death at the age of eighty-three.
The move to Essex may also have been partly motivated by my mother’s desire to provide us – too late as it turned out – with the kind of country background she had had herself. Whatever the reason, it had the predictable effect of reducing my father’s sphere of activities by removing him from the centre of musical life in London. By now, however, he had to a great extent achieved what he had set out to do. Despite its critics, Songs of Praise was finding a special place among the more progressive churches and particularly in schools, where its educational properties would be most valuable. The Oxford Book of Carols, with its numerous originally researched tunes, was also proving popular, and had no rival in its own field. Sheet music was still widely sold at this time and Martin’s songs, both for professional singers and schools, were sung everywhere. He had received the Lambeth D. Mus, together with Geoffrey, and he had been chosen to represent English church musicians at the enthronement of Archbishop Lang. The Guardian had expressed a widely held view when in 1931 it said that “no living man has done more for English church music”.
As for the crusade on behalf of English music, this had now triumphed through a combination of Martin’s efforts, the example of his contemporaries and the work of bodies like the English Folk Dance and Song Society, with which he had been closely connected. Indeed, the musical élite were beginning to get rather bored with it, and the first groundswell of resistance was beginning to make itself felt. These feelings found expression in Constant Lambert’s book Music Ho! Published in 1936, and containing sweeping condemnations of musical pastiche and nationalism. It was too soon for Lambert to understand and appreciate the reasons behind the movement – in England at any rate – which he wanted to end; he saw only that it was becoming an anachronism on an international scale, and ought now to be abandoned. Indeed, there is a certain amusement to be gained from reading his assertion that the reason why composers had chosen to go back in time for their inspiration was because the potentialities of the language of music had now been fully exploited, and no further new experiments by composers were possible.
Thus it was perhaps the right time for Martin to leave the national scene and devote himself to grass roots work among the schools and congregations of Essex. His influence was still, of course, considerable, and there were many fine compositions yet to come; but the new appointment gave him the kind of day-to-day work that exactly suited him, although the salary barely paid his expenses and he found driving across the country tiring – even though he did not drive himself. He was essentially flexible, and would devote as much time and energy to a hymn festival made up of three or four choirs from tiny country parishes as to the writing of a major work, turning from one to the other without difficulty.
When we were home for the holidays we often went with him to help swell the numbers – my brother Diccon, as a tenor, was particularly valuable. We thus absorbed, even if we could never entirely reproduce, his conducting techniques. He seemed to be able to charm out of a village choir music of a standard they had not known they could reach – and would perhaps never reach again. He did it mainly through sheer will power and personality, projecting his own enthusiasm and vigour with almost hypnotic power. Startled choirs found themselves singing hymns twice as fast as usual and with a new gusto, their habitual Sunday drone completely forgotten. His teaching was a revelation to them, and almost without exception, they loved it.
By this time he was half-blind, able to read only with the help of a strong magnifying glass, and relying on my mother’s tactful background presence to find his places for him. I know that this was intensely frustrating for him, but I am afraid his children regarded his bad sight as hilariously funny. We waited with delighted anticipation for the situations into which it led him. We watched him tell a row of diminutive choirboys to stand up when they were about to sing, receiving the timid reply: “Please sir, we are standing up”. Better still was the occasion when he admonished a choir that was ‘sitting out’ during the rehearsing of an anthem, saying: “Why aren’t you singing? Every choir should be joining in this. Whose choir are you?” They answered, “Yours, sir”. It was true – he had brought along his own choir from Writtle Church, where he played each Sunday, solely in order to sing in the final item, which he felt needed stiffening. Best of all was the time he said, as we drove home from a lecture he had given, “That woman at the back of the hall asked some good questions” – quite unaware that it was my mother trying to help things along. It was the same at home; we once watched him fill his glass from a bottle of vinegar and drink the first mouthful under the impression that it was a bottle of beer. None of us would have dreamed of spoiling the joke by warning him in advance.
Perhaps this callous attitude had a bracing effect. Certainly he hardly ever complained and was always ready to join the laughter. But I am not sure that it was good for us to be so unfeeling, even though we were following his own strongly held principle that there was always something funny to be found in adversity.
For part of the Second World War he continue his work, driven by my mother through the blackout and across unposted country lanes in search of remote villages whose signs had been taken down. During this time, too, he wrote his oratorio The Redeemer, which he considered his best work. But in due course he decided the time had come to retire. By way of two houses in Blythburgh, Suffolk, which like our Essex homes lacked electricity and drains and were variously equipped with earth closets, oil lamps and pumps, he and my mother made the pilgrimage back to Southwold, where they lived in a fine cliff-top house which was part of a listed Regency building converted just after the war into separate homes.
Here Martin continue to work until just before his death, his last major compositions being the anthem God’s Grandeur, commissioned for the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, and a cantata, The Changing year, written in 1950. In these last years he wrote a number of anthems, songs and canticles as well as undertaking editing and arranging. He now had to walk with the aid of two sticks, but whatever the weather he went out every day, either to saw wood in the waste ground behind the house or to buy to tobacco, which he carried in a satchel slung across his back. He craved fresh air – perhaps partly a symptom of his diabetes – and the coldness of the house in winter was simply part of the environment of sea and Southwold which he loved as deeply as in the days eighty years before when his family first came there.
I said at the beginning of this article that I thought I could now see him objectively as a man, a father and a musician. As a man he is almost impossible to describe – but I hope that something of what he was has come through. His strongest characteristics were perhaps those I have already singled out: humour, integrity, authority and humility. To describe Martin as a father is quite simple; he adored his children and we adored him. Very occasionally, goaded by my mother, he would ‘speak to’ one of my brothers about some shortcoming, but he never once did so to me and I do not remember his ever uttering a cross word to me in his life. At the time it seemed a perfect relationship, but I realise now that by opting out of the disagreeable disciplinary aspects of parenthood he placed an unfair burden on my mother, who had to take on the roles of both father and mother and was the exclusive target of our adolescent rebelliousness.
His stature as a musician I am not really qualified to assess. I know what he did and why he did it, and I know that the best of his music is fine and moving and that this has been felt by thousands of other people as well as myself. I have often sat beside him on the organ stool and marveled at the brilliance of his retiring voluntaries, many of which I am sure would have done better if published than some of his more pedestrian works which were usually written to order, or to be helpful to small choirs. I think it is a pity that so much of what he wrote was commissioned for special occasions and was thus never performed again; I hope that some of his finest songs, now out of print, may one day be published again when the period he represents becomes of historical interest to the musical opinion-formers. I hope, too, that the movement he led will find a new understanding and appreciation of its importance, even if its message can never again seem fresh and revolutionary.
Martin Shaw died in Southwold in 1958 at the age of eighty-three. I was abroad and unable to come home, so I was spared the anguish of seeing him endure his last, painful illness. His ashes were buried in Southwold churchyard under a tablet bearing his name and the words ‘Jubilate Deo’. He is commemorated in the coat of arms of the Choral Foundation of the Chapel Royal in the Tower of London; this coat of arms was presented by my mother in his memory, and it incorporates a house-martin and a group of trees or shaw. By coincidence the motto chosen for the Foundation was ‘Jubilate’.
© 1975 Elizabeth Montgomery Campbell. Abridged from an article originally published in the quarterly magazine of the Royal School of Church Music.