Music & Song
The website for Dr Martin Shaw OBE FRCM (1875 –1958)
"I was struck by how technically competent his compositions were and also by the broad range of styles and tempi "
Photo: The Michael Tippett Centre, Bath Spa University, where Martin Shaw’s songs were recorded for the first time.
Recording Shaw for the First Time
Professor George Odam writes about recording Martin Shaw’s songs for the first time.
First published in the British Music Society Journal, December 2011
Two years ago, sitting at the long green leathered reading desk in the hushed busyness of the British Library, I opened the first old, brown, hard-backed folio book on the soft black document reader, searching for songs by Martin Shaw who was born in London in 1875 and died in Suffolk in 1958. The online catalogue had identified each individual song but I had not expected them to arrive in a bound volume along with those of many other composers of the same generation and there was no index. The book was stiff to open and felt and smelt as though it had not often been consulted. I turned each page carefully, meeting composers and their songs I had never before encountered, until I arrived at the copy of Martin Shaw’s The Airmen.
I had chosen to start with this song since its title intrigued me and its date had told me that it had been written in or around the year of the Battle of Britain. I already knew just one of Shaw’s songs – Summer, on a poem by Christina Rossetti – and a handful of hymn tunes, such as Little Cornard (Hills of the North Rejoice) – so the first page of The Airmen came as a shock. As I read through all nine pages of this amazing song, they almost vibrated with the energy and rhythm of the music. I wanted to jump up and shatter the silence of the Rare Books and Music room with a ‘Eureka’ shout. Had I been working in the library of the Guildhall School, where I had recently been based, I would have rushed with the copy to the electric keyboard and earphones and played it through, but the British Library does not allow such a facility, so my excitement had to be contained. The music was immediately engaging and exciting, with a fluidity and driving sense of purpose that distinguished it as a composition by an experienced and skilled composer and the tough and vivid poem, by Margaret Armour, who died in 1943, was completely unknown to me.
Research into songs inevitably includes some wandering down the paths of poetry and the trail of Margaret Armour proved specially interesting. The poem was first published in The Times on May 28 1940 and has only recently reappeared in a selection of modern Scottish women poets. Although she died in 1943 her exact date of birth is not known, but is likely to predate Shaw by a decade or so. She is now remembered best as the first translator into English of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs (illustrated by Arthur Rackham) in the 1870s, and also as the first translator into English of the poems of Heinrich Heine. Margaret Armour wrote several sets of her own poems, perhaps the most fascinating being Thames Sonnets 1897, illustrated with beautiful and moving woodcuts, called Semblances by her husband William. B. Macdougall. The poems clearly predate T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land of 1922, and appear to have heavily influenced its writing, most particularly in the final and twelfth desolate stanza, Way for the Dead.
Her poem The Airmen gives a poetic account of the Battle of Britain using bird imagery to symbolise the heroic pilots:
Have you heard those birds of the morning
That rise with the lark’s first flight?
Have you seen those birds of shadow
That pounce with the owl at night?
They swoop where hell is flaming,
They soar in heav’n apart.
They soar with the eagle’s swiftness
And fight with the eagle’s heart.
Shaw appears to have taken the poem immediately to his heart having read it in The Times, and, since the song was published in 1941, is most likely to have completed it in the battle year of 1940 with the aerial conflicts still being fought in the skies above him. To anyone who lived through this fateful time, the sounds and figures Shaw chooses for the accompaniment ring true and awaken old fears of “Is it one of ours?”. The engines of the planes rumble in the rapid low triplets of the left hand while the air-raid sirens wail up and down in the right middle register. I am one who remembers these sounds in childhood and for me the song encapsulates the terror and heroic determination of those times. This song is one of the only contemporary art songs on this subject written by two British artists who had lived through the experience themselves, and it stands alongside the paintings of the war artists like Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer and poems of writers like Edmund Blunden and John Pudney.
Baritone Roderick Williams was the first of the three artists featured in the new recording to agree willingly to take part in the project and learn this repertoire that was entirely new to him. At the 2010 Ludlow Weekend of English Song, Williams had already enthusiastically sung the light and rustic setting by Shaw of John Masefield’s London Town, but his newly recorded stunning performance of The Airmen, so brilliantly and dramatically supported at the piano by the accompanist throughout the recording, Iain Burnside, is guaranteed to grab the attention of many listeners for whom Shaw is an unknown voice.
Indeed it was with Iain Burnside’s help and encouragement that this recording was able to take place. He and I had worked for some years as colleagues at the Guildhall School, most specially on his research into performance practice in extending song recitals into mini-dramas, and I managed to pin him down for an hour in a coffee shop near the Guildhall early in 2010. I had brought with me copies of over sixty Shaw songs in four folders and I opened the first folder at The Airmen.
Iain’s eyes showed an instant interest and he then turned to Jack Overdue, swritten the year after The Airmen and an obvious sequel to it. From then on he was hooked. Although not specified for voice, the poem and the tessitura, somewhat higher than many of Shaw’s other songs, Jack Overdue clearly suggested soprano.
Sophie Bevan had also willingly accepted the challenge of learning new repertoire for this first recording, and her insightful interpretation of this touching poem and lyrically moving song is set to become definitive. The poem Jack Overdue is by John Pudney (1909-77), noted at the heading of the song as Flight Lieutenant RAF, and the song is dedicated to the composer’s nephew Sebastian Shaw: Flt. Lt. RAF, son of Martin’s younger brother Geoffrey. Sebastian had a distinguished wartime career in the RAF and then became a well-known actor in Shakespeare at Stratford, in dramas in London’s West End and New York’s Broadway, in film and latterly in directing and writing. One of his last roles was as Darth Vader in Star Wars.
In 1941 Martin Shaw sent his nephew a copy of the new song Jack Overdue for which he was immediately thanked in a letter from Sebastian in which he writes in September 1942:
“I am proud and flattered that it is ‘mine’, thank you for it very much. I read music very sketchily but it looks great to me... I like the words immensely and I shall have to write to Pudney to tell him. He and I ‘went back to school together’ when we went through a disciplinary course at Loughborough. There we learned to be officers and gentlemen in three weeks – a rapid transformation you’ll agree.”
Jack Overdue tells a touching story set at the height of the worst days of the Second World War, in a base closed for the night, but where an 'ash-blonde Waaf is waiting tea' listening for news of her pilot lover Jack who is out flying over the ice ‘in the killer sea.’ Shaw sets these evocative and very contemporary words, tinged with irony and stoicism, in an insouciant and deceptively simple folk-influenced manner, throwing the words into sharp relief and only for a few seconds underlining the drama unfolding out at sea. To cap this, he forms the whole song into one long and instantly memorable strophic melody, which is a rare achievement. Like so many of Shaw’s other songs, Jack Overdue is short, direct, controlled but containing a great many inflexions and expressive moments that demand contemplation and reflection through repeated hearings.
Together with The Airmen, Jack Overdue represents the composition of contemporary music of World War Two that does not appear, to my knowledge, in any other British composer’s art songs and ranks alongside the best work of the official war artists and poets as music’s representative. These two songs should have their place in the Imperial War Museum! Bringing these songs to life again alone made the effort of research, gaining sponsorship, finding artists and recording companies and venues worth it.
Andrew Kennedy had arrived for the recording session early on May Day 2011, having flown in from performing in Boston Massachusetts only the day before. With the inspiring dedication shown by so many professional artists, Andrew was early for the recording session the next morning, and took the opportunity to take an early morning walk in the Spring sunshine through the beautiful English parkland in which the elegant Michael Tippett Centre stands near Bath, where we were invited to record all the songs. Bath Spa University had agreed to become a major sponsor of this project, and their generosity was the final act that allowed the project to proceed. Andrew’s reaction to learning Martin Shaw’s songs for the first time was very positive. He wrote to me a few weeks later:
I was struck by how technically competent his (Shaw’s) compositions were and also by the broad range of styles and tempi in his music. He has a good understanding of the effects his songs have on the listener and as a result they have an immediacy and freshness that makes them very easy to interpret and perform. I hope to be able to use them in my future English song programmes not least for contrast as, unlike some of his contemporaries, he favours the slightly brisker tempi!
In the tenor range there are no such historically interesting songs as The Airmen, but few composers successfully set the immensely popular poetry of Rudyard Kipling and Shaw’s joyful interpretation of Kipling’s Heffle Cuckoo Fair 1909 is a real audience pleaser. ‘Heffle’ is a local pronunciation of the Sussex village of Heathfield, located just a few miles west of Kipling’s home at Batemans near Burwash. Local legend has it that Spring begins on April 14th when a fair is held in Heathfield and an old woman releases the first cuckoo from her basket. The fair is still held annually and children are taught the Cuckoo song. Heffle Cuckoo Fair is one of several on poems chosen by Shaw with a theme of the cuckoo and Spring that will feature in this recording. It has an infectious energy with cuckoo calls resounding throughout the busy A major piano figurations, and the lilting melody, ending with a joyous ossia top A that Andrew took with eager delight, is one that sticks in the mind for weeks after. This is the first of four Kipling poems that Shaw set to music in 1919 just after the end of the Great War and the tragic death of his brother Jules near Arras in Artois, northern France, in the last months of that terrible conflict. The others, Pity Poor Fighting Men, Brookland Road and The Egg Shell are all featured in this first recording of Shaw’s songs, and all three performed by Roderick Williams.
One of the several distinctive aspects of Shaw’s writing is the absence of the introspective ‘dying fall’ so prevalent in his contemporaries, especially those who can be counted as English Pastoralists. So many of Shaw’s songs, even those that deal with highly dramatic subjects, are upbeat and strongly sculpted, never dwelling on anxiety and fateful thought, but rather showing a strength of purpose, delight in the natural world and sometimes almost a happy defiance. Throughout his life Shaw was dogged with ill health and having been born with a serious and, in those days, highly socially embarrassing naevus or port-wine stain covering the whole of the left side of his face, he had found the inner energy to defy these drawbacks and his exuberant embracing of life’s gifts is constantly expressed in his music.
A fine example of this will be found in Roderick Williams’ vigorously defiant interpretation of the well-known poem Invictus by the equally unknown poet W.E.Henley, whose phrase: ‘bloody but unbowed’ and whose lines: ‘I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.’ have entered the national consciousness. Shaw set this in 1920 at the time when he took up his new post as organist at St. Martin’s in the Fields and also as Director of Music for the Guildhouse Fellowship, the renegade church set up behind Victoria station by Maude Royden, a pioneer for women in the Anglican church and their right to preach and eventually to be ordained. Roderick Williams himself also showed a courageous approach, arriving at the recording session with his left arm in a sling supporting a broken collar-bone. This was yet another mark of strong professionalism and it must have been painful to sing from ten in the morning until five in the evening, but he made no complaint and appeared not to be affected by it.
The song Invictus is in highly dramatic parlando style in D minor with thundering dotted chords supporting a strong vocal line whose rhythmic word setting is very sensitive to speech rhythm and gives a hint of the influence Purcell’s music had on Shaw’s early career. Again it stands out stylistically from most of his contemporaries and is one of the many songs that contain tantalizing suggestions of what the opera Shaw hoped to write with theatrical genius and great friend Edward Gordon Craig, could have been like.
Sophie Bevan’s day of recording began with the rapturous setting of Rossetti’s poem Summer, written by Shaw at the height of the First World War in 1917 but focusing only on the beauties of the English countryside. Summer was written specifically with the soprano voice in mind and it is athletic in line with an ear-catching melody and vigorous accompaniment figures, changing with ebb and flow of tempi and texture as the poem describes flora and fauna with the colour and detail evocative of that of Pre- Raphaelite painting. This song had been a favourite for advanced amateurs in the pre- war thirties and for a time, after the second World War, but has apparently dropped from the repertoire completely in the last decades.
Paul Baxter of the relatively new independent Delphian Records had made the journey from Edinburgh to Bath to supervise and direct the recording. He single-handedly built and mounted the equipment and directed the proceedings over the three days with calm and supreme attention to musical detail. For Paul, Shaw was an unknown composer and by the end of the recordings he was certainly a convert. In his regular blog he recorded the experience recently, writing that:
We were graciously received in the gorgeous surroundings of Bath Spa University’s Michael Tippett Centre. Iain Burnside has put together a disc of music by the composer Martin Shaw – this guy really is the forgotten link between Ralph Vaughan Williams and Ben Britten! The singers were Sophie Bevan, Roderick Williams and Andrew Kennedy. What a joyous three days we spent unearthing these gems of song.
Since then Paul has already discussed how we can make a special effort in the production of a CD that he considers to be very important to the history of British song. The one question everyone asks me is why Martin Shaw’s songs have been completely neglected over the last thirty years or so, and the answer is unclear. The first is that changes in taste are unpredictable and often composers suffer a sharp decline in interest in their music after their deaths. In the second half of his life, Martin Shaw dedicated much of his time to the writing and promotion of church music that was directed mainly at good amateurs and to encouraging congregational participation. Liturgical music has been in something of a decline in the national consciousness and those who remembered Shaw knew him either for this kind of work, promoting the congregational singing of hymns or, in the older generation, for his many works for schools and young people. If there is an emphasis on liturgical music now, it is on both the historic and the more demanding music written for professional choirs. In this country we have a huge benefit in the survival of cathedral choirs and the attendant repertoire, but this does not encourage a more congregational approach to church music.
In both areas of practical composition, both the media and the critics have a tendency to pigeon-hole composers who have skills in writing for amateurs and young performers and maybe consider them automatically second-rate. Most of Shaw’s songs were written with the good amateur in mind and this and his approach to church music fitted well with his strong dedication to Christian Socialism. His catalogue abounds with songs and arrangements for schools and young people, and this is a resource that awaits further research and action.
A more modern emphasis on and searching for professionalism rather than amateurism and the search for virtuosic performance has drawn attention away from much of this more modestly aimed music. Tastes change easily in a world of rapid communication and the world that Martin Shaw portrayed best in his music was very much that of the first half of the last century. But now, with variety and choice dominating the music market, maybe this is the right time for many to become familiar again with the art of this modest man, whose unassuming attitude, dedication to causes and strong views on the function of music in society led him into the wilderness of neglect for many years.
There should be more than thirty songs on the Delphian disc to be released early in 2012 and none of this would have been possible without significant help from our sponsors including UridisC, RVW Trust, John Ireland Trust and other private contributors.
George Odam Emeritus Professor 19 May 2011