Music & Song
The website for Dr Martin Shaw OBE FRCM (1875 –1958)
"John Ireland liked these and thought one of them—' Venizel'— my best song."
Martin Shaw in Up to Now
Venizel with its bridge near the French town of Soissons. The nearby woods and orchards can be seen on the banks of the river Aisne. The steep slopes of the terrain where the Prussian guns were stationed can be seen to the north-east of Bucy-le-long.
This article taken from 3 Songs by Martin Shaw by Professor George Odam, published in The Finzi Journal December 2011
The Call to Arms in 1914
When the call to arms came in 1914, Martin Shaw volunteered but was turned down at the medical examination and ‘relegated to the reserve’. Instead he joined the voluntary home soldiering group called The United Arts Rifles and wrote amusingly about being sent to guard the Albert Hall and feeling that he would have preferred to destroy both it and the memorial opposite rather than guard it!
Six Songs of War
Another of his contributions to the war effort was to write a set of six songs called Six Songs of War, which were published by OUP under some influence from Dearmer. The first four songs, Battle Song of the Fleet at Sea, Called Up, England for Flanders and Erin United are jingoistic ballads and thump their tubs in the manner most approved of music hall artists and luncheon club singers of the time. Number 5 of Six Songs of War, Carillons, has some musical merit and interest with its ostinato bass and high piano clusters imitating the bells of Flanders, although the poem by a French popular singer Dominique Bonnaud, does not provide a sound basis for success.
Venizel Shows Shaw’s Best Qualities
It is the sixth song Venizel that shows Shaw’s best qualities. Shaw wrote:
The feelings inspired by the beginning of the war stirred me afresh to composition, which I had almost abandoned. I wrote six 'Songs of War'—mostly settings of verses from The Times. John Ireland liked these and thought one of them—' Venizel'— my best song.......Percy Dearmer persuaded the Oxford University Press to publish these, and so to make, I believe, their first essay in music publishing.
Venizel proves to be interesting both aesthetically and historically since it was written by a soldier on active service at the front in the first weeks of the war.
Captain W.A. Short
This poem was by Captain W.A. Short written in northern France in September 1914 just a month or so after the beginning of the conflict. Short lived to become a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Field Artillery 286th Brigade, but died in June 1917 and was buried near Armentières.
The poem states “Last week we crossed...” and the crossing of the River Aisne to which this refers took place on September 13th 1914, dating the poem to sometime after September 20th 1914. Shaw must have set it to music within weeks of its writing and the events it described.
The British Expeditionary Force
The British Expeditionary Force had crossed over into Belgium some three weeks earlier in late August 1914. They were first pushed back some two hundred miles before they could consolidate with French troops at the River Marne and advance north-eastwards until, too weary to advance further, they camped on the bank of the River Aisne. Venizel is a small country town in Picardie by the river, with gardens and orchards in which Captain Short’s brigade was able to take shelter; others had to make do with open fields.
Cruelly Exposed to German Gunfire
Beyond the fields of Venizel, across the river was a steep chalk escarpment on top of which, unknown to the advancing British, the German troops had firmly dug themselves in. The British needed to press on and mount the scarp opposite to continue to build on their success and push the German troops further back towards the German border. After a short rest, during the night of September 13th the British troops crossed the Aisne on pontoons or over partially destroyed bridges including the one at Venizel. The river crossing took place in darkness and a thick river mist, but as the early autumn sun rose and the mist cleared, the British troops were cruelly exposed to German gunfire hailing down on them from above before they could scale the escarpment. The only protection they could seek was underground and the whole force was ordered to entrench on September 14th and the ensuing impasse lasted for years rather than hours or days.
The Beginning of Trench Warfare
This was the beginning of trench warfare and so unprepared were they for such an eventuality that the officers sent soldiers out to scour local villages and farms to requisition shovels and picks with which to dig the improvised holes and trenches.
Prussian gunfire similar to that used to fire on British troops crossing the Aisne at Venizel
The poem must have been written in a few hours of rest during this feverish activity, always exposed to bombardment from above and the song encapsulates this action.
In the poem Captain Short looks back to the day before the crossing when they had all rested in the gardens of Venizel by the Aisne, supplementing their army rations with the sweet black plums growing there.
Reflects on the Devastation
The devastation that took place the next morning as his troops crossed the river lies heavy on him and disillusion seems to be creeping into his heart. In the last verse he stirs himself with understandable defiance trying to convince himself that the war will be over by Christmas, as so many people thought it would, but the dramatic gesture already sounds hollow.
A Pastoral in the Midst of Bloody Chaos
This touching pastoral in the midst of the bloody chaos of battle brings out the best in Shaw and he finds a lyrical strain of melodic arches that rise each time until they reach a high point where the poet remembers with sorrow the recently dead comrades under his command.
The Last Verse
The last verse returns to the gentle regret of the first and appears to be wanting to turn time back. The sudden twist of defiance in the poem is much ameliorated by the continuing melodic arch and the only concession Shaw makes to the military clenched fist is in the fortissimo marking. With hindsight the confusion between the melody and the words at the end seems doubly poignant knowing how futile such words proved to be.
The Opening Dominant Seventh
The simple but poignant use of the opening dominant seventh in third inversion in the opening chord of the piano accompaniment starts the song with a tension that is immediately released with a series of four arching phrases, each rising higher until the perfectly placed climax note is reached.
Precursor to Benjamin Britten
It is this kind of melodic writing that is a precursor of the kind of lyrical word setting at which Benjamin Britten excelled and Britten clearly knew and valued Shaw’s work when he invited him to contribute a new work to the opening concert of the very first Aldeburgh Festival, telling Shaw that it would be a ‘great loss’ if a new Suffolk Festival was without a contribution from him. Rarely did Shaw take on the English Pastoral style, but in this song he deserves a place among those of his more well-known and often performed contemporaries.
Shaw’s Directness and Simplicity
Across his song repertoire Shaw’s approach differs from them in many respects, mostly in his directness and simplicity of expression and also in its positivism and hopefulness even when engaging with such a touching subject, and his ready wit and humour. The dying fall of Delius, Finzi and Howells is not his way and he is nearest in this respect to the music of his greatest friend and ally Vaughan Williams.
Individual and Engaging
Shaw’s song writing has a robustness and objectivity that is individual and engaging, with an easy appeal to audiences in performance and his songs deserve a much wider audience and serious consideration by our present-day professionals.
© 2011 Professor George Odam