Oratorio : The Redeemer


Shaw regarded The Redeemer as his finest work, and in turn it is regarded as one of the best oratorios of the 20th century – by those who know it.


MSTrust logo THE REDEEMER an Oratorio for Lent
(words selected by Joan Cobbold)

for Soprano, Alto, Tenor & Bass solo
full SATB chorus, organ or orchestra
duration 52 minutes:

Part I: The Conflict of Good and Evil - 11 minutes
Part II: Agony and Betrayal - 16.31 minutes
Part III: The Crucifixion - 25 minutes
Final Chorus - 2.50 minutes

2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings


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Martin Shaw felt that The Redeemer was his finest work. It was written after his retirement as Diocesan Director of Music for the See of Essex in 1940.
Its theme is the Passion of Christ; the words, selected by Shaw’s wife Joan Cobbold, are taken from the Gospels and poetry written between the 4th and 20th centuries.

It was widely admired at the time of its publication, not least by Shaw’s life-long friend and colleague, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who said that it was “a notable work, and ought to be sung everywhere”.

Written with Shaw’s expert flexibility for choral music, it can be sung by large or small choirs, in cathedral, church or village; to be accompanied by either an orchestra or an organ.

The harmonies are not difficult , and there are no awkward leads. However the organ accompaniment (if there is to be one) needs a competent organist, and the sopranos need to be able to sing top A comfortably if they are to sing the optional final chorus “Praise to the Holiest in the Height”.

The work is divided into three parts, each exploring an aspect of the Christian story and the human response to it.


Part I 'The Conflict of Good and Evil'

deals with man's sin and the Incarnation; it covers some of the metaphors Christ used to describe himself, such as "I am the bread of life" and ends with a human response to those claims: That I believe and take it.

Part II 'The Agony and Betrayal'

covers the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, Christ's time praying in the Garden of Gesthemane, again ending with our human response: Thou art my way... O Thou that are my Light, my Life, my Way!

Part III, 'The Crucifixion',

covers the trial, the actions of the Roman soldiers, and Christ's words on the cross. Again the section ends with our human response: Lord Jesus think on me/... and make me pure within. After this there is a short silence, followed by an optional chorus: "Praise to the Holiest in the Height".

For a church performance

the congregation join in the singing of a hymn before each part, and in response at the end.



The work was conceived in 1943, during World War Two. The theme is the redeeming power of Christ's death on the cross; although not explicit in the text of The Redeemer, the work can be seen seen as Shaw’s response to the sacrifice of so many being made at the time: Greater love hath no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13

Prior to this Martin had been at work on the first edition of National Anthems of the World, and then in the second half of 1943 he and Joan seem to have started work on The Redeemer. He sent it to the music publisher Joseph Williams in July 1944 who replied with an immediate 'yes', calling it 'inspired' and thought that 'any publisher.. should welcome it with open arms.'


First Publication and BBC Broadcast

Desptite the paper shortages of the time it was published shortly before Christmas 1944. The BBC took an immediate interest and prepared to record it for broadcasting. This was done at their Manchester studios, and was broadcast on Saturday March 10th 1945 on the Home Service - with Ada Alsop as soprano, Margaret McArthur as contralto, Jan van der Gucht as tenor, and Henry Cummings as bass.

Following its publication and broadcast, the work was performed around the world – from Hastings to Auckland - and especially in America, where it was performed from Hollywood to New York.


Critical Acclaim

Ralph Vaughn Williams liked the work very much, and wrote to Martin in February 1944, after playing right through The Redeemer saying:

"It is a notable work and ought to be done everywhere. "


The week after its broadcast on the BBC, the Radio Times letters page published this letter from W.F. Weekes, of Sittingbourne:

"Martin Shaw deserves the thanks of every choirmaster for giving us such a gem as THE REDEEMER. Of the recent new works, most have been far beyond the capacity of the average choir, but Martin Shaw has shown that we who, in a small way, strive to keep good music alive, are not entirely neglected. "

Jan ver der Gucht, who sang tenor for the broadcast wrote to Martin saying

" I loved singing The Redeemer. It is all so clean and fresh and sincere and all I feel work of this kind should be... There is a quality about this which I can only describe as humility – it is much more than that but I can't find the right word. The words are marvellous."

Ada Alsop, who sang Soprano solo also wrote after the broadcast:

"At times I was so affected by the beauty of the choruses that tears were not far away..."

Praise continued to pour in over the years after the broadcast both from listeners and those who later put on the production. From the many letters received this letter sums up the current situation:

"... it created a deep impression on all who heard it and I feel sure has only to be known to be greater in demand."