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‘The Greater Light’, edited by Stephen Connock and Isobel Montgomery Campbell, and Sir William Henry Harris, by John Henderson and Trevor Jarvis

by
23 November 2018

Ronald Corp considers the work of two English church musicians

THE impressive volume that Stephen Connock and Isobel Montgomery Campbell have edited gives us a chance to reassess the significant contribution made by Martin Shaw (1875-1958) to our musical life. If he is remembered at all today, it is for the hymn “Hills of the North rejoice”, his arrangement of the tune Royal Oak to the words “All things bright and beautiful”, and (where the eucharist uses “traditional language”) his Anglican Folk Mass; but he was much more important than that.

He worked with Percy Dearmer and Ralph Vaughan Williams on editing the hymn book Songs of Praise, published in 1925, and on The Oxford Book of Carols, published in 1928, to which he contributed more than 100 carols and arrangements. During his life, Shaw edited (sometimes jointly) nearly 80 volumes of music. His main mission as a composer was to bring good music to young singers and to create works for community singing.

Published to mark the 60th anniversary of Shaw’s death, the book really is a compendium and is, in fact, three books in one. His own writings form the first part, including his autobiography, which takes his life from the beginning to the year 1929; his short story “An Edwardian Holiday”, a light-hearted detective story set on his beloved Suffolk coast; and The Principles of English Church Music Composition, published in 1921.

There follows a selection of a hundred of his letters, and finally a catalogue of all his works. The letters provide a fascinating glimpse of his world, and offer a roll call of illustrious colleagues and friends, including John Ireland, Gustav Holst, John Masefield, Isadora Duncan, and Eleanor Farjeon, among others.

The volume opens with an introduction by the organist Professor John Harper, who is chairman of the Martin Shaw Society, followed by three reflections on Shaw’s life. The first is from Shaw’s granddaughter Isobel Montgomery Campbell, the second a centenary celebration from 1975 by Erik Routley, and the third a British Music Society (2009) contribution from George Odam. Inevitably, there is some repetition in these articles, but they present a rounded picture of Shaw as musician and family man.

The list of Shaw’s compositions is extensive and all-embracing, with a series of indexes making it easy to find individual hymns and other works. This is all very impressive, and the reader becomes aware of his prodigious output. There are substantial works, too, including an oratorio The Redeemer, which was conducted by Charles Groves for a Home Service broadcast in 1945.

Shaw collaborated with T. S. Eliot on the pageant play The Rock in 1934 (an anthem extracted from this work gives the book its title), and his setting of Gerald Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur” was commissioned by Benjamin Britten to be presented alongside that composer’s St Nicolas at the opening concert of the first Aldeburgh Festival in 1948. Shaw contributed music to more than 30 stage works, pageants, and masques, and these include incidental music written in the early 1900s for plays directed by the flamboyant Edward Gordon Craig (son of Ellen Terry).

The tragedy for Shaw is that most of these larger works were written in a user-friendly musical idiom that is now out of fashion, and often the musical sections are short-winded. The libretti are sometimes couched in an idiom that we now find “twee”. One such example is his ballad-opera Mr Pepys to a libretto by Clifford Bax, which may well have enchanted audiences in Hampstead in 1926, but would probably find less favour now. His songs, however, are certainly worthy of revival, and a recent disc of some of these gives us a taste of his significant contribution to that repertory.

We can see from his compendium that Shaw was a very famous man in his day, and the 31 photos illuminate this. This compendium will certainly help bring his name and perhaps his music, back before the public.

WILLIAM HARRIS’s anthem “Faire is the heaven” is a masterpiece of the church-anthem repertory. Roy Massey writes in his foreword to Sir William Henry Harris that it will ensure that Harris’s “genius as a composer will perpetuate for so long as there are ‘quires and places where they sing”. But Harris was not a one-trick pony (choristers will also know and love his setting of words by John Donne, “Bring us, O Lord God”), and he is surely one of the greatest cathedral musicians of his generation.

Harris (1883-1973) considered himself an organist, choir trainer, and composer in that order, and this handsome book — clearly written as a labour of love by John Henderson and Trevor Jarvis, librarians to the Royal School of Church Music — spells out how significant a figure he was. It takes us through his career from his appointment at the age of 14 as pupil and assistant organist to Herbert Charles Morris at St Davids Cathedral to his student days at the Royal College of Music, where he was taught organ by Walter Parratt and had composition lessons with Charles Wood.

From there, it was to Lichfield, where he was recommended by Parratt to be assistant organist to John Browning Lott, besides taking up the post of organist at St Augustine of Hippo, Edgbaston, in succession to Alexander Gaul. By 1919, Harris was organist at New College, Oxford, and later Christ Church Cathedral, where he was involved in many musical endeavours in that city, including a performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo and taking over from Hugh Allen as conductor of the Oxford Bach Choir.

The chapters get longer as the story unfolds, and his 28 years at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, are deservedly marked as the crowning achievement of Harris’s career. While at St George’s, he oversaw two coronations, of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II.

The authors have not set out to write an academic treatise, but have compiled a very thorough biography, with many photos, mainly of churches in which he served, and also of famous musical men with whom Harris came in touch; it proved harder to find photos of Harris himself, as he was a shy man.

Sir William Henry Harris

The section on Harris’s life occupies less than one third of the book, and the remaining pages are given over to a complete list of Harris’s compositions, anthems, hymn tunes, psalm chants, and organ music. There are details of dates of composition, and the list includes secular works such as songs, the occasional cantata (The Hound of Heaven), and one opera (Marsyas). This part of the book is most attractive with photographs of manuscripts and published pages from his works. I hope this list will encourage organists and choir directors to explore more of Harris’s repertory.

Sometimes, the authors have had to grapple with conflicting information about events, and occasionally they slip into surmise (for example, did Harris have lessons with Stanford?); there is also a great deal of rather superfluous information about the places where Harris served, as well as some repetition (we are told several times that he retained his professorship at the Royal College of Music, which he attained in 1921).

This book provides an excellent picture of a dedicated church musician, and gives a good flavour of the times in which he lived and practised his art. The authors have done Harris proud.

The Revd Ronald Corp, an assistant priest at St Alban’s, Holborn, in London, is a composer and conductor.

“The Greater Light”: A compendium of the life and works of Martin Shaw
Stephen Connock and Isobel Montgomery Campbell, editors
Albion Music Ltd £30
(978-0-9956284-2-7)
www.albionmusic.com
 

Sir William Henry Harris: Organist, choir trainer and composer
John Henderson and Trevor Jarvis
RSCM £27
(978-0-85402-279-3)

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