Iain Burnside

The unjustly neglected songs of Martin Shaw

Published: April 19, 2012 at 10:07 am

This month sees the release of The Airmen, a recording on the Delphian label of the songs of Martin Shaw – an almost entirely neglected English composer – performed by pianist Iain Burnside with soprano Sophie Bevan, tenor Andrew Kennedy and baritone Roderick Williams. Neglected, he may have been, but his music is worth a second look, says Iain Burnside.


Tell us a bit about the songs collated on this recording.
I only knew Martin Shaw as the composer of 'Hills of the North, rejoice' and various hymn tunes but then I was sent a large package of photocopies by a friend who researched them and was immediately struck by their range. I’d never come across a single one of the songs in any shape. They fit in between the Vaughan Williams and Britten generations and don’t really sound like anyone else. They’ve a tremendous sense of vigour and life to them and they cover subject matter and poems for the most part that aren’t set by anyone else. A lot of them are in a no-man’s-land between Art Song and light music but in a very interesting and beautifully crafted way. It’s music which strikes out in all sorts of different directions. What it isn’t, is pastoral. It has none of the elegiac and pastoral feel of so much of what people know and love of English song.

Many of the songs deal with the First and Second World Wars – where did he get the texts from for those?
Very few composers set poems that are connected to both of these conflicts and in particular the Second World War is a bit of a black hole in the English song world – all the riches come in the earlier conflict. But what Martin Shaw liked to do, rather than set high art poetry or very serious contemporary poetry, was use poems by serving soldiers or airmen. Some of the songs that we have on the disc set poems that he found in the pages of the London Times over his breakfast tea and toast. That gives it a very fresh feel. No one would make out a case for those songs being great poetry – it’s not like when he sets Yeats or Shakespeare but it gives a very unique sense of that time.

Why do you think they haven’t been performed more?
There are loads of good composers who sink without trace just through fashion and through accident. He was a very well respected figure in the time and admired by Britten – the very first piece ever heard at the Aldeburgh festival was by Martin Shaw. He’s just one of those people who’s vanished from our curiosity and I think one of the great things about making records is being able to put these people back on the shelf.

This April at the Barbican you’re also directing a play you’ve written about the poet and composer, Ivor Gurney called A Soldier and a Maker. Why did you choose to write about Gurney’s life?
The project has come out of an ongoing position I have at the Guildhall where I’ve been working with singers and pianists putting together programmes that combine music and poetry in unconventional ways. I wanted to do an archival piece on Gurney because he’s unique within the 20th century as a composer who was equally eminent as a poet – I wanted to do something combining those elements with some of his letters. I started weaving all this together and then writing little links between things and when I was about half way through I suddenly realised I was writing a play. We start his story when he arrives at the Royal College of Music and finish with him in the asylum in Dartford. Several of the key figures are historical so we have Herbert Howells, FW Harvey, Marion Scott and members of Gurney’s family – in addition to that there are some invented characters. We also use archival material including some interviews with Gurney’s sister which we use verbatim – I don’t want people to think I’ve just made this all up.

How did you select which music to include?
That was the fun part. I’m on home ground with that because I’m used to putting concert programmes together where you have to think about having enough contrast but also a connecting thread. There’s so much wonderful music to choose from – the trouble with all of this is being selective. I think you learn early on that just putting in the pieces you like best is never going to work – things have to earn their place. One of the great joys of doing this is collaborating with some wonderful movement colleagues – Victoria Newlyn and a terrific husband and wife design team – and they’ve all had a lot of input. I love having to look through different eyes at repertoire I already know and seeing what could work in a different way.


A Soldier and a Maker is at the Barbican, London 20-28 April and The Airmen, a recording of songs by Martin Shaw, is out now on Delphian – read a review of the recording in our June issue, on sale 9 May.

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