Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Martin Shaw: On Song Writing

Martin Edward Fallas Shaw is a name that has been largely sideline in British Music, yet he was prolific as a composer, a performer and an author. Shaw was born in London, studied at the Royal College of Music ad was subsequently organist at St Martin-in-the-Fields. One of his main concerns was to campaign for a better quality of liturgical music. His main contribution to composition was many dozens of songs. Unfortunately few are heard today. Martin Shaw died in the Suffolk market town of Southwold in 1958. His reappraisal is long overdue.
On 7th July 1923 he gave an ‘illustrated lecture' at the Society of Women Musicians headquarter. Marion Scott was there and filed her report to the Christian Science Monitor for which she was ‘special correspondent.’

London, July 10
On July 7 Martin Shaw, a composer whose fine songs have identified him specially with this branch of art, was guest speaker at the composer’s conference, held by the Society of Women Musicians at their London headquarters, 74 Grosvenor Street.
Mr Shaw said there were three or four great problems confronting song-writers, namely a) finding good words to set, b) finding a publisher, c) finding a singer, d) finding an accompanist. It almost seemed at times as if all the good words had been set. Very poetic words, where the poet had already used all the artifices of verbal melody, were not the best to select. Swinburne’s poems, for instance, did not need setting. He ventured to think that poets today are not nearly so much ‘ballad mongers’ as they might be- their poems are too artificial. Why should not their poems tell stories sometimes? Shakespeare was the most settable of poets; he was also in direct relation to all kinds of life. Also, he did not sing himself, but implied music in his words.

Having selected suitable words, the next problem was to find what time they should be put into – simple or compound, duple, triple, quadruple etc. The verbal accentuation of words is a matter in which composers frequently go wrong; and Mr. Shaw urged a study of plain-song as the best way of overcoming the difficulty.
Another lesson to be learned from plain-song, he said, is that one does not want a fresh chord in the accompaniment for every note in the melody – the chords change only when the accent of the words requires it. In most songs there are too many notes.
Economy of accompaniment was a thing to consider carefully. His own view was that it is better to put too little that too much. He advocated keeping the melodic outline broad and unbroken. Instead of taking a verse of poetry and breaking it up into chunks. Song composers ought to have a steady flight.
A number of illustrations sung by Geoffrey Shaw, enhanced the value of the lecture.

Marion M. Scott July 23 1923 Christian Science Monitor (minor edits)
With thanks to Pamela Blevins

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