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“With a Voice of Singing by Martin Shaw”

One of the compositions selected for CMI Choral Festivals recently held in Darien, Connecticut, and Dallas, Texas, was Martin Shaw’s anthem, With a Voice of Singing.    This anthem has been a favorite in many American churches for almost a hundred years.  In choral workshops across the country, however, we have discovered new generations of church musicians often do not know this anthem.  In fact, Bob Chilcott, festival conductor and imminent English composer, had never known this piece until he was asked to conduct it in Darien and Dallas.

Some of us were surprised at this because composer Martin Shaw is a known English composer and co-founder of Britain’s Royal School of Church Music (1918).   Shaw composed With a Voice of Singing in 1923 as a commission for the annual festival of the Rochester Diocesan (Church of England) Church Choirs Association, a diocese in the county of Kent and province of Canterbury. Although Shaw has over 300 published works, his anthems are limited in number and come from this same period.  Perhaps these compositions have been overlooked in British churches and failed to reach an audience.  Americans are fortunate to have enjoyed this anthem for so many years.

With a Voice of Singing by Martin Shaw is a festival anthem that would enrich the repertoire of any church choir.  Composed for SATB choir with organ accompaniment, the anthem is also available in vocal arrangements of TTBB, SAB, and 2-part mixed.  The praise text is Psalm-related and appropriate for General use or festival days of special emphasis.  Moderate in difficulty and using an A-B-A form, the vocal writing is frequently unison or 2-part.  The organ accompaniment is delightful, a joy to perform, and a nearly perfect enhancement of the text.

Martin Shaw (1875-1958) was a composer, conductor, and, in his early life, a theatrical producer.

He published songs, hymns, carols, anthems, cantatas, oratorios, instrumental works, a congregational mass setting, and four operas.  He studied under Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music with colleagues Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and John Ireland.  Church music became a focus in Shaw’s career early on, and his first church position was Organist and Director of Music at St. Mary’s Primrose Hill, 1908-1920, where Percy Dearmer was Vicar.  Shaw left this position for St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, 1920-1924.

Shaw had a deep interest in improving the levels of congregational song and choral singing in small parishes and was an early organizer of hymn festivals.  Concerned about the ineffective spiritual complacency of English hymnody, Shaw set out to create a hymnody for the 20th century that would prohibit banal, simplistic, and narrowly focused texts of evangelical piety.  With Vaughan Williams, Shaw was the music editor of The English Hymnal, 1906, the first hymnal of the century that has enjoyed continued use in England to the present.  Other volumes for which Shaw was musical editor were English Book of Carols, 1913, 1919 with Dearmer; Songs of Praise 1925, 1931 with Vaughan Williams; and Oxford Book of Carols, 1928.

Shaw was directly responsible for incorporating certain folk tunes with hymns that have lasted.  For example, he introduced the folk tune Bunessan with Eleanor Farjeon’s hymn “Morning Has Broken,” and the English folk tune Royal Oak with Mrs. C. F. Alexander’s hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”  Other familiar hymns and tunes that come from Shaw’s collaboration include “For All the Saints,” and “Come Down, O Love Divine.”

St. Mary’s Primrose Hill was an amazing church when Dearmer and Shaw served it, and apparently it still is. (See the accompanying article by Julie Statius-Muller.)Vicar Dearmer and Music Director Shaw established a level of musical and theological excellence and Christian social evangelism that exists through the present day.  Dearmer was told during his tenure at the church, “You must give people what they like.”  Dearmer’s response was, “You must give people what is good and they will come to like it.”  He must have been on the right track because today St. Mary’s has a congregation that speaks 22 languages, the English Hymnal is still used, and, dare we hope, With a Voice of Singing is still sung.  We give thanks to God for good examples set by musicians and pastors like Martin Shaw and Percy Dearmer.  And how special it was to sing Shaw’s beautiful anthem with 460 singers and Fisk organ in the Meyerson Concert Hall, Dallas, and equally wonderful with 70 singers at Noroton Presbyterian Church in Darien, Connecticut.  But, a choir doesn’t have to be large to enjoy the benefits of this anthem.  It sings well with 8 or 12 singers, too!

This article was written by Dr. Robert C. Mann, Resource Library Director at CMI.

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